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.
- Hypnotizing chickens, Afghan insurgents, and spaghetti (27 April 2010)
- Joey deVilla, PowerPoint is NOT the Enemy (April 29, 2010) via @skemsley
- Chris Soderquist, We have met an ally and he is Storytelling (29 April 2010)
- Linda Booth Sweeny, Why We Should be Suspect of Bullet Points and Laundry Lists (30 April 2010)
- Complexity is not the enemy (10 May 2010)