Is PowerPoint making us stupid? No.
A piece in the New York Times (now a few days old) describes the agony of US soldiers who spend too much of their time (a) making or (b) sitting through turgid PowerPoint presentations. The piece is good and the strategy diagram at the top is funnier for not being a joke. But there's a nagging suggestion, despite the disclaimer that 'no one is suggesting that Powerpoint is to blame', that PowerPoint is to blame - not just for military failings but for much that is wrong within the domain of strategic planning. This is pretty typical:
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.
The ubiquity of PowerPoint from boardroom to war room is not new, nor are the mutters of concerns about this. Edward Tufte's essay 'The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint' examines some flaws in how PowerPoint organises information by default (essentially paratactically - 'one damn slide after another' - with rigid nested hierarchies by means of bullet points).
It's quite a leap to assert that PowerPoint is killing the art of strategic thinking, though - by which I mean thinking that is itself well fitted to the problems it is trying to solve. I'd venture that rigid organisational hierarchies, not hierarchies of bullet points, are more at fault, as is simple time pressure. Strategies take time and space, and the crystal clear thinking that results can come out of some surprisingly unordered processes (ones strategists tend not to admit to, which is a shame). Bad PowerPoint is a symptom of stifled strategic thinking, not a cause. Sure, the software doesn't go out of its way to offer ingenious ways of concatenating points of information, but that's well beyond its remit. If the paper-clippy Office Assistant starts thinking up my strategy for me I'll know it's time to lay off the coffee.
# Alex Steer (16/05/2010)