Monday, September 6, 2010

We Have Met the Enemy...and it is NOT PowerPoint

Just over a week ago, Jack Mitchell sent me this link about a Col. Lawrence Sellin, deployed on a staff in Kabul, Afghanistan who was fired for writing a rant that was not first cleared through the Public Affairs Office.

The rant isn't all that long, but if you're like me, and you usually don't follow links in blogs or in e-mails, I figured I could throw you a few paragraphs:
Officially, International Joint Command was founded in late 2009 to coordinate operations among all the regional commands in Afghanistan. More likely it was founded to provide some general a three-star command. Starting with a small group of dedicated and intelligent officers, IJC has successfully grown into a stove-piped and bloated organization, top-heavy in rank. Around here, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a colonel.

For headquarters staff, war consists largely of the endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information. Even one tiny flaw in a slide can halt a general’s thought processes as abruptly as a computer system’s blue screen of death.
I think if you *get* the Colonel's frustration, you understand that he's part of a large staff of people who stay very busy 12-18 hours a day but don't necessarily accomplish much.

We've heard it all before, but that duddn't make it any less true -- where there are Generals and Admirals, there tend to be large staffs. In large bureaucracies like the Army, things tend to get very, well, bureaucratic. The Colonel's writing puts a modern spin on things, and his spot-on humorous style reminds me that while the post-9/11 "Next-Greatest Generation" has produced many things, we still haven't coughed up a Joseph Heller or a Kurt Vonnegut.

I'm not losing my patience, though -- that could take a while.

Many have misinterpreted Sellin's remarks by calling them "The PowerPoint Rant" or somehow identifying PowerPoint as the culprit for what's wrong with the bureaucratic way of thinking (or, all too often, the lack thereof).

I'm going to sort of shout this now, and I will undoubtedly return to it in future entries: "POWERPOINT is NOT THE PROBLEM!"

A boring briefer is a boring briefer is a boring briefer. If he's using acetate and an overhead projector, he would be just as boring. Heck, if he were using a chalkboard and notes written on 3 x 5 cards, and were rambling on incoherently for an hour, I wouldn't be getting ready to cut back on chalk and notecards.

A good speaker knows his audience. He moves swiftly, he senses the mood of the room, and he adapt accordingly. No matter the crowd in front of him, he can always liven up the material by involving the *students* in his class.

Conversely, as I wrote about in my summary of the NGAUS conference in Texas, any time a speaker goes on for too long, uninterrupted (one hour is the breaking point for most people), he's going to lose his audience.

That has nothing to do with the software being used.

In addition to what Col. Sellin wrote, I've seen other writing come out recently that criticizes the military's reliance on PowerPoint. As a reaction to that, people feel the need now to start every presentation with, "Sorry for this death-by-PowerPoint that's coming," or "Sorry to have to subject you to more PowerPoint, but..."

Notwithstanding my dislike for the casual use of 'sorry,' the speaker isn't addressing how ELSE the information might be presented. And because it incorporates a lot more multimedia than say, an overhead projector with hand-scribbled notes, I'm inclined to say PowerPoint is actually a GOOD thing.

PowerPoint should be no less a substitute for thinking than any other form of media. But if our real problem is people not thinking creatively, or not demanding more thorough analysis, or not asking more from the briefers updating the General, let's not blame the medium.

Things could be just as bad if we were operating in the same thoughtless way, but expressed it through stick figures with rocks on the walls of caves.

I'm even willing to say that might be a whole lot worse!


Jon and Kate said...

Great post.

Is there a term for people who apologize in advance for the act they're about to commit? I mean, aren't we old enough to recognize that it's not the apology (or pre-apology) but the act itself? And that apologizing and then doing the thing you're apologizing for therefore negates most of the meaning of your apology? We need to invent a term for this, because it drives me insane.

C R Krieger said...

Spot on about MicroSquish PowerPoint.  A great tool for putting up numbers and for making connections and for helping folks make notes, but reading from the slide is bad form.  And, this is not a new problem.  It seems to me that about five years ago a humorous "PowerPoint Ranger" patch was being shown here and there.

Part of the problem is the senior officer taking the briefing.  He or she needs to step up and set the tone.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...

I'm glad you guys liked this.

I don't know if the Atlantic Monthly still does "Word Fugitives" but there really ought to be one for this phenomenon. It always happens with mass e-mails,'s like, if you really believe in what you're saying, there's no need to apologize!

Sorry is a distant second to "deserve" as my least-favorite word in our language. I know I don't always maintain this standard, but I try to reserve it only for situations where I did something that had an unintentionally bad effect on someone, and I then regretted it.

So that stanard definitely doesn't apply to impersonal e-mails, walking past someone in a hallway or elevator (why do people sometimes apologize for this?) or for another personal favorite, missing someone's call!

And Cliff, thanks for adding that in...over the course of your career, I'm sure you've seen plenty of ways to make briefings and meetings terrible, and I'm guessing they didn't all revolve around PowerPoint...