Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Managing Time at Work: The Challenge of Presentations

As regular readers will know, I have recently been applying for jobs.  Having been made redundant twice in a year, I have been able to consider how the economy has deteriorated in the 12 months of Summer 2009 to Summer 2010.  One thing that is immediately apparent is that the job situation has worsened.  It is not only that the number of unemployed people has continued to rise steadily, but also that the return of the 'whip' of unemployment seems to be encouraging employers to depress pay and demand longer working hours.  I noted back in July 2008 how employers were feeling that the workforce was becoming lazy because it was not fearful enough of losing jobs.  See:  http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2008/07/unemployment-as-whip.html In my last job I encountered a manager who loved to respond to any request from the workers that they were lucky to have a job and encouraged all the managers around and below her to do the same. 

Compared to a year ago almost every managerial position I have seen advertised is paying below the national average UK annual salary of £31,300 (€37,663; US$45,547) though it varies across the country from £21,550 in South Wales to £46,462 in London.  The bulk of these managerial jobs are offering £18,000-£23,000 per year  (€21,659-€27,675; US$26,193-US$33,469) despite being located in the South-East England region where the average salary is £32,819.  In addition, in contrast to last year there seems to be a sudden upswing in jobs demanding 'unsocial' hours or evening and weekend working.  This implies that the companies are short staffed or that the bosses somehow want to squeeze more out of their managers (and Heaven help the non-managerial staff) effectively reducing the hourly pay rate by simply imposing longer working hours.  Of course, all of this smacks of the 1980s.  The employers have got back the 'whip' and are cracking it with force. 

Saying all this, I guess readers from across the USA may be wondering what I am complaining about.  There unemployment is nationally 20% meaning around 60 million people are without work, almost the same number as the entire population (including children) of the UK.  Of these two-thirds have no unemployment insurance and ironically in the land supposedly of entrepreneurialism and the small business person it is often the self-employed who are most vulnerable.  I must say that throughout my life I have been a strong advocate of democracy, but have come to believe now, that there is no democracy in the UK or the USA.  Even when politicians want to combat the greed of the ultra-rich they find they are unable to do so.  Then under President Bush in the USA and now under David Cameron in the UK, we have policy makers who strive to further benefit the wealthy at the expense of the ordinary person.  I always looked on those who sought the overthrow of the state as foolhardy but as I age and see how the ordinary person is not even allowed to keep the meagre gains made in recent years, there seems no other solution that will give a chance to more than a small elite, however capable you might be.  It was interesting to read that the Walton family behind the Wal-Mart chain in the USA (they own Asda in the UK) alone has as much wealth as the poorest 40% of the US population, i.e., around 120 million people.  It shows you how petty your own savings and even the funds of governments are compared to those of the ultra-rich on this planet.

Anyway, my despair at the smashing of the UK economy driven by pigheaded, discriminatory economics, is distracting me from the focus on today's posting.  I am glad to note, that whilst job specifications seem to have reduced the number of requirements they set out, dropping in many cases below 15-18 requirements (compared to the 20-36 range I had last year; the peak being 36 essential and 10 desirable requirements for one post), they still seem to include many of the same sort of things.  Perhaps the detail has decreased, for one job I applied for recently the final essential requirement was summed up by a single word 'Flexibility' ('yes, I can touch my toes!').  However, new, pretty discriminatory, stuff seems to be slipping in: 'Must have the health to be able to cope with the rigours of this job'; it was not a vacancy as a mountaineering trainer simply an office manager, which does raise questions about working conditions in the company.  A perennial is 'time management' and that is the one I am going to focus on today.

Time management constantly seems to be something that bosses demand but seem incapable of doing themselves.  In many ways it is another coded signal that their company is under-staffed and they will be expecting you to work beyond the stipulated working hours.  I must say I have noticed that all reference to 'family friendly' employers has evaporated entirely.  Of course, employers want people who do not prevaricate and complete by the deadlines, but there is something more in British working culture which contrasts, say, with that of Scandinavian countries.  It is the assumption that if you are not working long hours you are not working hard enough.  I was warned once that in Sweden it is seen differently, that someone who is working after normal hours is inefficient because they cannot get their work done in the allotted time.  As a manager I see it this way.  I accept that there may be occasions of special demand when people need to work longer, but if I see them doing this day-after-day then I am concerned either that they have been allocated too much work or that they are out of their depth with the work and may need to be substituted, have more training or be allocated stuff that is within their capabilities.  I know from my previous job that such views are heresy and instead as a manager I am expected to see workers as inherently lazy, always trying to get out of working and having no pride in their work.

Of course, with social networking sites, email and even online poker, it is easy to while away your time appearing to work and yet not doing anything constructive.  Yet, all managers are alert to these things and any with an gramme of experience knows what to look out for.  My last two teams were so utterly terrified of appearing not to be working hard enough they dared not even speak to their colleagues and their relief when I encouraged them to talk to one another was visible.  In fact it quickly revealed duplications and different methodologies which could be standardised which had not come to light because the workers had been afraid of talking with each other for fear of seeming to slack.  There are lazy workers but they are not hard to spot.  Workers who are working in fear do not work well, but that is not from laziness, it is because a well-trained worker who has clear instructions and the ability to raise questions is always going to be more confident and in fact far more productive. 

When I talk of Aesop's Fable of the Wind and the Sun, no-one seems to understand it.  Aesop lived around 620-564 BCE and if he could get a handle on principles that are still applicable to today's workplace then managers of today can.  In the analoguos story the Wind bets the Sun that he can make a traveller remove his coat.  The Wind blows and blows but the traveller hugs his cloak ever more tightly to his body.  Then the Sun takes his turn and shines brightly on the traveller who immediately removes his cloak, so the Sun wins.  Having had enough management books based on the works of Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' (probably written at the same time as Aesop was working, perhaps some decades later) maybe it is time to produce one based on the work of Aesop.

Of course, time management does not simply apply to day-to-day work and it is in connection with presentations that I have seen it fail the worst.  I seemed to go through a spate of colleagues in the early 2000s who seemed to have no control over their timing when making presentations.  In that era, Powerpoint was at its zenith (released in 1987, certainly in the UK it do really rise to its height of usage until the mid-1990s), though despite it having been in popular usage in business for many years few people seemed to know how to use it conceptually though they could so technically.  Perhaps I will do a posting on the worst Powerpoint presentations I have ever seen, but for now will refer to it as an element of poor time management in presentations. 

I had a manager who had no idea of how long anything took.  Unfortunately she was responsible for scheduling a number of conferences in a year.  In her scheduling there was no room for anything to go wrong.  There was no slack for technical faults or a person over-running with what they said (which, of course, happened regularly, because like her, they were poor at managing their time).  Every year the schedule would be sliding after the first speaker and by the mid-morning break it could already be 30 minutes off target.  Such a slide leads to things being dropped from the programme and from questions (usually the most useful part of any business presentation) being suppressed. 

One problem was that this manager had no idea how long her own presentation was going to take and generally as she opened the conferences, this meant that they were already behind schedule after she had made her introductory speech.  Usually she scheduled 10 minutes for herself and speak for 20 minutes.  Having sat on interview panels with this woman, I know that she believed that a question about time management was to ask specifically what piece of software the candidate used to manage their time.  She asked this obsessively, providing no benefit to the interviewing process.  Software dates quickly and just because a person uses a piece of software does not mean they are using it correctly or in fact has engaged with the mental principles behind more than just superficial use of it.  She never made any efforts to find out how much she could say in the time she allocated herself.  I know that I speak 5000 words in 60 minutes at a steady but not rushed pace, with time to point to things on the screen.  So, if I am allocated 20 minutes, I know I can say 1600 words and probably need to be looking at 1200 if I want a couple of questions asked.

Very few people in business, despite the fact that most of us have sat through tens, possibly hundreds of presentations in our careers, seems to remember that the change over between speakers is never lie a baton exchange in a relay race.  There has to be applause for the previous speaker, they have to move at least aside if not off stage and their successor needs to step up.  Even if their presentation is ready to go the moment they reach the lecturn (something I have never witnessed in my entire career) they need some time to get their head in gear.  Many times they or the assistants will struggle to get the presentation going.  This is why there seems no point in allocating anyone a 10-minute slot, easily a third of that time can be eaten up with just the human things of getting in place to speak and getting the graphics we seem to insist on, running.  (Saying this, the era of Powerpoint seems to be passing and I have had two interviews this year which have insisted that it was not used; in contrast to 2004 when I failed to get one job purely on the grounds that I had not used Powerpoint in the interview).

Another classic example was from a colleague of mine.  She worked in a department which had a very poor concept of time management on a day-to-day basis.  Deadlines would be set which had no bearing on reality.  This colleague would regularly fly from Luton airport to Edinburgh airport, returning the same day.  The time in the air was 1 hour each way, plus an additional 1 hour at each end for check-in, security check, boarding, etc.  So even if the travel went smoothly she would be travelling for 4 hours out of the day.  In addition she lived 40 minutes' drive from the airport, adding 1 hour 20 minutes to the journey.  Whilst in Edinburgh she would be in meetings all day, usually 09.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. or 5 p.m., so almost a working day.  Thus, in total, even if everything went smoothly, she would 'work' 11 hours 20 minutes (assuming she took 1 hour for lunch; often it was just 30 minutes or a 'working' lunch instead).  Any time away from the office is seen as a 'junket' and a treat whereas of course it can be tiring and I certainly witnessed her not breaking from work on the aeroplane or in the terminals.  Part of the reason for this soon became apparent because she was expected to deliver a report and make a presentation at 11 a.m. on the morning after each visit.

This rule even applied the day that the flight out of Edinburgh was delayed by 4 hours due to a fault in the aeroplane's rudder (or whatever the technical name is).  It was a noticeable incident because the aircraft had taxied out only to find it could not turn and had to be hauled back tail first.  In addition, we came back through Arrivals despite not having been any further than on to part of the runway.  A young man who complained, not particularly loudly was dragged off by security staff and we did not see him again.  Another interesting thing was that having got back into Arrivals having spent an hour on the runway loads of people's mobile phones went off, they were being called by irate taxi drivers at Luton booked to collect them, demanding why they were not there.  The passengers had to explain that they had not been permitted to use their mobiles while on the aircraft and it was clear that no-one at Luton had informed anyone about the delay. Anyway, we reached Luton sometime after 10 p.m. and my colleague drove home and managed to finish her report at 2 a.m. for presenting at 11 a.m. Of course, for some reason one of her managers could not make it in so it was postponed.  The detachment between the working norms and what happens in reality, plus the amount of sleep people needed, fostered an environment that was going to lead to disgruntled, exhausted employees and probably a far less good quality report than if the travelling colleague had been given, say 48 hours, to produce the report.

Anyway, despite  working for this very time demanding department, my colleague seemed to have little inkling of the implications of not paying attention to what can be realistically covered in the time scheduled.  She and I were asked to do a presentation about our project.  We were given 20 minutes between us and agreed to split this equally.  Very foolishly, I went second.  My colleague put up 38 slides which she would had to have covered in less than 16 seconds each if she had wanted to fit them in and, even then, that would not allow any time for questions.  Through rushing and skipping over some she managed to get through 19 slides in 19 minutes, leaving me a single minute for my section.  I had prepared 5 slides but did not even bother pulling these up.  I walked on and said simply 'the project worked well; people liked the software it created' which had been the nub of my section of the presentation, then stepped down.  The disconnection between the amount of data to be covered and the time needed to cover it, is astoundingly common.  Years later a senior colleague who even trained people in making presentations argued that more than a slide per minute was fine, even then not allowing any time for questions, which she generally expected.

I have run training on making presentations and right since I started my career I have been complimented on my ability to speak to time.  I am not smug about this and go back to first principles each time I prepare something.  However, with practice you get to know yourself and your material well enough to change pacing and content 'on the hoof', for example, if you realise people are not comprehending what you are saying or know less about it than you believed.  However, being good at these things can often work against you.  At one presentation I had 10 minutes to speak.  I produced 4 slides.  The first was the title of my talk and the fourth were my contact details.  This meant that I had 2 slides with the meat of the presentation each with 4 items on, allowing me about 1 minute per item (not per slide as is usually the case).  I delivered it in 8 minutes allowing some time for questions, but the audience simply sat there, seemingly stunned.  They had expected the spinning images and sound effects that had filled the presentations and clearly had not expected me to finish on time.  The half-embarrassed over-run with an excessive amount of data and slides has become such the norm that audiences now do not seem to be able to cope with anything actually done to time.  The same applies to audiences who want slides on the screen and also to have them replicated on paper in front of them.  The lecture worked for at least 3000 years before the invention of Powerpoint but it seems that business people have been seduced into requiring overload which actually communicates only a fraction of the message the presenter is seeking to deliver and often in a confused and harrassed manner.

Time mangement is a vital skill for business.  However, what is termed time management is really overworking and in fact real management of the time spent on tasks, and, in particular, the proper matching up of the time scheduled for an activity and the work which is to be done in it, is very poorly understood right across British business.  Pointing this out, though, is not going to win you any fans and, in fact, you will be looked upon as being peculiar.  Instead you will be compelled to adhere to the norms that expect over-running and incomplete presentation of the information.

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