The Deadly Decks of Afghanistan

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The NYT yesterday had an article on the PowerPoint Rangers in Afghanistan.

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.

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.

As someone who periodically works for organizations that have PowerPoint embedded in their DNA, and who is pretty handy with a bullet list, this terrifies me. It’s part and parcel of a kind of institutional thinking that is 180 degrees from what’s needed in a dynamic, complex decisionmaking environment where information should be organically structured and encourage thinking instead of snappy five-word summaries of thought.

PowerPoint has already been blamed for the deaths of the seven crew members on the Columbia. Here’s the Columbia Accident Investigation Board as cited by Edward Tufte:

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 are filtered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this slide and not realize it addresses a life-threatening situation.

At many points during its investigation, the Board was surprised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of technical reports. The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication in NASA.

What’s true in NASA is equally true – if not more so – in the military.

Go read the whole Tufte article.

Some military leaders are pushing back (from the NYT):

“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.

But from everything I hear, the PowerPoint culture is deeply embedded in the military.

As a result, we can expect more bad decisions like the one about Columbia…and more funerals.

8 thoughts on “The Deadly Decks of Afghanistan”

  1. I cannot find the words, in fewer than twenty pages, to express how horrified I am at any work environment that runs on powerpoint. Frankly, if you have to communicate technical information (I’m in IT) by grunting, then you can have no surprise when management makes decisions in a haze of half-understood uncontextualized data points, rather than based on solid information.

  2. Sadly this does not surprise me. In the context of the NASA investigation and applying that to ongoing kinetic operations it’s very worrying.

    The reason it doesn’t surprise me is because for the last 7-8 months I was in the Army I got moved to BN S-3 shop after my Company was deactivated. My entire job for the week was to produce the PP slides for the S-3 LT for incorporation into the weekly BN meeting. These things were serious business and usually involved me having to ask the LT to rip into the company S-3 NCO’s, since I couldn’t do it as an E-4, when they wouldn’t get their numbers to me promptly. It was mind numbing to work on and probably the same to consume and this was just a Transportation BN during relative peace time, 98-99.

  3. Unfortunately, for too many managers, whether in the private sector or in the public sector, decision-making has become less about making the right decision than about making the justifiable decision. PowerPoint presentations provide a level of organization to an idea that may make it look better than it actually is.

    Sort of like the Dopeler Effect, the principle by which bad ideas look better when they come at you very fast, there’s a PowerPoint Effect in which bad plans look better when they’re made into a PowerPoint presentation.

  4. My rule with powerpoint: one font, no more than two sizes, and no more than five bullet-points per slide. And if a graphic must be used, only one per page. If the slides are more complex than this, the person gets dinged.

    This keeps conversation on-topic, and avoids lots of time-wasting setup.

  5. I like Foobarista’s rules – with 1 addition.

    The person may not read out anything on the slide when presenting. Instead, they have to talk about what they’ve written.

    For the military, the best thing to do is abolish Power Point entirely for anyone deploying into theater, as a start. The license is reassigned to another computer, and it’s removed before you deploy.

  6. Yup Joe.

    Powerpoint isn’t a teleprompter, and isn’t a substitute for bringing additional useful info to a meeting. It provides a framework and nothing more.

  7. I like how the article argues from both sides of the coin, though: in one paragraph, GEN McChrystal sees the infamous spaghetti slide which is denounced because it is too complex for anyone to understand; in the next, BG McMaster cautions against Power Point because its tendency to simplify everything creates a dangerously false understanding.

    Both are probably right. But I suspect that those who are looking for a vehicle that is both complex enough to accurately articulate situations while simple enough to boil it down to a lowest common denominator that everyone can understand are going to be disappointed.

  8. I sent this to a teacher after writing an excoriating post on my writing blog about the school districts full embrace of these tools in the primary grade. The truth is, we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul by wiping out humanities and the arts. And as the cost of technology rises, the school districts will be paying more.

    I got an indignant response from one of Katherine’s teachers. She pointed it out that it was just one of many tools. While she is correct, the problem is that people are confusing bullet lists with gaining in-depth knowledge.
    There’s a huge difference.
    When someone can talk “off the power point list,” and if they show ease and can expand on these ideas, then that when I know I have the real deal, and not a fraud.
    But I worry when we’re teaching kids from Power Point, or teaching them to encapsulate their ideas on it.

    It just reinforces the Power Point falsehood, and as we have seen less knowledge about complex systems can be deadly.

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