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I Have Met The Enemy And It Is Not PowerPoint

Mark Valentine (Chevy Chase, MD) —

After a long period of popularity, there has been a recent backlash against the use of PowerPoint for communication within the government, particularly at the Pentagon and within the U.S. national security and intelligence community. However, focusing on the software as the cause of communications breakdown is merely a variation of “shoot the messenger.” Here, I argue that poor use of PowerPoint is a symptom of a larger “disease” of poor adaptation of human organizations to a new information economy.

Deflation of the Information Economy

It’s the simple economics of supply and demand: Information has become cheap because of the exponential increase in its supply.

Technology executives have stated that the amount of recorded information from the dawn of humanity to 2003 is on the order of five exabytes (where exa indicates one million million million or 1018). To better understand the scale of this number, one can think about it as five billion gigabytes. While this is certainly a large number, it seems plausible that the whole of humanity has recorded enough information to fill 156 million thumb drives at 32GB each since the beginning of recorded history – or an average of 26 thousand thumb drives per year.

To truly comprehend how the supply of information has increased in the last few years, however,compare the previous figure to statements that we have generated an additional five exabytes of data from 2003 to the present. This essentially means that in the last seven years we have created the same amount of recorded information as we did in the first six-thousand years of our existence. Furthermore, if present trends continue – and there is no indication to believe that they won’t – then roughly ten years from now we will be recording approximately five exabytes of information every couple of days.

In addition to the sheer volume of recorded information available today, the ease of accessing it has also increased. According to Gartner, in 2008 there were one billion personal computer users in the world – the majority of whom had internet access. Additionally, there are approximately three billion others who access information through mobile devices. Contrast these numbers with the fact that the total 1990 Internet population was approximately three million people.

This order of magnitude increase has added to the cacophony of information as the increased numbers of Internet users represent not only information consumers, but also information producers. The explosion of social media, blogs, and video sharing sites and platforms highlight this phenomenon. Lest readers dismiss the majority of this new information as useless chatter among the less productive, consider the effort the U.S .government is expending on harnessing its power.

Incentives For Government Use of Cheap Information

Our massive increase of cheap information has created massive incentives to use it.

To understand these incentives, one need look no further than the economic dogma of supply and demand, which states that the greater the supply of a commodity, the lower its price will be. This lower price, in turn, leads to greater use of the commodity. In the context of information used in decision making, this means that since leaders have access to more information, they feel compelled to use it – and therefore search for ways to make sense of it all.

For those who question the above logic, consider the alternative: a leader who fails to use all available information. Even senior decision makers have superiors, who in turn generally have easy access to the same information. This creates a situation where leaders who fail to act on the available information will inevitably be criticized by their seniors. Aware of these dynamics, more junior officials are incentivized to “report up” more and more information, then wait for decisions to trickle back down to them.

This overabundance of free, cheap information generally leads to one of two possible outcomes. The first is an “information paralysis” in which discussions tak place but real decisions are rarely made. This, of course, is equivalent to a decision to maintain the status quo. Information paralysis is fairly straightforward to understand, and unfortunately, is somewhat common in large organizations. It thwarts innovation.

The second outcome is more insidious. Here, senior decisionmakers become more involved in matters that have traditionally been tactical concerns reserved for field personnel. National security micromanaging, if you will. A senior leader’s foray into tactical details creates a demand for more information, leading subordinates to replace decision making responsibilities with pushing information up the chain of command. This behavior is evident in the increasing role senior military leaders have adopted in the execution of tactical missions because of the wealth of real-time information available to them. Tactical commanders generally refer to this condition as “centralized control and centralized execution” in contrast to the traditional military dictum of “centralized control and decentralized execution.”

Rigid military staff structures further magnify these problems. While basic functional divisions like Personnel and Intelligence still seem to be an adequate organizational method, internal expansion of these information silos proportionally increases the information pressure on senior leaders. Essentially, because functional groups at each level act in accordance with the incentives listed above, cheap information turns each level of the organization into an information amplifier. Before information was cheap, higher level organizations were able to act as information filters, separating the chaff from the wheat for more senior leaders. Today’s information economy effectively prevents this practice.

In a world where senior decisionmakers can personally search the Web for just about anything he or she wants, blocking what one individual might consider secondary information is not the most effective promotion strategy. This is especially the case when the bosses’ decisions (and the information used in developing those decisions) will likely be scrutinized in great detail by hoards of other information consumers – some of whom might be charged with oversight of the bosses’ organization.

The Pentagon’s PowerPoint Rangers

It has become fashionable of late, especially in the halls of the Pentagon, to attack the use of PowerPoint. The narrative goes something like this: PowerPoint is bad because junior officers spend more time on “slideology” (developing slides) than on creating decision-quality summaries of complex issues, since the software’s ubiquitous bullets are incapable of communicating complete and articulate thoughts.

A well-publicized 2009 article in Small Wars Journal recounted the following:

In January 2009, a military-oriented site, “Company Command”, asked current Army commanders and platoon leaders in Iraq what they spent most of their time doing. One officer, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, answered flat-out: “Making PowerPoint slides.”

When pressed, the lieutenant continued:

I’m dead serious, guys. The one thing I spend more time on than anything else here in combat is making PowerPoint slides. I have to make a storyboard [a PowerPoint slide] complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens. Recon a water pump? Make a storyboard. Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.”

Such PowerPoint-gurus-in-uniform have come to be known as “PowerPoint Rangers” in the military power corridors of Washington and around the world. The SWJ article continued:

Today, leaders in both business and the military may see dozens of PowerPoint briefings in a single day, and there is often competition to produce the most elaborate and extravagant PowerPoint presentation. Indeed, the process of spending hours each day adding more bells and whistles in PowerPoint presentations has become such an accepted part of military culture that many in the military use the term “PowerPoint Ranger” to describe someone who spends most of his or her time in front of a computer making PowerPoint slides. Some have even gone so far as to create mock badges, similar to the wings worn by paratroopers or aviators, which denote how many hours a person has logged in front of their computer on PowerPoint.

Besides being a distraction from other tasks, as noted above, the use of Microsoft PowerPoint, versus a written position document (written, naturally, in Microsoft Word) often leads to a lack of rigorous analysis in the background and an overly simplistic display in the foreground which reduces the quality of information our senior leaders use in decision making. Furthermore, it has been asserted that the wildly popular briefing program is “actively hostile to thoughtful decision making” and has changed our expectations of who makes decisions and how they are made.

In a New York Times article called “We Have Met The Enemy And He Is PowerPoint,” Elisabeth Bullmiller notes,

No one is suggesting that PowerPoint is to blame for mistakes in the current wars, but the program did become notorious during the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. As recounted in the book “Fiasco” by Thomas E. Ricks, Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, who led the allied ground forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, grew frustrated when he could not get Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander at the time of American forces in the Persian Gulf region, to issue orders that stated explicitly how he wanted the invasion conducted, and why. Instead, General Franks just passed on to General McKiernan the vague PowerPoint slides that he had already shown to Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time.

This is a compelling narrative at first glance: PowerPoint is dumb and bad; complex thoughts and written documents are smart and good. However, while portions of this narrative speak to the pain many have felt – especially to those of us who have stayed at work late to “tweak the slides” – the narrative’s causal chain incorrectly identifies a symptom as the disease. In short, this popular narrative is the functional equivalent of an attack on the messenger.

PowerPoint as a Filter in the Information Economy

The root cause of the lamentations about PowerPoint of senior leaders and academic purists lies not in the method in which information is delivered, but in our failure to modify organizational structures based on the ease of accessing information in the new information economy. Cheap information has fundamentally changed both the quantity and quality of information available to our senior leaders. This situation creates incentives, from above and below, for senior decisionmakers to actively participate in tactical processes. Additionally, the failure to adapt our Moltke-era staff structure – which at one time was needed to aggregate data from disparate sources – amplifies these pressures.

Indeed, the reason PowerPoint and its open source cousins are used so much is that they are, in fact, useful in summarizing the vast amounts of information available to today’s decisions makers and presenting it in digestible amounts. As NYU professor Clay Shirky once famously stated, “It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure.” PowerPoint, contrary to being dumb and crude, may represent an important current form of filtering the overabundance of cheap information within the new information economy.

While the above discussion paints a bleak picture for the future of military decision making, this dark path is not the only one available. A brighter alternative is achievable if we stop “attacking the messenger” and change organizational structure to better harness the power of cheap information. Before embarking on this path the military, and indeed any large complicated organization dealing with lots of information, must first acknowledge that it is impossible (and unwanted) to keep information from our senior leaders.

Next, they should recognize the relative ease with which information can be gathered, and thin staffer ranks to reduce the aforementioned amplifier effect. In addition to a “flatter” staff structure, the composition of staffs should also change from those of strict functional capabilities to a model, led by capable generalists, that is more capable of ad-hoc teaming. These changes are already taking place in the business world; the Department of Defense is late to the game. Merck, for instance, is instituting a “delayering” concept where the CEO has decreed that there will be no more than five-layers between him and the line worker.

Software is the Problem, and the Solution

Information technology, the ultimate root cause of cheap information, nevertheless offers solutions for solving our decision dilemmas by helping us make sense of it all. To allay the fears of those who feel that bullets will never hold the explanatory power of the written narrative, information systems exist which hold the promise of linking detailed information repositories to the tag phrases listed on a PowerPoint slide. Additionally, with database programs and ubiquitous internet access, staff officers have the opportunity to create “active dashboards” which can present real-time information and trends that can be tailored to decision makers at all levels – one information source, many displays.

As a final note, some have complained that the use of presentation programs like PowerPoint will confound tomorrow’s historians as they attempt to sort through cryptic bullet statements to make sense of today’s decisions. This logic misses the mark widely, since the information tools available today will actually provide more detail than has previously been available. Specifically, future historians will not only have briefing slides recording the basic summaries of decision materials, but they will also have access to the caches of primary source information that actually led to the decision. One might even argue that this information will paint an even better picture for tomorrow’s historians than a two to three page paper with a signature.

Deciding who makes decisions, at what times, and with what information will be an enduring issue. This, however, is a human problem not an information technology problem – and definitely not a PowerPoint problem. The way ahead will require leadership and will not be easy, but we will never move forward as long as we focus our outrage on how information is displayed instead of looking in the mirror and examining how we use the information – as individuals and as organizations.

I have met the enemy: It is not PowerPoint… it is us.

Lt. Col. Mark Valentine is a combat-decorated U.S. Air Force pilot. He is currently based in Chevy Chase, MD as a Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellow at Microsoft. You can follow him on Twitter at @drifterval.

Pictures of supply and demand, acquisition ranger, and Clay Shirky used under Creative Commons.

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Excellent post! Whenever someone criticizes PowerPoint or similar presentation aid I respond with “it’s a poor musician who blames their instrument.” When you start up PowerPoint it is a blank slate. The speaker decides what to put on the slides and how to arrange them.

The more fundamental problem is that many people let their fear of public speaking prevent them from learning the skills they need to perform well in public. Over the last ten years of teaching communication I have had hundreds of students do everything they can to get out of taking a basic public speaking course or give a presentation in class. Their fear of looking stupid in front of the crowd robs them of the valuable practice they need to learn how to NOT appear stupid in front of the crowd. This is true for the older students as well as the younger students.

When I first started the forensics team in high school I was horrible at public speaking. The first few competitions were so depressing because I was dead last to every competitor out there. But I persevered and was graduated from college with thirteen speaking and debate awards. “Practice makes perfect” is a cliche but it is a valuable cliche.

Terri Jones

I think it’s all about the PowerPoint “artist”, also I have been using a bit of Prezi these days and I think that as we use other programs, some day PowerPoint will be retro cool!

Jeff Furman, The PM Answer Book

PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations — people do! From my experience teaching many Train-the-Trainer courses, there are 3 main pitfalls: relying too heavily on PowerPoint as the presenter’s only medium,

lecturing too much at the audience (instead of interacting with them), and putting up too many bullet-point lists and expecting the participants to absorb them like a machine.

PowerPoint is awesome for organizing content and keeping on track. But I think it’s key for presenters to interact, for instance with Q&A, and to remain very focused on the participants, and attuned to their questions, responses, and needs. Relying too much on PowerPoint or any kind of slides can get in the way.

Peter Gillis

Agree with everything posted. The idea behind bullets is that you expand on them WHILE YOU TALK. The bullets aren’t supposed to explain everything and PowerPoint wasn’t designed to replace face-to-face communication. Last, if you’re worried about confusion…use the speaker notes. Takes more time, but people who weren’t there in person will get more out of your slides.

Neil Tambe

Great post. I agree with what most have commented…that PPT can’t be a crutch for good presentation. In addition to that, though, I think we can all stand to do more “design” when it comes to Powerpoint. Imagine how much better slides would be if we spent 1hr really designing each slide instead of throwing something together in 15 minutes or less!

Jeff Furman, The PM Answer Book

To help those in the group who are NOT very familiar with giving presentations, I recently wrote an article:

“Top 10 Trainer’s Tips For Project Managers Giving Presentations,” sharing tips from my dual background as a trainer and a PMP. The article was published in the December issue of PM World Today: