We must win the war on PowerPoint

I was reading a story in the New York Times the other day that hit a nerve.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” said Gen. James N. Mattis of the US Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander in Afghanistan, reacting to a spaghetti-like slide that was shown to the military. The source of the quote may be surprising, but not the sentiment. We experience the same thing in our workplaces. No longer are even the executive summaries of reports read. If you can’t distil your business case into pretty bullets on a maximum of seven (or five or 10…) slides, then forget getting approval.

Another senior officer, Gen. H. R. McMaster, banned PowerPoint presentations in his command as “… dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” He went on to outline the shortcomings of slide bullets: that they don’t show the interrelationships between the various factors at play. It may be hard to see the parallel between managing a combat operation and our day-to-day business, but the interplay between political, economic, and technology needs are very real and the major challenge for most CIOs.

Many IT managers have fallen into the trap of seeing the world as they present it. We’ve been dutifully trained to churn out presentations with slides in the corporate format, that leave lots of white space, limit bullets to a maximum of five per slide, and each bullet be no more than 8-10 words, no acronyms please. In effect, we’ve become coders, with the bullets in our slides being the machine language instructions for our budget and planning approvals machine. What’s getting lost is the thinking and analysis behind the strategy that we’re trying to articulate, its links to our organization’s evolving mission, and respect for our audience as thoughtful decision makers.

This isn’t to say that PowerPoint should be banned. Rather it’s for the IT manager to not fall into thinking that everything can be summarized into bullets or worse yet, a spaghetti diagram to explain the interrelationships of a problem. Managing IT is about applying technology to support and enhance the business. It covers a wide range of activities, from day-to-day operations to long-term strategy. It’s about using your people’s skills and insights to determine where technology can be best exploited to support your organization’s goals and then execute in concert with business users. That big picture can’t be captured in every presentation you do, but the context and strategic value of IT has to come through. The challenge is in how to use those bullets for the things that are not bullet-izable.

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