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Does the Military Overuse PowerPoint?
The Tank | April 28, 2010
On April 27, The New York Times took a critical look at the discontent among officers in the U.S. military over the increasing emphasis on constructing Power Point briefings for everything from strategic assessments to tactical movements. Aggressive commanders such as Marine Gen. James Mattis and strategic thinkers like T.X. Hammes say the Power Point obsession is dumbing down critical analysis and too often shifts the focus from ends to means. Others, such as CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, acknowledge the ubiquity of Power Points but insist it is nonetheless a useful tool when used effectively to deliver succinct and detailed information on a strategic or tactical problem.

The Tank asks the experts: Has the U.S. military gone overboard with its passion for Power Point, or is it just a case of briefers using the tool as a crutch to flesh out an otherwise poorly delivered brief?

Michael Gordon (Senior Fellow, Institute for the Study of War, and N.Y.Times correspondent)

H.R McMaster is entirely correct. The amount of information that gets conveyed in 20 Powerpoint slides is probably less than a five page paper. It takes forever to brief it, which limits the time for serious discussion by the audience or the senior officials who are subjected to the presentation.

With Powerpoint, the military has been moving toward an oral tradition and away from the written word, with all the demands for precision, nuance and serious exposition that writing requires. And it's not just a problem for the military. The procedure has become quite common in other areas of government, among contractors and in think tanks.

Sometimes Powerpoint presentations are used as a kind of bureaucratic filibuster: they can be a way to eat up time and restrict the opportunity for hard questions. But even when that is not the intent they are generally not the best means of communication. Clear and concise writing requires that issues be thought through and that is not always necessary if all that is required is to slap a few bullets on a slide.

It would be far more efficient to prepare a concise and analytical paper that provides the essential information and arguments, circulate it in advance and then take questions about the assessment and recommendations at a meeting. If maps, graphics and charts are important they can be attached to the paper as needed. The essential information could be absorbed before the meeting, which could then be devoted to serious debate and discussion. My Times colleague, Elisabeth Bumiller, did the military community a service by highlighting this issue.

Dave Dilegge (Editor in Chief of Small Wars Journal)

There is an element of truth to each of the statements quoted in Elisabeth Bumillers Times article – from General Mattis' "PowerPoint makes us stupid" to General Petraeus endorsing PowerPoint's capability to display maps and graphical trends. 

Like any tool of the trade; PowerPoint becomes detrimental when it is abused, especially so when it is used as a substitute for critical thinking or to mask a lack of substance behind the subject.  Military blogger Schmedlap summed up the crux of the problem quite nicely, in a PowerPoint slide deck of all things, in his bottom-line: "PowerPoint can be a highly effective tool when used purely to convey information – as in a classroom or general background brief.  It is particularly good if strong pictures or charts accompany the discussion of the material.  But it is poorly suited to be an effective decision aid". 

In regards to the decision aid issue he generically describes the "before" and "after" environment.  Before PowerPoint a staff would prepare a succinct 2-3 page paper, a decision-maker would then read that paper, a meeting would be convened with the staff and/or other experts to discuss the issues, and then a decision would be made.  After PowerPoint a staff receives a 5-minute brief and then constructs the slides that result in a 20-minute presentation to the decision-maker.  After 5-minutes of discussion a decision is made. 

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with PowerPoint.  I've been subjected to "death by PowerPoint" more times than I care to remember but do use it to "convey information" in the manner described by General Petraeus and Schmedlap.

Dakota Wood (Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, DC.)

Andrew Krepinevich once wrote, "Simple solutions to complex problems are inherently attractive and almost always wrong." Powerpoint can convey the idea that the most complex issues can be neatly summarized in a series of slides. In an age when people are short on time and, often, attention, this can be very attractive.

Slides are simply easier and quicker to scan than a lengthy report. Powerpoint as a briefing tool has the same challenges as any other used to pass information – the skill of the user, the aptitude/interest of the recipient, and the forum within which it is used. It is good for graphics (maps, imagery, charts) used to quickly provide updates or to focus discussions (e.g. for millennia, military commanders have used maps to shape battle plans). It is a very poor way to transmit the complexity of operations, especially when detached from an accompanying narrative or explanation.

Pre-Powerpoint, field commanders understood the futility of trying to fully capture complexity and nuance in a written order bound to be unintelligible to a recipient tasked with carrying out a mission…hence the importance of the "commander's intent" sub-paragraph, i.e. "if things get so hot and fast moving that the lengthy written order becomes OBE, here is what we're trying to accomplish and why." Clear, concise reporting is important. It is also hard and usually takes time to master.

More important, though, is the effort made by the commander/leader/decision maker to clearly articulate objectives and accompanying rationale when assigning tasks in the first place; time spent questioning underlying assumptions and data sources for reports that come back to him in sitreps; and time spent carefully mulling over the nature of the task/situation before him, vice jumping from issue to issue with only a moment's thought in between.

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Copyright 2010 The Tank. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.

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