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Thread: On Powerpoint

  1. #1
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    Default On Powerpoint

    This is the best thing I've read all week:

    Every year, the services spend millions of dollars teaching our people how to think. We invest in everything from war colleges to noncommissioned officer schools. Our senior schools in particular expose our leaders to broad issues and historical insights in an attempt to expose the complex and interactive nature of many of the decisions they will make.

    Unfortunately, as soon as they graduate, our people return to a world driven by a tool that is the antithesis of thinking: PowerPoint. Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them. While this may seem to be a sweeping generalization, I think a brief examination of the impact of PowerPoint will support this statement.

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    Nice. I've never been a fan of his 4GW theory, but this PowerPoint rebuke is great. Can we get this in slide format?

    Finally, what we all instinctively knew to be true has been broken down by the numbers and explained in a methodical, detailed rebuke by someone who once wore rank on his collars that many of us associated with an inability to think rationally or use common sense. I wonder if anyone will listen.

    I have long held that we should make bootlegged copies of PowerPoint available to al-Qaeda and give them free computers and projectors to use it, so that their internal processes can be crippled as much as ours have.

    However, I also agree with Hammes narrow points about how PowerPoint can also be useful. That is generally the only means that I have ever employed slides for (unless ordered to do otherwise). I've always used slides in the same way that one would use an instructional video or supplemented an oral brief with charts and tables in the same way that one would supplement a research paper with charts and tables. Making the slides the focus of the presentation generally occurs when the speaker has nothing worthwhile to say - unfortunately, slides usually are the focus.

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    Default Is the process or tool screwed up ?

    More verbosely,

    Is the tool (PowerPoint) the problem; or is the process (one hammer wielder striking all the nails on his floor - and all the nails on the floors below) the problem ?

    (from TXH)
    The last point, how we make decisions, is the most obvious. 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.
    ....
    PowerPoint has clearly decreased the quality of the information provided to the decision-maker, but the damage doesn’t end there. It has also changed the culture of decision-making. In my experience, pre-PowerPoint staffs prepared two to four decision papers a day because that’s as many as most bosses would accept. These would be prepared and sent home with the decision-maker and each staff member that would participate in the subsequent discussion. Because of the tempo, most decision-makers did not take on more than three or four a day simply because of the requirement to read, absorb, think about and then be prepared to discuss the issue the following day. As an added benefit for most important decisions, they “slept on it.

    PowerPoint has changed that. Key decision-makers’ days are now broken down into one-hour and even 30-minute segments that are allocated for briefs. Of particular concern, many of these briefs are decision briefs. Thus senior decision-makers are making more decisions with less preparation and less time for thought. Why we press for quick decisions when those decisions will take weeks or even months to simply work their way through the bureaucracy at the top puzzles me. One of the critical skills in decision making is making the decision cycle and method appropriate to the requirements. If a decision takes weeks or months to implement and will be in effect for years, then a more thoughtful process is clearly appropriate.

    This brings me to the third major concern with PowerPoint’s impact on our decision process: Who makes the decisions? Because the PowerPoint culture allows decision-makers to schedule more briefs per day, many type-A personalities seek to do so. Most organizations don’t need more decisions made at higher levels. But to find more decisions to make, a type-A leader has to reach down to lower levels to find those decisions. The result is the wrong person is making decisions at the wrong level.
    Is the last sentence the crux of the problem ?

    Where (if at all) do the people who have to execute the decision fit into the process which TXH describes ?

  4. #4
    Council Member Greyhawk's Avatar
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    Default Read in old man voice:

    Here's one he missed: within two weeks of a "problem" being identified (particularly if in the major media) you could bet every man woman and child in service will have viewed a PowerPoint presentation on the topic, as group or individually via email (talk about bandwidth abuse...). Problem solved!

    But I come neither to praise or condemn the brief, rather to acknowledge its necessary evil...

    Hammes is on target, but also cursing a hammer for people using it as a screwdriver. That's his choice of approach, a cautious one that avoids (beyond implying) placing blame where due. Much of what he describes (too many slides, too much data crammed onto one slide, etc.) is a mark of a bad briefer. From my experience, you could get away with that once. (The initial fault would lie with your boss, if he were between the briefer and the guy at the head of the table in the chain of command - and normally that's the case. But I digress...) And if 100% of the information shared is included in the briefing slides (vice "read aheads" or other more comprehensive documents) then again we have a problem for which PowerPoint is not to blame. Certainly if the problem persists (other than in the case of the occasional "rookie" briefer sent to learn a lesson 'the hard way') beyond a given commander's first few weeks in office (also when template, fonts, and background color are established) we must consider the staff itself at fault.

    My career began in the days of paper flip charts and overhead projectors - we don't want to go back. The woes of the PowerPoint ranger are real, but they precede the advent of the tool that (used properly - and it often is) reduces the burden.

    If you really want to talk about a time-saving technological advancement that has quadrupled our workload and made ten things more difficult for every one simplified, let's discuss email. It's much easier now to make 10,000 people jump through hoops; the hoops themselves are unchanged.

    Come to think of it, I served through the advent of the computer era, and can assure you while we're better off with them we have yet to figure out a way to use them to reduce workload. The opposite has occurred, certainly to the dismay of we then-young and naive fools who saw a brighter future ('89: / '99: / '09:) Perhaps there are other great technological advancements for which this is equally (or as cruelly) true. But the technology is not to blame.

  5. #5
    Council Member Greyhawk's Avatar
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    Default So, what went wrong?

    There were earlier programs, but for simplification this is how they were greeted "in the office":

    Right: "Gosh, this Word program sure is a huge step up from the typewriter!"

    Right: "Gosh, this PowerPoint program sure is a huge step up from overhead slides and erasable markers!"

    Wrong: "Gosh,this PowerPoint program sure is a step up from a typewriter!"

    Item three is wrong, but that does not make PowerPoint wrong. However, too many people accept item three as Gospel. Sadly, it isn't completely wrong, and that by itself would justify its continued misuse. Consider also that if a person who saw it as "right" or "good enough" was of sufficient rank, then it was indeed Gospel and couldn't possibly be wrong and certainly not from the POV of someone below. It was hardly an issue worth falling on one's sword - I mean that sincerely. Those young parish priests are now Bishops and Cardinals, and the Dogma is entrenched. (Incorporated in the larger scripture of staffwork as the pain that must periodically be quietly endured. Thou shalt sit in thy corner and color thy slides.)

    The new Parish Priests are "digital natives", their unfamiliarity with the typewriter or the overhead slide gives me no hope they'll necessarily set things to right. (Though I'm not entirely without hope, they may indeed "discover" something that makes sense.)

    Another layer of irony is that now one can fairly easily incorporate images in Word documents - and color printers (if hardcopy required) are the rule rather than the exception (excluding some tactical environments), but PowerPoint is still often used as substitute for a typewriter. Hammes is (correctly but IMHO circuitously) pointing all this out.

    A last depressing thought - for a few years there were places where things were done right, but standardization and networked systems are quickly making them a thing of the past. (I'm probably well beyond the discussion of PowerPoint here...)
    Last edited by Greyhawk; 07-13-2009 at 03:09 AM.

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    Council Member Spud's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Greyhawk View Post
    If you really want to talk about a time-saving technological advancement that has quadrupled our workload and made ten things more difficult for every one simplified, let's discuss email. It's much easier now to make 10,000 people jump through hoops; the hoops themselves are unchanged.
    I'd also argue that it prevents our generals from practicing "generalship." Before e-mail our bosses relied on briefs to gather their situational awareness and CONOPs/decision briefs on how to progress. It meant the staff were staff and doing the required work to ensure their boss was on the ball. Now my boss gets into work before light and goes home well after dark (often to log in remotely) and spends his days slaving over Outlook because everyone inside and outside is AOR sends him everything they think he should be clued into. It results in him making decisions and doing the staff work via outlook rather than through an informed staff process.

    Some would argue that this is a good thing ... no staff to get in the road. I would counter that it means that the staff is continually playing catch-up or (even worse) finding other things to do to occupy its time.

    If I was king for the day I'd disable every GO's e-mail account and let them get back to doing what they are getting paid for ... considering informed recommendations and making decisions.

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    Council Member Greyhawk's Avatar
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    Default It will also steal your girlfriend

    Quote Originally Posted by jmm99 View Post

    Is the last sentence the crux of the problem ?

    Where (if at all) do the people who have to execute the decision fit into the process which TXH describes ?
    PowerPoint might facilitate the micro-manager's task, but doesn't create micro-managers where they didn't exist before. I was a bit perplexed at that point. The fault may be mine.

    I wonder if the author really does hold PowerPoint accountable for the wrongs of its users, or is merely being more circumspect (another trait of the military professional) than others would (me, f'rinstance) given the opportunity.
    Last edited by Greyhawk; 07-13-2009 at 03:51 AM.

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    Council Member Greyhawk's Avatar
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    Default We are indeed doomed

    Quote Originally Posted by Spud View Post
    Now my boss gets into work before light and goes home well after dark
    ...and should he awake in the middle of the 4-hour night, BLACKBERRY!!!

    Consider too: how many man-hours (I know, sexist) are wasted while X# people wait a half hour for the boss to finish a couple more hot emails (from his boss!!) before joining the group? I actually did have a private sit-down discussion with my boss on that topic once. Times five days a week X eternity it really adds up.

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    Greyhawk,

    I agree with a lot of your points, but the article came across to me as a criticism of how powerpoint is used and not the program itself. As an intel guys who began with viewgraphs, MTF message traffic and thought "Harvard Graphics" was high-tech, I understand where you're coming from. Using the tool properly is key and I agree with pretty much everything the author says about its misuse.

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    I just remembered Tufte and his book on powerpoint. Here's an important excerpt.

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    Council Member Ken White's Avatar
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    Talking This is no stuff...

    War story. Decision brief to FORSCOM Cdr, three briefers. New high tech (then) computerized projector.. First briefer halfway through, black box breaks. Cdr says to the three COLS at the table, "No problem, you guys just talk me through it." Looks of stark panic. Much fumbling with paper copies of slides. Panic level increases when they realize they have their slides but no one else's while the Boss has all three sets. When the first one started talking, turned to call on his Briefer and El Commandante said "No, I want your thoughts on it." the panic was replaced by three looks of sheer terror. It sort of went downhill from there. Very entertaining for all us horse holders along the wall...

    I'm not a T.X. Hammes fan but he's right on the money with that one, particularly on the decision levels broached -- as is Greyhawk with the perils of top level e-mail.

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    Default The frustrations of bureacracy....

    Quote Originally Posted by Ken White View Post
    War story. Decision brief to FORSCOM Cdr, three briefers. New high tech (then) computerized projector.. First briefer halfway through, black box breaks. Cdr says to the three COLS at the table, "No problem, you guys just talk me through it." Looks of stark panic. Much fumbling with paper copies of slides. Panic level increases when they realize they have their slides but no one else's while the Boss has all three sets. When the first one started talking, turned to call on his Briefer and El Commandante said "No, I want your thoughts on it." the panic was replaced by three looks of sheer terror. It sort of went downhill from there. Very entertaining for all us horse holders along the wall...

    I'm not a T.X. Hammes fan but he's right on the money with that one, particularly on the decision levels broached -- as is Greyhawk with the perils of top level e-mail.
    Word. Talent not rank

    v/r

    Mike

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    Default It's not in the style book, but...

    Quote Originally Posted by Entropy View Post
    Greyhawk,

    ... but the article came across to me as a criticism of how powerpoint is used and not the program itself.
    Para two: "Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them. While this may seem to be a sweeping generalization, I think a brief examination of the impact of PowerPoint will support this statement."

    Then he goes on to explain its abuse and misuse, which - were it not for that initial polite caveat of a thesis statement - some might mistakenly interpret as an attack on those who are doing so. I suspect his point is as you say it is - his arguments clearly lead me to that conclusion - and that's a point with which we'd all agree (but with which many - or someone? - might be highly offended).

    I don't think we need worry about an outright ban. The more likely solution is a PowerPoint in every inbox explaining the right and wrong uses of PowerPoint.

  14. #14
    Council Member Greyhawk's Avatar
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    Default PowerPoint Memories

    If I knew how to upload this as a text-only powerpoint slide, I would.

    I once prepared a briefing consisting only of eight graphs, each on it's own slide. All were needed to present the information I had to (by commander's "request") convey. (I am a HUGE fan of brevity and briefing the commander was a daily job, not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.)

    Upon review it was declared "too long", a problem I was told could be easily fixed: present two graphs per slide. Took me 30 seconds to fix, eight slides became four (no, the length of the briefing did not change), and everyone was happy.

    I'm glad I didn't start with four slides.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Greyhawk View Post

    I'm glad I didn't start with four slides.
    Ah but then you could have done the now-ubiquitous quad-slide and got away with a one-slide deck (oh hang on you'd need an extra one to give your name and a security classification and then another to ask whether there's any question's because you'd be incapable of doing wither of those things yourself.

    The common acceptance of the quad-slide was that specific point in time that anthropologists will be able to say we hit PowerPoint stupidity

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    Default The Quad slide?

    Bah - some bright young up-and-comer will soon make a name for himself for conceiving of the Ocho.

    Very entertaining for all us horse holders along the wall...

    Blood would flow from the bite marks on my inner cheeks that day. Thankfully we eventually discovered a device called an "E4" that sets such things to right in no time flat. Without one of those in your kit, you are doomed.

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    First of all everyone will have to wear--excuse me let me execute writing that in Power Point--it will be mandatory that while executing Power Point operations, all service members must display a reflective belt in order to prevent excessive exchange of original thought. SMs must also excute eye protective operations wearing approved darkened ballistic glasses or goggles in order to avoid displaying utter optical dismay as in confusion, terror, or tears...
    Last edited by Tom Odom; 07-13-2009 at 08:35 AM.

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    Forgive the link to my own site, but I could not resist.

    A PowerPoint Briefing About Why PowerPoint is Bad for Briefing

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    Default Heresy

    It must be heresy. Why else would the UK mil network I work on bar me from Schmedlap's powerpoint presentation? There goes my chance to subvert a new generation of staff officers

  20. #20
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    I wrote many powerpoint files and held dozens of presentations.

    It's not inherently bad, it's really about the people.


    The one thing that is certainly bad is the emphasis that some people have on nice graphics, corporate design, badges, insignia and other non-information content of the slides. A simple, eye-pleasing background fading from strong colour top left to light colour bottom right and an indication about the source/author on every slide is enough. Advanced decorations as in medieval bibles is simply waste of resources and distracting.

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