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What is a "ghost" deck or page?
The ghost deck - also referred to as a shell or skeleton at other firms - is an early draft of a PowerPoint deck. Think of it as a PPT presentation that's about 20% complete, with most of the work going into developing leads (titles) and headlines (the one to two lines of text just under the leads) that push the storyline forward. Aside from the leads and headlines, most of the individual ghost pages will be blank or contain some rough sketches of exhibits - tables, graphs, etc. - that the team intends to eventually complete. It can be helpful to "sticker" the pages with notes on what data to populate those exhibits are already available and what still needs to be obtained.
It can also be used more broadly, meaning a rough draft of anything. For example, I've heard of preliminary Excel model referred to as a ghost. It had all of the elements of the final model - input screens, calculation worksheets, and output tabs, but without any of the complex programming or functionality.
Sometimes consultants will also use "ghost" as a verb, as in "just ghost out your idea and we'll discuss it" or "now that we're done ghosting out the deck, let's review it with the Partner". "Ghosting" or "ghosting out" refers to creating a rough draft version of something.
How are ghost decks and pages used?McKinsey teams use ghost decks to align on the approach and direction for a PPT deck and the workplans to get to the final version while minimizing wasted work. Once the team, leadership, and sometimes clients have agreed upon the storyline for the deck, the ghost deck is developed to answer the following questions after a minimal investment of time, effort, and resources:
- Now that we see how we would tell the story, do we want to make changes to the storyline?
- What content is required to support the storyline?
- What do we already have and how will we present it?
- What are we missing and what do we need to do to get it?
Why are ghost decks helpful?Let's examine the benefits of the ghost deck based on each of the four questions above. By preparing and reviewing ghost decks, teams can better do each of the following steps, as needed...
1. Adjust the storyline before a lot of work is investedEven the most carefully planned, problem-solved, and thought out storylines might be revised at the ghost stage. As draft pages bring the storyline to life, new ideas surface and/or gaps are exposed. If a storyline has to be changed, it's much better to know sooner rather than later.
Because effective ghost decks are prepared with minimal investment of time and effort, changes at this stage mean less wasted work. Storyline changes often create cascade effects, impacting pages later in the deck - by identifying those changes early, any additional steps can be planned appropriately and unnecessary work avoided.
2. Align on what content will be requiredThese answers comprise the wish list or shopping list for the team. By allowing the storyline and ghost deck to dictate what content needs to be prepared, a team can focus their effort where it will maximize impact. The ghost deck also puts the content into context, so people can understand why they're developing specific content, informing what to prepare, how to frame it, and what alternatives they might want to consider.
3. Plan for what needs to be done with available contentWhen reviewing the draft deck and ghost exhibits, the team should note which exhibits already have data behind them. If these pages survive the ghost review and will remain in the deck, the team can briefly discuss what information is available and develop high-level workplans for completing those exhibits and pages. For example, the team can make preliminary plans for what analyses will be done, what the expected conclusions are, and the implications to the storyline
4. Identify gaps in the storyline and data needsOften, what is most apparent from the ghost deck is what is missing. If there is a gap in the storyline, the team can problem solve on what pages and content are needed to bridge that gap. It might require a set of new pages or an adjustment to the storyline.
Data needs are exposed when pages are ghosted and the team realizes they cannot populate the page or complete exhibits with currently available data. Identifying data needs early is critical because it often takes a long time to find, gather, and clean data before it can even be analyzed. This is especially true if the information will be coming from the client or a 3rd party where the sense of urgency is typically not as great as it is at McKinsey.
Clearly identifying what is missing also helps reduce the work the team needs to do. By being targeted in their efforts, team members can avoid "boiling the ocean" and following up on the entire universe of potential questions and answers.
Why are ghost decks important?Time is precious, especially when the workload is high and the timelines are short. Ghost decks are another way McKinsey teams make the most of their time and effort.
Using ghost decks also allows consultants to "be more 80/20" in their thinking, showing their McKinsey boss that they understand how to maximize impact for the time invested, and can apply top-down thinking and problem-solving techniques.