Illustration by Jeannie Phan
Big Ideas

Engineers: Are You Killing Collaboration with PowerPoint?

We use PowerPoint on a regular basis. So why did we have this quote on our wall? Jobs-quote We agree with the instead of thinking part and hashing things out at the table. We’re not saying PowerPoint is bad. Unfortunately for collaboration on engineering teams, though, it often is. We engineers like to optimize, we like to have rational arguments ready to support our points of view, and collectively we’re not the most extroverted bunch in the world. When encountering a challenge, we can withdraw, think about the problem on our own, then approach others with a carefully crafted argument. When we need to interact with someone else, this often means creating a presentation and calling a meeting to discuss an issue, rather than talking it through with others in real time. Though rational and seemingly efficient, this approach kills effective collaboration. Creating a presentation and discussing it at a meeting is rarely the most effective and efficient way to get input from others, so it makes engineers hate this sort of meeting–the whole point of which is to facilitate getting input from others. Why?

  • A PowerPoint presentation presumes a specific conversation flow in advance.

Have you ever tried to pre-script a conversation on a date? The best interactions are based on building on what’s most relevant, in real time, and quickly moving on from what’s not.

A presentation is a predetermined script. Skipping around can help, but it gets confusing and unnatural in a hurry since the content and context are a bit off–the conversation didn’t progress exactly as you thought it would.

  • Information captured on a slide implies a degree of  “doneness.”

If someone has taken the time to make a slide, it means they’ve given an issue some thought, right? The audience now has to vet their own ideas to the same perceived degree of maturity. The presenter has unintentionally raised the bar for participation. How many times as the presenter have you said “I’d like for this to be interactive,” and it’s not?

  • Taking the time to create a presentation means not getting input at the best possible moment.

Though impossible to collaborate with others at the best possible moment every time, it’s a good goal. Creating a presentation takes time, and forces collaboration at a later time when it’s a little less relevant.

  • PowerPoint is cliche.

As Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. Have you noticed how many people whip out their phones to check email as the projector is warming up? Even if a presentation is called for, you’re starting in a hole with your audience and have to dig yourself out of it.

With an understanding of its limitations, PowerPoint is a powerful tool for collaboration.

PowerPoint is Powerful

Here at MindTribe, we continually design experiments as a means of improvement. Here’s one you can use to see if you can collaborate with others more effectively, and use PowerPoint to your advantage: Prior to an interaction designed to get input from others, default to using a whiteboard instead of PowerPoint. Think of PowerPoint purely as tool for efficient transfer of information–use it only if you need to present information more efficiently than you can possibly convey on a whiteboard in real time. Using a whiteboard instead of a presentation gives you a fertile ground for discussion. It’s not as comfortable as thinking through an argument in advance. But the rawness of the medium lowers the bar for others to share their own thoughts, people don’t fall asleep as the projector warms up, you haven’t wasted time creating irrelevant slides when you could have been getting input when it was most relevant, and most importantly, you can steer the conversation to come up with the best possible solution together, in real time. Sometimes a whiteboard doesn’t cut it:

  • Your interaction is slowing down because you can’t write fast enough on the whiteboard.
  • You know in advance you want to show lots of information in a short period of time, e.g. a high-level review of work you’ve already done.
  • A picture (or video, or graph) is worth 1,000 words, and there’s no way you can convey it on a whiteboard.
  • The audience is too large to use a whiteboard.
  • You’re truly presenting to an audience, and not seeking input.

In those cases PowerPoint is a powerful tool. If you’re aware of its limitations, you can leverage it to actually improve your ability to think together with others in real time, and ultimately, hash it out at the table together.