What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. I’m not making things up. If I tell you there’s a new requirement, it’s not because I went home the night before and dreamed up some new and complicated way to screw with your universe. In each and every case I’m passing along decisions made by those at echelons higher than reality. You are, of course, perfectly free to ignore me. However, when a shitstorm rains down on your head it won’t be because I didn’t warn you.

2. Dreaming in PowerPoint. There comes a point in this one particular project I work on every year when the dream shows up. It’s never quite the same dream, but it always deals with PowerPoint in some way. The dream showed up Tuesday night. Like the three ghosts warning Scrooge of his sure path to hellfire and damnation, my PowerPoint dream has arrived and it’s a sure as anything warning that I’m heading at speed in the general direction of a breakdown – or at least a profound hissy fit. Possibly both.

3. Everything else. Frankly over the next 22 or so days it would probably just be easier to talk about whatever happened during the week that hasn’t annoyed me. There’s a far better than usual chance if I’m awake and not at the house I’m just barely restrain a scowl, eye-roll, or sarcastic comment. Occasionally the temptation will be so great that all three happen simultaneously. The only appreciable bright point is that on day 23 onward life should get considerably less rage inducing.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The two weeks of Christmas. I was sitting in a meeting this week where the great and the good were calling for all manner of things to happen in the next two weeks. It’s cute when they’re optimistic like that. Experience tells me that even the most dedicated senior leader is going to find it hard to get jack-all done when 75% of his or her workforce is sitting snug in their homes or on the road for the week before and after Christmas. It’s good to be ambitious. It’s good to have goals. It’s also important to know your limitations, especially when you’re working with a skeleton crew just barely large enough to keep the lights on. Reason 7,471 I have no interest in bossing ever again.

2. Not knowing when to STFU. There is a time and a place for raising new topics or for asking every question. When the guy sitting at the head of the table is trying to close things out and the meeting has already run twenty minutes past its scheduled ending, though, is neither the time nor the place. That’s when you should have been a bureaucrat long enough to know that it’s time to sit there and shut the fuck up.

3. Emergency slide flipping. If there’s anything worse than being stuck in your own meeting, it’s being unceremoniously suck into someone else’s meeting because their computer crapped out and getting it fixed takes days. Look, a) It’s not my program; b) I actually have my own work to do; and c) If we keep finding work arounds to the shit tech support we get it will never have a reason to improve. Being a slide clicker on your own material is bad enough, but the number of times I’ve been yanked away from whatever it was I was doing to flip slides for someone else is astounding. It’s like no one in this place has heard of opportunity cost or return on investment. There are days when I’m entirely convinced I’m the best paid clerk/typist in the whole damned country.

Justified…

You’ve literally had weeks to get your shit in order. There have been countless meetings in which all the materials have been changed, changed back, and then altered a dozen more times. But for some reason here we sit at 4:45PM the day before the goddamned meeting starts waiting on “final final” changes so we can go forth and kill a few dozen trees in this mad quest to build the Briefing that Saved the World.

Here’s the secret I’ve learned after sitting through, easily, hundreds of very similar gatherings of the great and the good: What you have written on the slides generally doesn’t matter all that much. Conveying information isn’t about the damned slides. It’s about what you say, how you say it, your body language, and the connection you can forge with the person you’re trying to communicate with in the few minutes you’re in front of them. By contrast, 75% of the handouts you’ve slaved over are going to end up in the trash can. If your audience is polite they’ll at least wait until they’ve left the room to throw them away.

I’ve often theorized that if people knew how much time (and salary dollars) were wasted in the endless transition of “happy” to “glad” or trying to pick out just the perfect shade of blue, they’d rise up in bloody revolt. They’d be well justified.

Slide monkey…

Being the designated slide monkey, there are an outsized number of meetings I sit in for no other reason than they need someone well trained and fully capable of hitting the forward arrow and advancing to the next slide. I’m mostly resigned to that being my fate for the foreseeable future. Whatever. As long as the checks don’t start bouncing, what the hell do I care about how my time is allocated, right?

Human Chess.jpg

It’s a rare day when something in a meeting catches me off guard. This last couple of weeks, though, has been a string of exactly that – surprise piled on surprise. Today I had the distinction of being designed “the human forward arrow.” This distinction comes along with the mission of flipping the three foot by five foot printed foam core posters that we’ll be using this week to replace the information that every other office on the planet would present using some kind of electronic presentation tool.

I’m fairly sure that this isn’t what anyone meant when they said we should think about briefing information without using PowerPoint. Taking what would be projected on three 60-inch monitors and printing it on one 60-inch poster doesn’t quite feel like fully embracing the call to do things differently.

Then again, what do I know. I’m just this meeting’s equivalent of a pawn on a human chess board.

The dark art of staff work…

For going on fifteen years now, I’ve heard how PowerPoint is making us stupid and is at least a contributing factor in people not being developing actual communication skills. In fact, there was quite a kerfuffle back in 2010 about a brave lieutenant colonel who was booted out of Afghanistan for daring to admit he spent his days in “endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information.”

That’s the kind of snark we appreciate here at jeffreytharp.com, but it is not the kind of truth-laden sarcasm that is much appreciated by most at echelons higher than reality. There are a few exceptions though, officers like H. R. McMaster (now National Security Advisor) and James Mattis (now Secretary of Defense) are both well-known critics of PowerPoint. Mattis, has gone so far as noting that “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” McMasters, more diplomatically, notes that “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control… Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Although these two leading lights are notable exceptions to an establishment that has drawn PowerPoint into an ever closer embrace, they are the exceptions (even now almost a decade later). The sad fact of the matter is that when it comes to staff work on an average day, he who controls the PowerPoint controls the meeting – the flow of information, what gets presented and what doesn’t make the cut, how far (if at all) in advance someone will get an early version of whatever information is hiding in plain sight on those slides.

Information, you see, no matter how badly displayed on a conference room wall, really is the coin of the realm. It’s precious and is so very often guarded jealousy by those who have it against those who want it.

As a staffer in the belly of the beast it’s my job to make those slides say whatever the boss thinks they need to say. It’s not so much about the truth as crafting the message in such a way that nothing comes as a surprise, the rough edges are rubbed smooth, and the viewer is carefully guided away from information someone doesn’t necessarily want them to have or questions they’d really prefer the person being briefed not ask. I find it’s generally helpful if you suspend disbelief and go along with the program. Making waves won’t necessarily get you in trouble, but it will make your life just that little bit harder than it would have been otherwise.

There’s a bit of a dark art to doing staff work – and the better you do it, the darker that art becomes and blossoms well beyond your individual ability to make a PowerPoint briefing dazzle. In fact, the dark art of staff work feels like something that might just be worth talking about in a companion volume to Nobody Told Me… if I can just sit down and muster up the internal fortitude to actually do the writing.

Tools of the Devil (Part I)…

PowerPoint is a tool of the devil. This is apparently obvious to the casual observer after a long week of slogging through slides changing “happy” to “glad” and making sure that every bullet is lined up within +/- one micron. Apparently there’s nothing that makes a senior manager feistier than an ever-so-slightly misaligned bullet. Better for key content to be left out than to risk it violating the sanctity of the holy format. I’ve been doing this a long time now and I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand the hours of obsession that some men can pour into finessing their slides so they’re juuuusssssssst right. I remember reading somewhere that perfect is the enemy of the good. In an imperfect world, I’ve always been happy when I find myself in the neighborhood of good. Apparently that is a very lonesome neighborhood.

I like to think that if we lived in some bizarro universe and I were a senior leader, I’d be more concerned with the content over how it happens to be displayed as long as it was in some semblance of logical order. Then again, maybe that’s the part of the brain you give up upon being elevated to echelons above reality. There’s not much chance of my ever finding out for myself, so I’m left once again to ponder the importance of issues of style over substance.

I’m reminded of the Army colonel who was relieved because of this epic rant against PowerPoint. As it turns out, the Army would probably have been better served to promote the guy rather than tossing him out.

Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of posts previously available on a now defunct website. They are appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.

The bad with the good…

For those of you who work in an environment where having a meeting is not the coin of the realm, all I can say is I’m feeling more than a little bit jealous. I’m jealous because my Friday last week went basically like this:

The Good News: The staff meeting today is cancelled.

The Bad News: You’re going to need to sit through this other 3.5 hour meeting that in no way relates to anything you do on a regular basis.

Wow. Thanks for that opportunity.

Let’s just say that over the course of those three and a half hours we were supposed to cover something on the order of 75 slides. By the two hour mark we had gone over 10 of them. At three hours, that total had climbed to 19. By the time a halt was called at three hours and thirty minutes of endurance, we had managed to get through a total of 23 slides – or 6.57 slides per hour. If you’ve never wanted to gouge your own eyes out just to have something to do, this is the experience that will push you happily towards that extreme.

The cost of just the people sitting in that room for half a day runs north of $5,500 just in baseline salary. Add in incidentals like benefits, electricity, telephone costs, video connection fees, and other extraneous expenses, and that cost easily doubles. My point is not only are meetings an inefficient way to spend our waking hours, but they’re also ruinously expensive.

The only thing saving me from a repeat of this fate tomorrow is a trip to the blessed dentist. If you think for a moment that having a temporary crown ripped off and the permanent version glued into place is in any way the greater of these two evils, well then friend, you just have been in the right meetings.

Sigh. Yet another item on the growing list of things that would be dispensed with if I were elevated to king for the day.

What I do…

I often comment that it’s awfully hard to explain exactly what I do on a daily basis without the aid of PowerPoint. It’s usually said with my tongue firmly inserted in my cheek. Today, of course, was the exception in which the joke was on me (more so than usual). As it turns out, not only do I need PowerPoint to explain what I do, PowerPoint is becoming what I do to almost the exclusion of all other things.

Yes, today was that annual day of days when as I had the fantastic opportunity to lead a small group in proofreading well over 400 individual slides. I got to evaluate them for spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, style, contrast, proper use of the template, correct branding, and generally to make recommendations to make these 400-odd slides more presentable to the general public.

It’s horrifying that in 2017 that’s even a job people need to do… and all the more horrific because it happens to be my job in this instance. If you’ve never had the experience of hating yourself and every other living thing on the planet, I strongly recommend reserving a 700-seat auditorium, dragging a half dozen people with you, and taking four or five hours to comb through someone else’s PowerPoints to find all the places where there are two spaces instead of one or where the contrast of white on gray text just isn’t clear enough. If you get through the experience without your eyes bleeding or deciding that the voices in your head really don’t want you to “kill, kill, kill,” you’re a candidate for sainthood.

What do you do?

When I worked in the District, the most important question asked at every social engagement was some variation on “What do you do?” or “Who do you work for?” The answer, of course, would immediately raise or lower your social standing or level of attractiveness. There was a while there I was introducing myself as Jeff, the young and idealistic Chief of Legislative Affairs for Some Random Made Up Hippy Dippy Non-Profit. That had way more cache than being a bureaucrat from deep within the bowels of some big agency.

To those who know me, I often answered the question with a touch more realism. When asked what I did, my stock response was almost always “I do PowerPoint.” For long stretches of my career it had the additional benefit of also being largely true. There was a while there I could diddle a PowerPoint the same way a virtuoso can make a Stradivarius violin sing. Plus it always seemed just a little bit funnier than the usual, “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.”

Now if people ask, well, the answer always comes with a little less humor. What do I do? Depending on the day you ask, I either have meetings about meetings or I’m the Organizational Party Planner in Chief. The irony of an arch misanthrope being the touch point for planning your next 1500 person event isn’t in any way lost on me. It’s one of the reasons I know the universe has a sense of humor.

At least when the time comes to punch out of here, I’ll know that I am fully prepared to begin my second career as the most overly officious and bureaucratic wedding planner in all of human history… because dealing with overly sensitive, emotional clients who want their special day to be just perfect sounds an awful lot like dealing with the day-to-day demands of your run of the mill general officer. The only thing missing is the poofy white dress.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Hate speech. Here’s a fun fact, just because you happen to disagree with something someone says, that doesn’t make it “hate speech.” If that were the hight of the bar it needed to cross, damned near everyone I talk to on a daily basis would have to be considered a hate-spewing douchcanoe. As it is, these people generally just happen to have opinions with which I disagree. I suspect the key difference is being able to tell the difference between getting your little feelings hurt and someone who actually says something threatening. Many can’t seem to make the distinction, or maybe they’re too deep entrenched in their “safe space” hiding from the scary words to be able to tell the difference.

2. The new, new boss. I’ve only just formally met the new boss a few hours ago. He seems like a decent enough human being. He’s the third boss our office has had inside the last 12 months. I have no idea if that says more about us or them, not that it matters. It’s just another dash of mayhem in the day while he learns our names and we learn how he likes his PowerPoint charts and whether he wants one space or two after a period in written communication.

3. Ash and trash. The problem with relying on the media to give you information is that regardless of your source, it’s almost always going to be slanted by bias either intentionally or unintentionally. Like when you see Huffington blazing forth with the headline “The Middle Class is Dying.” While that makes a fine headline and all, they don’t dwell much on the actual meat of the Pew survey they’re referencing. What almost none of the stories I read based on that survey tell you is that while the percentage of middle income earners is decreasing, more of that decrease (as a percentage) is attributable to people moving into the ranks of higher income earners than because they are dropping into the range of lower income earners. You actually have to look at the Pew report to see that “Notably, the 7 percentage point increase in the share at the top is nearly double the 4 percentage point increase at the bottom.” Since that factoid doesn’t fit nicely into the narrative the media wants to sell, you don’t see it unless you dig a bit deeper. Sadly that’s just another example of why we need to be our own fact checkers when it comes to the ash and trash slung out by professional “news” sources.

4. The unmitigated asshat who decided rush hour was a good time to try taking his two-lane wide load across a two-lane wide bridge. Believe me when I tell you that it should not take 40 minutes to navigate the 4.6 miles between Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, but it did tonight thanks to one misguided driver and the parade of state and local police who forced him to see the error of his ways. If I wanted to deal with that kind of traffic buffoonery I would have taken the job at Ft. McNair when I had the chance.