Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Visualizing Complexity

Lot of people have been mocking a Powerpoint slide produced by PA Consulting Group and first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, which attempts to visualize the complexity of American strategy in Afghanistan. Some commentators refer to this slide as "Spaghetti Logic".


Elisabeth Bumiller writes We have met the enemy and he is PowerPoint. (New York Times, 26 April 2010) @presentationzen picks out the money quote from General James Mattis: "PowerPoint makes us stupid".

Elisabeth Bumiller also quotes General McMaster, for whom PowerPoint’s worst offence is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic 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,” says General McMaster.

I don't know the exact provenance of this particular slide, but I have seen similar slides in which the original analysis has been carried out in a proper modelling tool, designed for system dynamics and simulation, and then merely rendered into PowerPoint for communication purposes. We may of course question whether PowerPoint rendering is adequate for communicating this kind of complexity, but most of the complaints about the slide seem to be about the situation described by the slide, rather than the slide itself. (Which looks to me rather like shooting the messenger.)

Richard Engel summarizes both sides of the debate.

The slide is undoubtedly overwhelming. For some military commanders, the slide is genius, an attempt to show how all things in war – from media bias to ethnic/tribal rivalries – are interconnected and must be taken into consideration. It represents a new approach to war fighting, looking beyond simply killing enemy fighters. It underscores what those fighting wars have long known, that everything matters. But for others, the diagram represents a fool’s errand that the United States has taken on in the name of national security. Detractors say the slide represents an assault on logic, an attempt to jam a square peg into a round hole. They say the concept of occupying a foreign nation to protect security at home is expensive, time consuming, ineffective and ultimately leads to the "spaghetti logic" of the slide. They say this slide is what happens when smart people are asked to come up with a solution to the wrong question. [So what is the actual surge strategy? (NBC, 2 December 2009)]
In my opinion, visualizing the complexity of America's intervention in Afghanistan is surely helpful, whether the conclusions are that the American forces can operate more effectively by paying attention to some of the subtleties of the situation, or that the situation is just too damn messy and America should never have gotten involved in this mess in the first place.

Whether this kind of diagram is the best way to visualize this kind of complexity remains an important question, but it isn't a PowerPoint question any more but a much more general question about systems thinking techniques for modelling (sense-making) and communication.

Please scroll down to view discussion below this post.

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  1. FWIW, I think that slide's beautiful. When you're studying the flow of a river, you don't look at individual bubbles, but the overall path those bubbles take. There's a certain sense of "flow" that emerges from this complexity, which maybe those who want "details" aren't interested in.

    That's not to say the emergent lines of flow here actually represent anything, but it's interesting what does emerge, and what level of abstraction we view any kind of visualisation at.

  2. It is strange how we blame the medium and not the message. "Twitter is bad" because it is frivolous or some such rubbish. The medium is just the medium. If the messengers choose to put crap in the medium, then it is the messengers' faults.

    Death by bullet point? Blame the creator. No worse IMHO than a dull speaker. So do we blame speech for allowing dullness? I think not.

  3. Richard and Chris, you observe correctly that the issue with this particular diagram is not PowerPoint as a drawing tool, but the importance of choosing an appropriate representation of a situation. This might have been a good slide to put before members of the previous US administration to try and jog them out of some of their more simplistic worldviews.

    As the NYT article points out, Powerpoint is also often criticised for over-simplifying situations by reducing them to a bullet list.

    I do think that there is a increasing problem about the declining ability of people to write coherent well-reasoned reports that communicate more subtle facets of a situation, and more importantly the declining ability of decision-makers to read and comprehend them.

    However, maybe one way of moving forward in situations of this complexity, is to find a new mode of communication altogether. Where feasible, it would be preferable to try and have more conversational particpatory dialogue and work more collaboratively, rather than having one lot of people drawing up content, and another lot of people having to absorb it before deciding what to do.

  4. If there is a problem here with PowerPoint, it is not its use as a drawing tool, but its conventional use within a particular mode of communication, in which some clever people "produce" a model (whether static slide or something more sophisticated), and some other people are expected to "consume" the model. I completely agree with Sally that, in situations of this complexity, we need a new mode of communication. In order to understand a complex model of this kind, it isn't enough to look at it, we need to play with it.

    Sadly, the lack of intellectual rigour is an extremely widespread phenomenon, easily concealed by lazy use of PowerPoint, especially with the casual use of semantically ambiguous slide titles and bullet points (instead of complete sentences with proper verbs). It is not entirely PowerPoint's fault that the prevailing and popular use of PowerPoint is to support a restrictive and often mind-numbing mode of communication, but if that's what it does then that's what it does.

  5. I guess the challenge, when presented by the slide as a summary of analysis / work done ( but not shown, or presented), it can warrant the comments by McChrystal. The issue - and Richard, Sally and all have hit it - is the difficulty of communicating a body of work and growing insight in a 2D format, where the other dimensions of depth of understanding under the lines, and time are not obvious.

  6. My assumption is that it was intended to say more about its makers than the situation it attempts to analyze. It shows that someone has spent a long time on fact-finding.

    It shows some analysis, but reaches no obvious conclusions on action resulting from the analysis. At least none that can be seen easily - and that is surely what is needed in the stated circumstances of its presentation. We see it in isolation, so perhaps it was followed by just that.

    It brings to mind Mark Twain's "I am sorry this is such a long letter, but I did not have the time to write a short one."

    Had I been asked to prepare that, I might have used Prezi, because it supports both an overview that shows the complexity of the situation - something that needs to be seen initially - and viewing specific areas in context while discussing actions.

    So to me that map represents an important first step, and possibly one that should never have been allowed out into the wild.

    Amazingly it is on the front page of today's South China Morning Post (Hong Kong's leading English-language daily). They too wrongly associate it with bullet points.

    Roy Grubb

  7. It is a good principle of reflective systems thinking to pay attention to the systems thinking process and the systems thinkers themselves, and not just assume an objective analysis by some idealized neutral observers. So Roy's point about this diagram telling us about the diagrammers (and their agenda) is well taken. A model always has a perspective, even if that perspective is based on a faux objectivity (which Lacan calls the discourse of the university).

    Roy also points out that the connection between analysis and decision-making is problematic, possibly broken. The conclusions are unclear. There are some interesting implications of this example for organizational intelligence.

  8. Well, we don't know that there wasn't a set of conclusions (clear or unclear). The offending chart could have simply been the problem statement There could have been a set of conclusions in other parts of the "presentation". I doubt it, but there is no evidence one way or the other.

    Mind you, having the problem statement at page 22 is a bit problematic in its own right!

    Absolutely I agree with @fickles et al that tring to represent something of that complexity on a diagram in 2 dimensions is a fool's errand. Standing a long way from it and squinting slightly one can come to the conclusion that "yes this is a hard problem."

    It is rather reminiscent of diagrams used where there is terrific complexity in the systems landscape. I suspect many of us have seen those. Many interfaces among systems, hard to understand what is actually happening because the temporal dimension is missing... These are "Monets not photographs". They serve to convey the impression and can be used as a call to action. The call usually goes something like, "This is expensive and complicated, fix it." Hardly sufficient marching orders! Fix it plays well into the hands of the large ERP vendors - fixing it after all means reducing the lines, so put in an integrated solution and the lines go away. Volia, done.

    Oh but the lines also represent something more insidious - organizational/power boundaries. Fixing the complexity of a diagram does not fix the organizational issues. Even if our senior management would like it to.

  9. Not really pertinent to the discussion here, but I just wanted to respond to Chris's question (So do we blame speech for allowing dullness?) by mentioning a beautiful poem by Kabir, translated from the Hindi by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

    "Except that it robs you of who you are,
    What can you say about speech?"

    New York Review April 2011