May 1, 2010

The Devil's In the Storyboard

How could I, ex-consultant extraordinaire, not share this wonderful piece from the New York Times on the use of Powerpoint in the US Department of Defense? It had to be done folks. Especially because it echoes so precisely all those months of frustration with the dumming down of the professional world through the excessive use of bullet points. Seriously, we're going to end up with an entire generation of people unable to write a sentence (for those of you who still work in consulting firms, a sentence typically has a subject, a verb and an object, begins with a capital letter and ends with some form of punctuation. Just FYI.)

But don't take my word for it. Listen to what the generals have to say:

"Powerpoint makes us stupid." (General Mattis)
Powerpoint is handy for "hypnotizing chickens." (retired Colonel Hammes)

"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." (General McMaster)

The illusion of understanding. How many times did I feel that, as consultants, that was exactly what we were peddling? We shouldn't be able to get away with it. No one should be able to get away with it. Whether it's consultants, bankers (hello Fabulous Fab), or writers (like those authors who write about a place they have clearly never been to and don't even bother to research - I'll be nice and won't name names). The illusion of understanding is what gets civilizations like ours into a big fat mess (hello Athens).

Right, I'll stop here with this foray into negativity and political soap-boxing (so un-Res). But take a look at the slide that started all the hoopla at the DoD, and smile (or cringe).

We have met the enemy and he is Powerpoint, says the Times. But where's the "so what"?! Someone draw me a big f***ing arrow over here! And some pretty boxes, dammit!


Anonymous said...

You're too hard on consultants (and yourself for that matter... Strategy consulting is about rubber stamping projects on the CEO's pet list with a facade of authority and believability. There's nothing wrong with that. Companies want a few nice PowerPoint slides to present to the Board. Nothing more.

I think the disconnect and your ambivalence comes from buying into the marketing hyperbole of consulting firms-- the whole "Best and Brightest" pitch and the Out of the Box motifs are not intended to be taken seriously.

Carolyn said...

Hi again - I loved this (am another escapee from corporate 'if we're going to discuss X, please send me a chart or two before the call') - especially the 'soldier' in Iraq whose family thought he must always be in harm's way fighting in the desert and he was like 'no, I'm just doing Powerpoint.'

In my early career days, a mentor told me, 'the higher you go, the more your charts must be at the level of 'see spot run'' - he was right but at the time I thought it was simply to save executive time. And there is probably some truth to the idea that we need to be able to net out what we think.

There was another preso making the rounds a while ago at the opposite end of the extreme -- a stick-figure view of the war -- that also made one think about how we communicate -- aaah, fodder for thousands of PhD dissertations in future, if nothing else.

There must be a happy medium somewhere!

Cheers and happy writing from someone who often writes long blog posts. Sigh.