The Military’s PowerPoint Problem


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Via Spencer Ackerman, there’s a new report out from CNAS by Major General Michael T. Flynn, Captain Matt Pottinger, Paul D. Batchelor that offers a pretty scathing critique of the Intelligence Community’s role in the conflict in Afghanistan. The critique has a number of dimensions but this one seemed in some ways the most basic and fundamental:

The format of intelligence products matters. Commanders who think PowerPoint storyboards and color-coded spreadsheets are adequate for describing the Afghan conflict and its complexities have some soul searching to do. Sufficient knowl- edge will not come from slides with little more text than a comic strip. Commanders must demand substantive written narratives and analyses from their intel shops and make the time to read them. There are no shortcuts. Microsoft Word, rather than PowerPoint, should be the tool of choice for intelligence professionals in a counterinsurgency.

I don’t really think this is in any particularly close way tied to counterinsurgency. The military as a whole seems to have a somewhat disturbing level of reliance on communicating via PowerPoint presentations that are often quite poorly made.

This is from Tom Ricks’ Fiasco:

[Army Lt. General David] McKiernan had another, smaller but nagging issue: He couldn’t get [Tommy] Franks to issue clear orders that stated explicitly what he wanted done, how he wanted to do it, and why. Rather, Franks passed along PowerPoint briefing slides that he had shown to Rumsfeld: “It’s quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD and Secretary of Defense…In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary order], or plan, you get a bunch of PowerPoint slides…[T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides.”

On one level this seems like a small point. But on another level I think it’s really quite serious. The flow of information up and down the chain of command is critical. And the kind of operations we’re asking our soldiers to undertake really requires each and every person in the theater to have a sound grasp of what the overall strategy is. I wonder if maybe the Joint Chiefs need to read The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.