It’s time we moved on from PowerPoint

I’m a sucker for a good TED talk and during some robust conversations with an old colleague of mine he asked why we are able to spend an hour watching a TED talk but fall asleep 14 minutes into a PowerPoint presentation.

Business today loses itself in the medium and often forgets the message. We complicate our message with too much content in an attempt to be transparent. In effect the volume of information, models, statistics, charts and arguments make things more unclear rather than transparent and compelling. One of the problems is that we limit ourselves to the tools that are safe and accepted – PowerPoint, Word, Excel. Let me be clear – they do have their place. But they should not be the be all and end all of communications tools.

Many years ago I was fortunate enough to spend some time with one of the very first executive coaches – before it was a trendy occupation. He was a medical doctor by trade and one of the very early things he said to me he made to me was that underneath everything else we are animals that respond to gut feeling. We all know that feeling that we get in the pit of our stomach – sometimes good, sometimes bad. And like it or not we often don’t pay enough attention to it. The tools we use to communicate in business go a long way to making helping us avoid those feelings.

At the same time we complain that it is really hard to get people engaged and excited about ideas or change. We fail to excite people enough to make decisions. We aren’t doing ourselves any favours with the tools that we currently use. They are one dimensional and they fail to engage us on any meaningful level.

Our challenge is to think beyond these tools and package the message AND the medium. We have everything at our disposal – video, music, storytelling, drawing, painting, theatre, dance, slides, roleplays and of course the devils we know, PowerPoint and Word.

John Bohannon accompanied by Black Label Movement, a dance company based in Minneapolis, showed us how dance is can be used to explain complex scientific theories. Without a doubt I was able to take in far more than if it was presented as a paper. It was also dramatically more engaging.

It’s time we moved beyond PowerPoint. Our reaction as humans listening to a message is as important as understanding it intellectually. Without a real reaction to a message we will continue to make half hearted and safe decisions – or worse still – make no decisions at all.

Perhaps if we change the language…..

Consultants often make a living in jargon. We invent words, phrases and concepts to try and make complex ideas simpler and sometimes to make simple ideas more complex. As a result businesses live in the same world. Businesses also use the same jargon as a way of dispersing accountability. There are a number of words and phrases that underpin traditional strategy development. We all know them. We all use them……and secretly we all hate them. Vision, Mission, Critical Success Factor, Initiative, Framework, Current state, Future state, Roadmap. The list goes on. These words have been used so often and of so poorly that they have become largely meaningless. They lack any impact whatsoever.

The overuse and misuse of these words is a fundamental part of why strategy projects generally lack impact. They have been used to the point of making them meaningless. How do we bring life back to strategy projects? One way to start is by changing the language we use. We need to find language that causes us to have a reaction as humans. Language that helps us understand categorically what is meant. Language that has a call to action, and language that endures. Otherwise – why bother?

I don’t think there is no need for a single universal language that should be all things to all people. That’s what got us to where we are today. Rather we should be building and deciding on a language that is right for the context that we are in. That context could be the organisation and its specific culture, or the problem or challenge that we are trying to overcome. Organisations and individuals will respond differently depending on history, culture and the market they are in.

Time thinking about the language we use to articulate a strategy during its development would be well spent. Anything that could make the strategy more engaging and meaningful is worthwhile. Falling in to the same old language of the past is lazy and we should demand more of ourselves as well as our thinking.

It’s the process that’s the problem.

When reviewing the projects that I’ve been involved in delivering over the past 17 years there is a recurring theme to the vast majority. We start by trying to understand what’s happening today. We then try to articulate what the future needs to be. And finally, by assessing the gap between today and tomorrow we can map out the steps to get there. We’ve all seen it before “Current State, Future State, Gap”. It’s been done to death and very rarely does it give us a significant breakthrough in thinking. And on those occasions when it does, the chance of delivering on that future state is largely in the lap of the Gods.

This TED Talk by Michael Hansmeyer speaks to the known shapes in architecture. They are the shapes that have long been seen in all types of designs. Hansmeyer asks the question of what would happen if we could create new shapes. Shapes that have never before been imagined. Well it turns out that new shapes can be created – we just need to change the process we use to design them.

Let’s think about this in the context of business problems. Organisations today are constrained by what they know and in particular by the processes they know. Whether with the help of consultants or on their own they will typically go down the “Current State, Future State, Gap” road. Sometimes they might accelerate things by skipping the current state all together. However one thing is almost a certainty. On very few occasions will there be anything that significantly challenges known models.

Data shows that when new strategies that are designed and implemented they are overwhelmingly simple variants or extensions of what has been done in the past. Kim and Mauborgne (2004) researched the strategies of organisations across 30 industries dating back 100 years. Frighteningly they found that 86% of new strategic ventures where “line extensions”. Only 14% targeted the creation of a new market or industry. Development Strategy By Design – James Carlopio 2011.

The question is why? It’s not the industry dynamics given that it is the same across the 30 industries researched. It’s not the people involved. It’s the process. Just like Hansmeyer’s view on new shapes, “[There are] unseen objects that await us, if we as architects begin to think about designing not the object, but a process to generate objects.” 

This is our challenge. Not to innovate the strategy but to innovate the process by which the strategy is created. To find a process or processes that are, in the words of Hansmeyer, free of biases, free of the constraints of education, free of the boundaries put on us by the markets that we are in today. We need tools, processes and importantly a language that iterates, challenges, builds upon itself, and frees the mind from today’s shackles.

In the next post we will look at some of the thinking that is shaping how we overcome this challenge.

Let’s get things started

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Sometimes you read or hear something that just sticks with you. In my case it was a quote from Albert Einstein. He said that we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. It just stuck with me probably due to the fact that over the past few years I’ve been thinking more and more about the need for my industry to do things better. I’m a management consultant. I help my clients deal with problems which could take many forms. As can the answers. Over my two decades in the industry I’ve developed strategies, I’ve helped cut costs, I’ve designed new business models and I’ve facilitated hundreds of conversations.

I believe that there is a growing dissatisfaction with traditional consulting. Clients are smarter. They want things faster and cheaper and their issues are more complex than ever before. I also think that consultants are becoming somewhat jaded with the work they do.

Which leads me to this blog. I want to share some of my thoughts as well as what I’ve seen work with some of my clients. Share interesting readings and my point of view on things and finally hear from people who would like to be part of the debate.