We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint - New York Times

flateric

ACCESS: Above Top Secret
Staff member
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
Apr 2, 2006
Messages
9,274
Reaction score
1,788
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/world/27powerpoint.html

April 26, 2010
We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
WASHINGTON — Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

The slide has since bounced around the Internet as an example of a military tool that has spun out of control. Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession. The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic, which was first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.

Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.

“I have to make a storyboard complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens,” Lieutenant Nuxoll told the Web site. “Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.”

Despite such tales, “death by PowerPoint,” the phrase used to described the numbing sensation that accompanies a 30-slide briefing, seems here to stay. The program, which first went on sale in 1987 and was acquired by Microsoft soon afterward, is deeply embedded in a military culture that has come to rely on PowerPoint’s hierarchical ordering of a confused world.

“There’s a lot of PowerPoint backlash, but I don’t see it going away anytime soon,” said Capt. Crispin Burke, an Army operations officer at Fort Drum, N.Y., who under the name Starbuck wrote an essay about PowerPoint on the Web site Small Wars Journal that cited Lieutenant Nuxoll’s comment.

In a daytime telephone conversation, he estimated that he spent an hour each day making PowerPoint slides. In an initial e-mail message responding to the request for an interview, he wrote, “I would be free tonight, but unfortunately, I work kind of late (sadly enough, making PPT slides).”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reviews printed-out PowerPoint slides at his morning staff meeting, although he insists on getting them the night before so he can read ahead and cut back the briefing time.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that sitting through some PowerPoint briefings is “just agony,” nonetheless likes the program for the display of maps and statistics showing trends. He has also conducted more than a few PowerPoint presentations himself.

General McChrystal gets two PowerPoint briefings in Kabul per day, plus three more during the week. General Mattis, despite his dim view of the program, said a third of his briefings are by PowerPoint.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was given PowerPoint briefings during a trip to Afghanistan last summer at each of three stops — Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif and Bagram Air Base. At a fourth stop, Herat, the Italian forces there not only provided Mr. Holbrooke with a PowerPoint briefing, but accompanied it with swelling orchestral music.

President Obama was shown PowerPoint slides, mostly maps and charts, in the White House Situation Room during the Afghan strategy review last fall.

Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.

Captain Burke’s essay in the Small Wars Journal also cited a widely read attack on PowerPoint in Armed Forces Journal last summer by Thomas X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel, whose title, “Dumb-Dumb Bullets,” underscored criticism of fuzzy bullet points; “accelerate the introduction of new weapons,” for instance, does not actually say who should do so.

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 (Penguin Press, 2006), 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.

Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.

The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”

Helene Cooper contributed reporting.

Graphics: A PowerPoint diagram meant to portray the complexity of American strategy in Afghanistan certainly succeeded in that aim.
 

Attachments

  • 27powerpoint_CA0-articleLarge.jpg
    27powerpoint_CA0-articleLarge.jpg
    102.8 KB · Views: 144

Stargazer2006

ACCESS: USAP
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2009
Messages
13,221
Reaction score
820
Very, very instructive. I totally concur with the notion that drawing charts, placing arrows and bullets in organized form and animating slides gives a fake impression of control. Don't we all do that to some extent? When it seems there's just too much to do, we sit down and list items with bullets so that we get a feeling we are in control...
 

FutureSpaceTourist

ACCESS: Top Secret
Joined
Mar 11, 2010
Messages
589
Reaction score
16
One key cultural point in the Columbia accident investigation report was also too much reliance on PowerPoint; just a couple of quotes:

[quote author=CAIB report]
As information gets passed up an organization hierarchy, from people who do analysis to mid-level managers to high-level leadership, key explanations and supporting information is filtered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.

[...]

The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.
[/quote]

It's certainly something I've tried to remember in my own work. Achieving 'correct' abstraction, ie removing irrelevant detail whilst maintaining vital information, is not easy.
 

XP67_Moonbat

ACCESS: Top Secret
Joined
Jan 16, 2008
Messages
2,173
Reaction score
122
I need only refer you guys to Scott's lament about the rise of PowerPoint.

http://up-ship.com/blog/?p=5079

Moonbat
 

Hammer Birchgrove

ACCESS: Top Secret
Joined
May 13, 2009
Messages
583
Reaction score
16
“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.
:D

Sorry, I shouldn't laugh...
 

circle-5

ACCESS: Top Secret
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
May 31, 2009
Messages
1,158
Reaction score
218
Here's a more legible version of the slide, for those who wish to memorize its contents.
 

Attachments

  • Spaghetti Graphics.jpg
    Spaghetti Graphics.jpg
    891.9 KB · Views: 106

Bailey

ACCESS: Secret
Joined
Jul 24, 2009
Messages
308
Reaction score
13
circle-5 said:
Here's a more legible version of the slide, for those who wish to memorize its contents.

Yup, thats as clear as mud. I guess its the old bullshit baffles brains! :-\

Cheers Bailey.
 

SOC

I look at pictures all day
Senior Member
Joined
Jan 24, 2006
Messages
1,213
Reaction score
89
I know exactly what that thing is, we used similar diagrams when I was in Iraq. I forget what the damn things are called. The only error here is somebody just sticking it on a PowerPoint slide when instead they should've broken it down into segments and been able to talk sensibly about the contents.
 

circle-5

ACCESS: Top Secret
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
May 31, 2009
Messages
1,158
Reaction score
218
Many thanks to Wired.com for digging up another gem: the Integrated Acquisitions Technology and Logistics Life Cycle Management PowerPoint slide. This diagram was created by the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisitions University, where 180,000 people a year study its process for purchasing equipment. The chart clarifies each step, from “decompose concept functional definition into component concepts & assessment objective” to “execute support program that meets materiel readiness and operational support performance requirements and sustains system in most cost-effective manner.

Obviously, this is a simplified diagram. The introduction states: "Defense acquisition is a complex process with many more activities than shown here and many concurrent activities that cannot be shown on a two-dimensional chart."

I feel better already.
 

Attachments

  • IATLLCM Chart sml.jpg
    IATLLCM Chart sml.jpg
    881.9 KB · Views: 100

Stargazer2006

ACCESS: USAP
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2009
Messages
13,221
Reaction score
820
circle-5 said:
The chart clarifies each step (...)
Obviously, this is a simplified diagram. The introduction states: "Defense acquisition is a complex process with many more activities than shown here and many concurrent activities that cannot be shown on a two-dimensional chart."

It would indeed be really funny if it weren't so dead serious. If any one person somewhere knows the whole shebang, then they are either a genius or a madman. More likely though, the thousands of people who are at one stage of this chart haven't got the faintest idea of the rest of it and how they fit in. The whole thing reminds me of one of my superiors at work... He has a rare "talent" for complicating what's simple and paraphrasing the obvious. When he speaks at a meeting (usually 30 minutes non-stop), he makes everyone either yawn or fret, all waiting eagerly for the end of the ordeal. Now the "funny" (both strange and haha) thing about his speech is that each sentence taken separately makes pretty much sense, but when all of them are put together, you always end up wondering what the heck he meant at all. This kind of chart seems remarkably similar to that!!!

This being said, if defense acquisition really is THAT complicated, no wonder many DoD decisions seem absurd or illogical to us... because unfortunately the sum of hundreds of coherent or logical steps doesn't necessarily add up to one coherent, sensible decision.
 

BAROBA

3D artist
Joined
Jul 6, 2007
Messages
344
Reaction score
23
Website
www.baroba.be
If you follow the arrows in the middle ( the two prototypes) then it is an easy chart..
All the other processes that run along it, complicate stuff.
It is indeed not something easy to visualize on a chart.
 

Abraham Gubler

ACCESS: Top Secret
Senior Member
Joined
Mar 18, 2008
Messages
3,549
Reaction score
314
Do any of the critics here have a better idea of how to incorporate a complex series of interacted events in a single, sensible and complete image? Nope… Then why all the complaints? The world is a complex place, just because you don’t want to understand it doesn’t mean the rest of us should stop trying.
 

Stargazer2006

ACCESS: USAP
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2009
Messages
13,221
Reaction score
820
Being your usual grumpy self again, Mr. Gubler? But why so? If we can't have a bit of fun in the "Bar" section, then where else?

We never said we didn't want to understand the world, we said that it was presumptuous, unpractical and pretty much pointless to try and synthesize such complex networks of events into one single slide!

Now if your purpose is to really make a serious discussion on the subject, why don't you go and create a parallel topic in the "Aerospace" section, for instance? Till then, we are commenting on something we consider as pretty much absurd, echoeing an article from a respected and respectable American daily newspaper that said pretty much the same, and you really don't have to intervene if it bugs you so much...
 

Matej

Multiuniversal creator
Joined
Feb 13, 2006
Messages
2,610
Reaction score
210
Website
www.hitechweb.genezis.eu
Abraham Gubler said:
Do any of the critics here have a better idea of how to incorporate a complex series of interacted events in a single, sensible and complete image? Nope… Then why all the complaints? The world is a complex place, just because you don't want to understand it doesn't mean the rest of us should stop trying.

The point isn't there. Its not about who understand and who don't understand the world. It is about the illusion that by using the Powerpoint, you will be able to do so. And this is where I fully agree with the original text.
 

Abraham Gubler

ACCESS: Top Secret
Senior Member
Joined
Mar 18, 2008
Messages
3,549
Reaction score
314
Stargazer2006 said:
Being your usual grumpy self again, Mr. Gubler? But why so? If we can't have a bit of fun in the "Bar" section, then where else?

Grumpy? Don’t mistake disagreement with being a grump.

Stargazer2006 said:
We never said we didn't want to understand the world, we said that it was presumptuous, unpractical and pretty much pointless to try and synthesize such complex networks of events into one single slide!

Pointless? But they did it! Both slides successfully illustrate the complex networks in question. Of course one can’t tell that if one isn’t willing to actually read the slides.

If you are only willing to look at these slides with a glance and expect to be able to absorb all the information in it as if it was a simple advertising poster then you will be disappointed. This is why people are rejecting the slides as too complex and so on.

I think it is clear that all the critics and journalists making fun of these powerpoints haven’t even bothered to read them. If they had the story would be about the information not that it looks to complex to even start reading.

Stargazer2006 said:
Now if your purpose is to really make a serious discussion on the subject...

LOL. So you want to have a bet each way. You want to be able to decry this and point out how stupid it is because you couldn’t be bothered to read it but then this is only a point of view held in jest… If this was a ‘serious’ discussion you would have a different perspective…

What I would accept in response is that as an unthinking herd you’ve been corralled into supporting a misleading point of view invented by a journalist to sell newspapers to ignorant and unthinking fools. This kind of ‘mob with torches’ response can be a lot of fun but it’s very unscientific. One would expect that in a web forum dedicated to unearthing new information about historical engineering that a more rational mindset would dominate.
 

Stargazer2006

ACCESS: USAP
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2009
Messages
13,221
Reaction score
820
You've got a point on at least one aspect: if it were a "serious" discussion between experts on the subject in, say, the Aerospace section, I certainly would not have put my foot in it and tried to turn it into a jest. I certainly do not undermine the professionalism and qualities of those who probably make a living out of setting up documents like that, but for me, they're a bit like soccer matches watched on TV. I don't like them because the cameras have to constantly zoom in and zoom out of the action. I much prefer a live match because I get to see the whole playing field, I can understand much better how everyone is positioned with respect to the others. Here it's the same. If you want to be able to read, you must zoom in a certain area, but by gaining focus you lose perspective. I guess a very large mural on the walls of a company's entrance hall would be best: you see it every day and a little bit of it sinks in day after day until the whole thing makes sense.
 

Trident

ACCESS: Top Secret
Senior Member
Joined
May 8, 2006
Messages
1,271
Reaction score
765
Abraham Gubler said:
Pointless? But they did it! Both slides successfully illustrate the complex networks in question. Of course one can’t tell that if one isn’t willing to actually read the slides.

If you are only willing to look at these slides with a glance and expect to be able to absorb all the information in it as if it was a simple advertising poster then you will be disappointed. This is why people are rejecting the slides as too complex and so on.

That's all very well, I'm sure this slide is factually correct, but the whole reason for a typical Powerpoint presentation is in fact not unlike a "simple advertising poster". I have of course no knowledge about the precise nature of the event where the lecture was presented (note however that people who were actually there also criticised it), but usually such things are supposed to be no more than a relatively brief overview which shows the most important information without burdening with too much detail. The intention being that the viewer is given enough pointers to research the latter for himself, with the expectation that he will do this homework professionally and arrive at a thorough understanding of the topic.

Horses for courses - the diagram may have its place in a different context (as SOC mentions) but NOT in a Powerpoint presentation and Gen. McChrystal evidently agrees. As a detailed illustration in a paper or book on the subject (highlighted during the presentation as further reading) it would probably be spot on - but this doesn't change the fact that it missed the mark badly as a Powerpoint slide. The moral of the story is that a good presentation requires some thought and effort, being lazy and just compiling a few unmodified diagrams and charts from books is not enough. It's a different medium and you need to take that into consideration, in the same way that you can't just take the audio track from a movie and use that as a radio play without some adaptation.
 

Stargazer2006

ACCESS: USAP
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2009
Messages
13,221
Reaction score
820
Trident said it all. Information needs to adapt to each media that is used to convey it.
 

Abraham Gubler

ACCESS: Top Secret
Senior Member
Joined
Mar 18, 2008
Messages
3,549
Reaction score
314
Stargazer2006 said:
Trident said it all. Information needs to adapt to each media that is used to convey it.

LOL. So are you both claiming there is a limit to how much information can be put into power point? Tops out at one idea per page?

The media isn’t the problem it’s the fricken audience. You can use TV to show either Sesame Street or the latest lecture on Yoshio Koide’s formula relating lepton masses. Now if you show the later to an audience of pre-schoolers and the former to an audience of high energy physics professors you may have some crossed wires.

The problem in this case was the audience – journalists and braggart now ex Generals that couldn’t handle it. But this is the very kind of detail level staff work needs to be to win a war. All the critics have done is expose that they are not operating at the level required to be in the big room playing the big games with the big toys.
 

Stargazer2006

ACCESS: USAP
Senior Member
Joined
Jun 25, 2009
Messages
13,221
Reaction score
820
Abraham Gubler said:
All the critics have done is expose that they are not operating at the level required to be in the big room playing the big games with the big toys.

When preparing any document, you need to take into account the potential reader, their level of knowledge, their abilities. If I follow your (strange) logic, then all the top guys in command should be able to perfectly decipher this image, even in PowerPoint, because they have the abilities and we don't. Maybe you're right, maybe not. At any rate, if they are to use PowerPoint, they need a room-long screen to be able to simply read it, bacause the problem is not just in being able to understand the stuff, it's in being able to merely READ it!

And this is where you totally miss the point: you can convey a single message through a wide variety of media but certainly any professional of communication will tell you that you can't just reuse it as is, you need to adapt it to that media. Go watch those African TV channels where they scroll down announcements on the screen for half-hours in a row... ask a blind person to simply listen to a TV program and go tell them that, after all, it's the same as listening to the radio! No it's not. Any information needs to be processed and adapted to whatever public AND medium. If it weren't the case, then you'd get shrunk computer screens on mobile phones and that would be good enough for people to browse (their fault! says Mr. Gubler, if they cannot read the whole shebang and scroll the menus!).

But adapting to the medium is not always enough. There is also the problem of adapting the message to the public. Top deciders are NOT technicians, they are not experts, they give orders and make decisions according to whatever the people they appointed advised. They are NOT the addressees of this kind of PowerPoint file. Like the common man, they need a go-between to translate the complicated stuff and reformulate it in simple terms that will allow them to choose between options a, b, c or d in the end, and that's all they ask for.

Translation, too, is far from just a word for word, or concept for concept replacement. If it were so, then machines would have replaced man a long time ago. The best automatic language translator in the world cannot grasp what it takes to truly translate a text. A professional translator can take into account the mentality of the reader, the play on words, the impressions that two words put together in the same sentence convey on a particular public, the negative cultural connotations of certain words in the destination language...

Bad PowerPoint users are plenty: usually they simply integrate the whole of their exposé in the slide, and re-read the slides as they appear on the screen, so that people either take notes and don't listen, or wait for the paper or PDF version to be given to them in the end. Back to our PowerPoint slide now. If it's made by experts for experts, fine. But if it's made by experts for lay people or for top deciders it misses the point completely. Now as a working tool for experts, I'll stick to what I said before: to be properly read it requires a medium that doesn't exist, a wall-long computer screen. If you need to zoom in each part of it to be able to read it, then a one-slide presentation is not the best medium for it, period. PowerPoint presentations are supposed to help the speaker structure his intervention in the minds of the audience. My conclusion is that the whole thing would be much more effective if broken down into smaller elements with some animation in-between. Personally I'd go for a Flash animation.
 

Trident

ACCESS: Top Secret
Senior Member
Joined
May 8, 2006
Messages
1,271
Reaction score
765
Abraham Gubler said:
The media isn’t the problem it’s the fricken audience. You can use TV to show either Sesame Street or the latest lecture on Yoshio Koide’s formula relating lepton masses. Now if you show the later to an audience of pre-schoolers and the former to an audience of high energy physics professors you may have some crossed wires.

I agree, you need to consider the audience, but that should really go without saying. Nevertheless, even high-energy physics professors have a limit on the amount of information they can absorb from a slide during the 2 or 3 minutes that it is generally shown, all while continuing to listen to the lecturer. Again, I can imagine certain contexts where the latter doesn't apply even with a presentation, but as pointed out earlier the criticism from people who were in the room indicates the slide was inappropriate for the type of event at which it was shown.

As Stargazer has remarked correctly, depending on how good the projector was, that slide was also so cluttered you probably could not even read all the text because it's so small, never mind the other concerns. Are you seriously telling me that's a good idea, expert audience or not?
 

Racer

ACCESS: Confidential
Joined
Jan 22, 2008
Messages
87
Reaction score
6
If the intend of this slide was simple to show how complex something is, then it has fullfilled that.

In a presentation its not possible for anyone to understand all the points given in this slide (it was already mentioned why). When the intend was to do so, then the presenter needs further education in presenting.
 

Meteorit

ACCESS: Secret
Joined
Jan 5, 2006
Messages
426
Reaction score
40
Abraham Gubler said:
LOL. So are you both claiming there is a limit to how much information can be put into power point? Tops out at one idea per page?

The media isn’t the problem it’s the fricken audience. You can use TV to show either Sesame Street or the latest lecture on Yoshio Koide’s formula relating lepton masses. Now if you show the later to an audience of pre-schoolers and the former to an audience of high energy physics professors you may have some crossed wires.

The problem in this case was the audience – journalists and braggart now ex Generals that couldn’t handle it. But this is the very kind of detail level staff work needs to be to win a war. All the critics have done is expose that they are not operating at the level required to be in the big room playing the big games with the big toys.

And your qualifications in regard to the human cognition are...?
 

circle-5

ACCESS: Top Secret
Top Contributor
Senior Member
Joined
May 31, 2009
Messages
1,158
Reaction score
218
I think the idea being expressed by these journalists is that military procurement has become unnecessarily complex in too many cases. Imagine trying to build the Lockheed P-80 from a blank sheet of paper in 180 days by following such convoluted processes. It's quite possible these byzantine procedures are scaring a lot of good ideas away.

In fact, many important programs owe their very success to the removal of layers upon layers of government bureaucracy, and not just at Skunk Works. Look at what we accomplished in three years of WWII, when there was a sense of urgency... Even the Apollo program, despite its complexity, was an outstanding example of streamlined procurement.

Conversely, applying all this expensive government oversight still allows the development of real duds, like the Sgt. York or the XFV-12, the only modern fighter jet that couldn't even fly! While I agree with the fact that such PowerPoint slides are designed by and for experts in this field, I must question the level of expertise of many decision makers involved in this procurement process, starting with members of Congress.

Regardless, it's a safe bet that we can find similar bewilderment in out-of-context documents from any field we are unfamiliar with. That's why I posted this in "The Bar" just for the fun of it (I hope it's still OK to have fun).
 

Similar threads

Top