PowerPointillism

by F.

Anyone who has spent any time in a company knows how ideas are presented: in slide form. At Microsoft, this ultimately lead to a kind of counter-Reformation in which the execs mailed around a memo (sans slides) extolling the virtues of memos, admitting that PowerPointillism leads to shallow thinking. As Yoda said to young Skywalker: “Three bullets do not a business plan make.”

The always-excellent Crooked Timber passes on a nice quote from that new book Fiasco, which I see in the latest Publisher’s Weekly is selling well. According to Fiasco, one Army general

had another, smaller but nagging issue: He couldn’t get [General Tommy] Franks to issue clear orders that stated explicitly what he wanted done, how he wanted to do it, and why. Rather, Franks passed along PowerPoint briefing slides that he had shown to Rumsfeld: “It’s quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD and Secretary of Defense…In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary order], or plan, you get a bunch of PowerPoint slides…[T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides.”

That reliance on slides rather than formal written orders seemed to some military professionals to capture the essence of Rumsfeld’s amateurish approach to war planning. “Here may be the clearest manifestation of OSD’s contempt for the accumulated wisdom of the military profession and of the assumption among forward thinkers that technology—above all information technology—has rendered obsolete the conventions traditionally governing the preparation and conduct of war,” commented retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a former commander of an armored cavalry regiment. “To imagine that PowerPoint slides can substitute for such means is really the height of recklessness.” It was like telling an automobile mechanic to use a manufacturer’s glossy sales brochure to figure out how to repair an engine.

This is the thing about modeling government on business: you get all the vices as well as the virtues. How many meetings have you sat through where the business plan sounded like a “glossy sales brochure?” I would say that phrase covers just about… let me see… 100% of them.

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