An article in yesterday’s NY Times launches a scathing attack on the use of Powerpoint in the US military, and draws some interesting conclusions about how such tools can inhibit understanding of complexity.

Exhibit A, below, is a now-infamous slide that is intended to represent the complexity of American military strategy in Afghanistan.

As General Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said when shown the slide: ““When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war”.

The slide has done the rounds on the Internet, provoking derision and criticism of yet another military tool that has been over-used. Bill Easterly made a point of sharing the above diagram on Aidwatchers last year, and highlighting its risible conotations. But the post drew comment from another blogger who suggested that “if we believe that these really are complex systems, then modelling them is surely one way to get a grip, and a map is simply an intentional way to simplify the world in order to discern important connections.”

It would seem that some in the military would agree. One General who had banned Powerpoint being used in his ranks has argued that the worst crime of these tools is not graphics like the one above, but in fact the opposite problem – that Power Point’s worst offences are “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”. As the General goes on to argue:

It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable… If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise”

Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Or as to quote John Kay on decision making, as Owen Barder did recently:

It is hard to overstate the damage recently done by leaders who thought they knew more about the world than they did – the managers and financiers who destroyed great businesses in the pursuit of shareholder value; the architects and planners who believed that cities could be drawn on a blank sheet of paper; and the politicians who believed they could improve public services by the imposition of targets. They failed to acknowledge of the complexity of the systems for which they were responsible and the multiple needs of the individuals who operated them… Politicians imagined they could reconstruct the Middle East on the basis of an American model of lightly regulated capitalism and liberal democracy, although they had not the slightest knowledge or understanding of the societies they sought to remodel. The banking executives supposed they were in control of large institutions, when in reality the floors beneath them were occupied by a rabble of self-interested individuals determined to evade any controls on their activities. Financiers believed that models they did not understand enabled them to manage risks they did not understand, attaching to securities they did not understand. That is how the UK and US entered this decade with foreign policy in tatters, a financial system close to meltdown and a fiscal policy in disarray. Successful decision-making is more limited in aspiration, more modest in its beliefs about its knowledge of the world, more responsive to the reactions of others, more sensitive to the complexity of the systems with which it engages. Complex goals are generally best achieved obliquely.

As an aside, senior military officials have said, off the record, that the Powerpoint ‘does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters [which] often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations… are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”’

(due thanks to Alexander Knapp)

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. There is something mind-numbing about powerpoint – I don’t care how many dancing words and embedded videos there are. The more expert you are, the more slides you have. So what if some are unreadable. Just push the information out, toss out your business card, and away you go.

    Nowadays, it takes courage to have a thoughtful interaction with the audience. It means sharing control, maybe mutual learning.

  2. […] Most readers will know this image, now iconic for the wrong reasons (and blogged about here earlier this […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Knowledge and learning, Public Policy, Reports and Studies, Strategy, Technology