The forgotten Monday…

I was home yesterday. I had plenty of time to write and post a normally scheduled addition to the blog. I have no excuse other than the fact that I really kind of forgot that yesterday was Monday. Weekdays are usually hard to miss based on my level of aggravation and discontent, but being a big, beautiful day full of annual leave, this particular Monday wasn’t so afflicted.

I should probably take it as some kind of a warning sign that so much of my content is driven by the annoyance and general disgust generated by the average five-day work week. On the other hand, the fact that I don’t have much to say about the other 80 hours each week may speak loudly about how low key and relaxing I find the time not spent dwelling in cubicle hell.

I may have missed Monday, but you can rest assured that Tuesday more than made up for it. After all, where else could I put my 15 years experience, bachelor’s degree, and MBA to work putting giant hard-backed posters on an easel and then taking them off again all while working two hours of unscheduled overtime?

You’re welcome for my service.

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.

Prep time…

We’ve been over this 20 slide PowerPoint presentation four times now. The last “dry run” – which lasted just shy of three hours – cost about $3500 when you account for the labor cost and overhead of the nine people who were stuck in the room listening to the Uberboss dither about changing “happy” to “glad” and deciding that he didn’t like sentences that he personally added to the charts three days ago. The lunatics are plainly in charge of our asylum.

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.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Yesterday you made a big deal about wanting someone in the room to flip your slides while you gave the new employee briefing. Today you threw that person out of the room once they got their computer set up (I won’t mention that employee then didn’t have a computer to use for, you know, work, for the next 90 minutes). Then you threw out the other “witnesses” in the room who were in a position to argue with what you were about to say to the poor unfortunate new guy.

Is it possible that you were going to weave him a web of lies and that the presence of informed people might undermine that? Are your lies so unbalanced now that you can only tell them behind closed doors? Maybe it’s that you’ve told so many that people are catching on and comparing notes now. Better not to risk having too many people in one place these days. Paranoia is a classy look.

Oh Uberboss, you may have the title, but you’ll never have what you really want. Forget about the respect of your peers. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in this building that even likes you as a human being.

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.