Toxic Corporate Behaviors

Death by PowerPoint

PowerPoint is a powerful and useful tool, but it is widely abused in corporations, especially internally. Most slide decks cannot contain all the details needed to truly evaluate an idea, technology, etc. – presentation slides are not intended for this use, but many people pretend that a deck can contain all you need to know to make a decision or understand a result. 

I have seen and worked at multiple organizations where many hours of staff time and even professional graphics help were applied to make a deck beautiful – for internal use. A shiny slide deck and a persuasive speaker could gain support for incomplete or even bad ideas, or persuade the higher-ups that something had been a huge success when it had actually been a failure.

Some organizations try to curb PowerPoint overload by imposing a limit on the number of slides that can be included in a presentation. At Ericsson, I was amused and appalled that some people worked around this by putting four slides onto one, resulting in text so tiny that you could not read it except by viewing the deck afterwards on your own screen. I asked why they did that. “Oh, we learned that from [bigname consulting firm, I forget which].” Great. We paid millions to learn bad habits.

When I joined Amazon in 2017, it was a document-based culture; PowerPoint was never used internally. If you had an idea for a product or service, you could write a document about it, maximum 6 pages plus supporting appendices which you were not guaranteed anyone would read. There was a specific structure for these docs, including a mock-up press release for the product launch, detailing what it was about and who would buy it, complete with made-up quotes from imagined or real customers. You had to supply supporting data about the expected market, why your new thing couldn’t be easily competed with, and more.

This document would be presented to CEO Andy Jassy and his team at one of Andy’s famous CHOP meetings. I attended only one of these during my 4+ years at AWS; it was interesting and useful, and I came away impressed with Charlie Bell for reasons that had nothing to do with the matter at hand. 

In the CHOP meeting, if Andy’s team agreed that your idea was a good one, you’d be given funding and support to go ahead with it. More often, you’d be sent back to think harder about it and add more details and data before they were ready to say yes. If they didn’t agree at all, they said no, and that was the end of it. But at least you had supplied all the elements needed to make a sensible decision. 

I don’t know whether Amazon still works this way. If they’ve started using PowerPoint internally, that would be an unfortunate erosion of an effective company culture.

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