Death by PowerPoint

PM Clinic: Week 25 discussion summary

Compiled: 4/25/2005

The Situation:

“Features aren’t developed in Powerpoint, but my management seems to think otherwise. I’m spending the majority of my time reviewing my features with successively higher layers of management and changing the deck layout to match the expectations (or mandate) of the next layer each time. This is starting to impact my ability to ship products – dev and test are craving for specs I can’t deliver yet, and time is slipping by. How can I constructively educate management that visibility is not free and spend more of my time shipping products?"

- Death by Powerpoint

Find out who agrees with you

Some of the managers involved must know there is a better way: you need to find out who these people are and get them thinking about making changes. There may be more people that feel the way that you do than you think. You will have to ask around and talk to people to find them.

If you can't find anyone in management willing to pursue this kind of change, you're moves are limited. As managers they decide the team processes for making decisions and you can only go so far in circumventing them. You can either influence them, work around them, or give in.

Slide decks and meetings consume resources

Some managers forget that creating slides and planning / organizing / running meetings consumes real amounts of time. Unlike time spent writing code, time creating slides isn't tracked or accounted for. It's possible for a VP to forget that leadership time is not a zero sum game: every slide deck or additional review meeting they ask for is time you are not spending helping the team deliver code, keeping people focused and happy, and ensuring that the work described in the slides or talked about in the meeting actually goes well.

It's up to you to remind them about what these things cost and what the tradeoffs are in having you spend 30% of your time preparing for and presenting at review meetings.

An approach to change

Colburn offered a simple model for talking to managers about what is currently happening.

  1. Identify the Risk. Define how much time per area you are spending on slide decks compared with time on specs or other critical work. What is the risk to product quality? How is the bottom line impacted by the misuse of your time?
  2. Evaluate the Options. What problem are the slides supposed to solve? How important a problem is this relative to other problems? What alternatives do you have in mind to creating lots of slide decks? If someone other than you benefits from the slide decks, perhaps they should have more responsibility for them.
  3. Get people involved and make a decision. If you've managed to get some of the managers involved in evaluating change, get them together and go through #1 & #2 with them. If possible put yourself in the authority position: volunteer to pursue one of your options from #2 to try it out, and evaluate the results. If no one is willing to make a decision, you may have to put yourself in the middle and make the change happen.

Some, but not all, meetings are necessary

The size and culture of any organization influences how dependent people are on meetings. As a general rule the larger the organization the more meetings you will have as there are more people who are impacted by decisions. Also, the more democratic or spineless managers are, the more meetings you will probably have. Lastly, the less effective people are at communicating with each other, the more meetings you'll have and the more frustrating they'll be be.

So the goal should be to make as many slide decks or have as many meetings as needed for success to happen, but no more. Slidedecks and meetings are only as evil (or stupid) as the people creating or running them.


Mark Colburn, Steve Levy, Scott Berkun (editor)

About PM-Clinic

The pm-clinic is a friendly, wise, open forum for discussing how to lead and manage teams of people. Each week a new situation is sent to the list and we share advice, ideas and stories. Anyone can join as long as they follow the simple rules.


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