Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, unwittingly created a weapon of mass destruction for the U.S. military when his company created PowerPoint. It can be a useful tool for presentations, but within the U.S. military it has become a ubiquitous technology and communication format that structures much of what gets done, particularly for staff officers.
The proliferation of PowerPoint within the U.S. armed forces is nothing new, and its presence is no surprise to those of us who have served within it. But one could argue that its use is so pervasive that it even structures how people think and how they make decisions.
So in some ways, Microsoft PowerPoint is the deadliest weapon in the U.S. military’s arsenal. The question, though, is one of targeting: Toward whom is this weapon aimed?
While serving in Afghanistan during 2013, a friend and I pondered this. Fortunately, we were both in roles that somehow avoided being directly responsible for the production of specific PowerPoint slides on a regular basis, although we were frequent contributors to them. This particular friend and I both have young children, and we reflected upon how the use of meetings and PowerPoint often coincided in a cycle of dependency much like what is described in Laura Joffe Numeroff’s popular children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
So, in homage to that wonderful book, we wrote what follows.
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If You Give a General a Staff Meeting
Phenomenological Insights on Counterinsurgency, Afghanistan, Globalization, Technology and the Organizational Science of U.S. Military Operations in the Twenty-First Century
If you give a general a staff meeting, he’s going to ask for a PowerPoint presentation.
When your colonel finds out about the PowerPoint presentation, he’ll probably ask you for a copy to approve beforehand.
When the colonel gets your copy, he’ll ask for about 50 changes. Then he’ll change those changes a few dozen more times.
When the colonel approves the presentation, you might notice that it no longer resembles anything close to what the general supposedly wants. So you’ll prepare some back-up slides.
When you finish making the back-up slides, you’ll need to add pretty pictures and flow charts. You’ll start adding.
You might get carried away and add pretty pictures and flow charts on every single slide. You may even end up with a PowerPoint presentation that belongs in the United States Military Museum of PowerPoint Art!
When you’re done, you’ll probably have to rehearse the presentation with the colonel. You’ll have to fix the flow-chart colors and font on several slides to make him comfortable.
On the day of the presentation, you’ll arrive to the conference room one hour early. Just to be safe, you’ll have three dozen printed color copies for the 10 people planning to attend.
Upon seeing a pretty picture of a warzone project on the first slide, the general will probably ask you to arrange a visit there for him and his entourage. You feel your blood pressure increase by 33 points.
When you begin the presentation, the general will look confused and ask for the “bottom line.” You’ll quickly skip to your back-up slides. He’ll settle back in his chair, looking pleased, while the colonel feigns agreement.
When the meeting ends, the general will ask unrelated questions. Then he’ll pull out his notebook and pause for a moment to look at it.
Looking at his notebook will remind him that he wants an update on an obscure project so he can impress his fellow generals with strategic thoughts and reports of dramatic progress.
So … he’ll ask for a PowerPoint presentation.
And chances are if he asks you for a PowerPoint presentation, he’s going to want a staff meeting to go with it.
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Certainly, PowerPoint is a useful tool. I don’t mean to imply that it’s not. But it’s a tool that needs to be employed judiciously. The same goes for other technologies like e-mail and for the use of meetings themselves.
Does PowerPoint dominate your organization? Have you ever worked in an organization that had clear rules about how to use PowerPoint and how not to use it? What about meetings?
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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.