Say no more….
A PowerPoint diagram meant to portray the complexity of American strategy in Afghanistan certainly succeeded in that aim:
WASHINGTON — Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.
“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remar
ked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.
The slide has since bounced around the Internet as an example of a military tool that has spun out of control. 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.
“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.
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.
“There’s a lot of PowerPoint backlash, but I don’t see it going away anytime soon,” said Capt. Crispin Burke, an Army operations officer at Fort Drum, N.Y., who under the name Starbuck wrote an essay about PowerPoint on the Web site Small Wars Journal that cited Lieutenant Nuxoll’s comment.
In a daytime telephone conversation, he estimated that he spent an hour each day making PowerPoint slides. In an initial e-mail message responding to the request for an interview, he wrote, “I would be free tonight, but unfortunately, I work kind of late (sadly enough, making PPT slides).”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reviews printed-out PowerPoint slides at his morning staff meeting, although he insists on getting them the night before so he can read ahead and cut back the briefing time.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that sitting through some PowerPoint briefings is “just agony,” nonetheless likes the program for the display of maps and statistics showing trends. He has also conducted more than a few PowerPoint presentations himself.
General McChrystal gets two PowerPoint briefings in Kabul per day, plus three more during the week. General Mattis, despite his dim view of the program, said a third of his briefings are by PowerPoint.
Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was given PowerPoint briefings during a trip to Afghanistan last summer at each of three stops — Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif and Bagram Air Base. At a fourth stop, Herat, the Italian forces there not only provided Mr. Holbrooke with a PowerPoint briefing, but accompanied it with swelling orchestral music.
President Obama was shown PowerPoint slides, mostly maps and charts, in the White House Situation Room during the Afghan strategy review last fall.
Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.
Captain Burke’s essay in the Small Wars Journal also cited a widely read attack on PowerPoint in Armed Forces Journal last summer by Thomas X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel, whose title, “Dumb-Dumb Bullets,” underscored criticism of fuzzy bullet points; “accelerate the introduction of new weapons,” for instance, does not actually say who should do so.
No one is suggesting that PowerPoint is to blame for mistakes in the current wars, but the program did become notorious during the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. As recounted in the book “Fiasco” by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin Press, 2006), Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, who led the allied ground forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, grew frustrated when he could not get Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander at the time of American forces in the Persian Gulf region, to issue orders that stated explicitly how he wanted the invasion conducted, and why. Instead, General Franks just passed on to General McKiernan the vague PowerPoint slides that he had already shown to Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time.
Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.
The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”
Helene Cooper contributed reporting.
“The relationship between authenticity, vulnerability, and real power is critically intertwined.”
Comment from Dan during a conversation with brand strategist, Brad Collins, as they watch Vice President Joe Biden talking about Health Care Reform on a YouTube video late in 2009.
Brad Collins: I’m curious. Does Biden need to be standing on stage while the guy is introducing him? Wouldn’t he have more impact if he simply waited to be introduced and then came out to the applause?
Dan Sapp: Probably. Because doing it this way (standing to the side of the stage, hands clasped in front, looking at the ground), Biden is forced to establish what feels like a false camaraderie with guy introducing him, where there is probably no relationship at all. I think authenticity is as important as humility both for heads of state as well as for heads of organizations. These guys have tremendous “position power,” and there’s nothing wrong with owning that power and not trying to act like “I’m just one guys.” Because they’re not. It’s not true, and it doesn’t feel authentic.
Brad Collins:Which is the “knock” you hear on Joe Biden: people think he is reaching for that “everyday-Joe-kind-of-thing,” which doesn’t seem real for him.
Dan Sapp: For the record, I’m a big fan of the Obama administration, and Joe Biden is a commanding, comfortable, effective communicator. But, as a political communicator, you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. If you are too unflappable, you are “slick,” but if you are less than perfect, you get pilloried as a bumbling idiot. On top of that is the mythology that everyone is supposed to be from a log cabin in Illinois, born humbly and self-educated, but through their own tenacity, hard-work, and high moral fiber, they have somehow risen above. Of course, we all know in most cases it’s not usually true. So, I think what happens is that when really powerful people try to “awe shucks” too much in the name of humility, they rob themselves of their authenticity. And, authenticity is where real power and influence come from, because real authenticity is inherently vulnerable. The trick is to be comfortable with that vulnerability. Comfort with vulnerability isn’t wimpy. It‘s open, accessible, and connected. The willingness to express your genuine comfort as a “big target” speaks reams about your inherent authority. It is compelling and extraordinarily influential. The relationship between authenticity, vulnerability, and real power is critically intertwined. If I were working with Vice President Biden, as good as he already is, I would help him to own his power in a more comfortable, less defended, more vulnerable way.
Interview with Dan Sapp by Brad Collins, Brand Strategist from Group C in New Haven, CT
Brad: You’ve told me that the “Delta” model is about deepening relationships and that communication can’t simply be about conveying information, because that in and of itself doesn’t deepen a relationship. Can you say more about that?
Dan: The fundamental premise behind the “Delta” communication model is that the only reason we share ideas in business at all is because there are other people we need to engage in some process. That’s why I keep talking about this idea of “the other.” As leaders, we have to remember that we are talking to and for somebody else. We’re not talking to or for ourselves, or at least we shouldn’t be. If we’re going to have impact, and we have to if we’re leading, then we have to get “others” to be different in a useful way when we are through. I love the word “leadership.” It really means getting people to follow you. Leading isn’t telling others what to do. It’s connecting with others in a way that encourages them to follow. I have this image of real leaders as people who walk down a road and trust that when they look back, folks will still be right behind them.
We get others to follow by creating connections that feel valuable to them. You can have a one-person business where the only person you have to convince is yourself, but these tend to be pretty short conversations. But, when there are other people who have to take action, and take the right action, then those people have to act in a way that reflects the values of the organization, the company, the brand, etc. I mean, it’s not OK for folks to go out and just take random action. They have to take action that creates value for the company if leadership is doing its job. So, as soon as you’re in a relationship where you have to influence other people’s behavior and values, then you’re “doing” leadership. And, that’s all about communicating with those other people and connecting on purpose.
I’m more and more convinced that people follow those they feel connected to. We crave these connections. For many, using this framework for evaluating business communication is a big paradigm shift. I’m trying to get people to recognize and own that, as leaders, we’re trying to influence other people when we talk to them. It’s never enough to simply exchange information. As leaders, who we are, and what we say, has to have impact and make something happen. From a strategic perspective, we don’t gather people together to simply exchange data. And to me, that’s why it is such a crime against good business to bring people together and create these opportunities to connect, and then turn out the lights and read notes that narrate a “presentation.”
Look, there are times when it’s completely valid for a human being to simply want to talk and have other people tend to their needs and listen. Sometimes we crave that so badly we pay for it. But that’s not what we’re talking about in a business situation. So, the “Delta” model is a way of thinking about the result you want, the action you want taken, and the change you’re after through other people and teams, and throughout organizations. Part of the power of the “Delta” model is in recognizing just how significant it is to start your planning process with identifying the change you’re after in other people. Then, you choose ideas that connect with them. Like in mathematics, the triangular delta symbol reflects the result of some chemical, physical, or mathematical process. And, this is not unlike what’s happening in business, where we make intellectual and physical connections to make things change in useful ways.