Monday, March 02, 2009

Transforming NASA, Part III

I have two items as food for thought this evening: change management and PowerPoint etiquette. Again, this is written in the spirit of helping, not keeping Gen Y down. I don't have the power to keep anyone down, nor am I interested in acquiring it.

Change Management
Change is hard, especially as you get older. When you're the new guy and don't have any preconceived notions, it's much easier to identify things that are wrong and to suggest ways to change them. What agents of change often face, however, is institutional resistance. Why? For reasons as old as human nature:
  • Changes could lead to job cuts--especially the jobs of people who have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. That isn't always the case when changes come, but it happens often enough that people have a natural fear of it and want to protect their own rice bowls.
  • Change takes people out of their comfort zone. Consider my recent complaint about changing from Office 2003 to Office 2007. I've been happy with 2003. I get it, I know how it works, and I can make the application do what I want using commands I know automatically. Why would I want to give that up?
  • Change takes work. Continuing the example above, I'm going to have to learn more. I'll probably have to take additional classes and use extra time to do things that I once did automatically. Learning curves take time and work, and who the heck wants to screw that up when you've got deadlines to meet?

On the other hand, change is often necessary. In high-tech companies, this is a given: stay where you are, and eventually you'll get run over. Someone else will come up with a better mousetrap, and your company will be put out of business. Government agencies work somewhat differently, and operate under a different set of constraints than business--including political considerations, institutional inertia, media attention, changes in policy, and shifting budgets.

One change process NASA has embraced--at least within the Ares Projects--is Lean Six Sigma. There are plenty of sites out there, like the one I just linked to, so I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader. However, I would encourage Gen-Y folks to participate in Lean Six Sigma events if they come up in your area. While LSS is meant to reduce waste and increase quality, it also has the added advantage of gaining wider acceptance of change, as it requires input from all interested parties. LSS events are an excellent opportunity to make some impact on the work going on around you. I've had to do some writing on LSS and have been through one of the events, and I found it very educational and useful. I have left some things out from the list below, but I wanted to provide a rough background on what goes on:

Step 1: Describe the current state. You start with an existing process. Let's say, hypothetically, you've been brought into a LSS event for how engineering change requests (CRs) are handled in your area. Step 1 is pretty straightforward: you map out how the process steps are handled, and by whom, and draw a lot of lines to show how things flow (or don't, as is often the case).
Step 2: Identify "value-added" and "non-value-added" steps. This is where a group consisting of members from each constituency involved in the process identifies all those steps that contribute directly to producing the end result. The advantage of this process is that it also allows the group to identify legal and regulatory constraints, "do loops," delays, extra steps, unnecessary signature approvals, and activities that are there simply because "we've always done it that way."
[By the way, along the way, you're quantifying what's being done--how long a process takes, how much time is spent waiting on others, how much the process costs, etc.--to provide hard data to back up any decisions.]
Step 3: Define your ideal future state. After you've sorted out the current state, you start laying out how you want the process to go, using only the value-added and legally mandated steps. And you wrap it up with a bow by calculating the amount of time and money saved and presenting this data to the upper-level manager who has decision-making authority.
Again, this is an existing NASA-supported process that can be used to bring about change.
PowerPoint Etiquette
I've been developing PowerPoint presentations in corporate, military, and government settings for over 10 years. That doesn't mean I'm an expert on PowerPoint; it does mean I'm something of an expert on what managers want in their PowerPoint presentations. Which comes to my primary concerns with the "Gen Y presentations": your format doesn't work with many managers.
I realize I'm about to put on my old-fogie, business-as-usual hat here, but bear with me for a minute.
When I saw Nick's original presentation, I must confess, I groaned. "One hundred and three slides, is he kidding?" It felt like one of those "inspiration" presentations that hits my inbox occasionally. That doesn't mean I couldn't use a little inspiration now and then, but there's a time and place for the one-sentence-per-slide thing, and it's not in a decisional briefing. Imagine, for instance, if I had posted this entire blog as a series of blogs, one sentence or one Tweet at a time. You'd switch off after awhile, wouldn't you? Now you have some notion of how others might react to the one-sentence-at-a-time thing.
Now I realize that the text-heavy, non-dynamic PPT itself can induce groans (a Gen-Y friend of mine dropped by to complain recently about the font size on a recent management presentation, and I couldn't argue with her about it--she was right). However, the long-form PPT, with one sentence per slide, just doesn't work if you are trying to develop presentations that will prompt senior managers to make decisions. Here are some basic PPT guidelines I've absorbed and followed over the years:
  • Keep the presentation short. One chart for every 1-2 minutes of presentation time. Keep additional stuff in the backup charts if you need it.
  • Keep the bullets short. Your audience can read what's on the screen. You're there to provide the color commentary.
  • Keep your briefing focused. Include only statements or data or images that contribute to your main point.
  • Minimize the "cute." This includes wacky "fly-in" effects, flashing anything, cutesy animations, and, yes, using one sentence per slide, unless it's a heading. (I'll get to the exceptions to this later.)
  • Be realistic about your claims and objectives and focus on concrete quantifiable issues and results, if possible. "Revolutionizing the agency" will fall on deaf ears. "Increasing technological expertise, reducing cost and schedule, or improving hardware/software performance by [X number]" will get their attention.
  • The following format / flow for a presentation continues to work:
    --Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em. (Intro/agenda)
    --Tell 'em. (Main body)
    --Tell 'em what you told 'em. (Summary)

Now there are times when I think the long-form (one sentence per slide) format or other creative effects work well. These include:

  • Informal, "fun," or (yes) "inspirational/team building" settings where there are no serious time constraints.
  • When you're trying to get people to think creatively or philosophically in a relaxed way.
  • Non-decisional environments.
  • Parts of a more serious or formal briefing, where it can be used for dramatic or comic effect.

I don't want to crush creativity here. In fact, I'd like to incorporate some of the long-form format into the outreach PPTs I develop. And by all means, if you're a NextGen person and you ARE the boss, you can make your PPTs any way you darn well please. However, I am trying to explain how most managers communicate (and expect to be communicated to) in environments where they have a decision to make. I think part of the reason that they don't take some of these collaboration or intergenerational PPTs seriously is that they are receiving data in a form they're not accustomed to--it's simply too "fun" to be taken seriously. The presentations work for other NextGen people, not time-constrained Boomer (or Xer) managers.

Okay, I've ranted long enough for this evening. Feel free to pick up the pitchforks and torches if you feel the need.

1 comment:

N. Strange said...

I really miss the old memo culture. Now-a-days PPT presentations with slides dense with 10 pt text are used in lieu of memos.

These slides don't make good presentations because people either can't read the micro-fonts or they are reading what's on the slide instead of listening to the presenter. And these don't make good documentation because they don't have enough detail that you can come back to a set of slides a year later and get a clear picture of what was communicated. Whereas with memos, I can get a memo from the 50's off of microfilm and get a pretty good understanding of what was done.

Unfortunately, the Lord-High-Muckity-Mucks don't have time to read a memo or a report and they'll ignore what you have to say unless it is sent to them in quad-chart form.