July 10, 2009 1:48PM

Death to Power Point!


That's not quite the point of T. X. Hammes' article in the current Armed Forces Journal, but it's pretty close.  My familiarity with Power Point has been much more on the academic than DOD side, but my understanding is that academics are nothing when compared to Pentagon planners when it comes to egregious abuse of Power Point.  Here's Hammes:

Before PowerPoint, staffs prepared succinct two- or three-page summaries of key issues. The decision-maker would read a paper, have time to think it over and then convene a meeting with either the full staff or just the experts involved to discuss the key points of the paper. Of course, the staff involved in the discussion would also have read the paper and had time to prepare to discuss the issues. In contrast, today, a decision-maker sits through a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation followed by five minutes of discussion and then is expected to make a decision. Compounding the problem, often his staff will have received only a five-minute briefing from the action officer on the way to the presentation and thus will not be well-prepared to discuss the issues. This entire process clearly has a toxic effect on staff work and decision-making.

The art of slide-ology

Let’s start by examining the impact on staff work. Rather than the intellectually demanding work of condensing a complex issue to two pages of clear text, the staff instead works to create 20 to 60 slides. Time is wasted on deciding which pictures to put on the slides, how to build complex illustrations, and what bullets should be included. I have even heard conversations about what font to use and what colors. Most damaging is the reduction of complex issues to bullet points. Obviously, bullets are not the same as complete sentences, which require developing coherent thoughts. Instead of forcing officers to learn the art of summarizing complex issues into coherent arguments, staff work now places a premium on slide building. Slide-ology has become an art in itself, while thinking is often relegated to producing bullets.

Hammes makes a number of excellent points, including his mention of my pet peeve, the presenter who places full paragraphs on slides (preceded, of course, by a bullet, which makes it more Power Point-y), and then proceeds to read the paragraphs to his audience and calls this a "briefing."  Of course, humans can read faster than they can speak.  One wonders whether there could be any real value in a brief provided by someone who does not understand this. 

Hammes closes by mentioning that one excuse for using Power Point in this way is that

senior leaders don’t have time to be pre-briefed on all the decisions they make. If that is the case, they are involved in too many decisions. When the default position is that you are too busy to prepare properly to make a decision, it means you are making bad decisions.

Sage wisdom.  Some of us might argue that there are many indications that folks in the Pentagon are "involved in too many decisions," but the entropic debasement of thought there, enabled by Power Point, is as good a sign as any.