Posts Tagged ‘PowerPoint’

In defense of PowerPoint

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

An article in yesterday’s New York Times showed a widely ridiculed map attempting to describe the strategy of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan. Using the spaghetti bowl nature of the PowerPoint page, the article, supported by comments from several senior officers in the US military, argues that attempting to describe causes and effects on such a scale creates such complexity that the human mind cannot conceivably wrap itself around it. Furthermore, the article suggests that conceptual representations of this type create the illusion that the game plan described by the map is the essence of the war, implicitly minimizing the importance of flesh-and-blood troops conducting field operations that involve both risk and courage.

Although PowerPoint is an easy target since we all love to hate Microsoft’s ubiquitous software, the real argument is whether the US military should attempt to create some kind of cause-and-effect representation of what senior officers think might (or should) happen as a result of some actions the coalition takes, or whether any action produces an outcome that is by definition unpredictable, solely driven by the talent of local troops in the specific context of each operation, rendering futile any attempt at anticipating any large-scale outcome from headquarters.

am hardly a specialist in military strategy, but using business strategy as an analog, it seems to me that the answer lies in the co-creation of the war agenda between field operators and headquarters. There is merit in starting with some kind of top-down representation by headquarters of how things might play out if everything were to fall in place perfectly – which it won’t, of course, but at least the military will have a straw model to build from as it learns more from actual operations. As long as this representation is understood to depict an intent and a hypothesis, and not imply any kind of deterministic pattern at the detailed level, it serves a useful purpose. Many businesses have dramatically improved their operations by building strategy maps for their operations, as a way of sharing priorities and mobilizing large numbers of people around the common goal.

The key is to accept that conceptual representations have a limited life. The co-creation point of view on strategy is that it involves short bursts of action, followed by brief moments of reflection. In this rapid cycle of actions and reflections, conceptual representations of strategy are helpful to co-create the insights generated by action reviews between all levels, from the Humvee driver’s observations to the views of the generals at headquarters. What outstanding managers do is develop terrain-anchored patterns of causes and effects that can be used to frame the next course of action, not only at the local level but also in a progressively larger theater of operations, resulting in an increasingly crisper view of how the entire war can be won. Organizing such a discussion requires putting in place an engagement platform that allows parties at all levels to shape a common point of view on what causes what at any given time, looking at the problem at various levels of granularity. In this view, the conceptual representation of the war is continuously co-created.

In the end, the issue is not so much the map as the process that leads to the development of the map, and its life cycle. There may be hope for PowerPoint after all.