Would Patton survive in today's PowerPoint military?

The firing of an officer who complained about PowerPoint draws fire

Our readers largely sided with an Army officer who was fired from his post in Afghanistan after complaining about what he saw as an over-reliance on PowerPoint slides instead of real information among the upper echelons there.

As we reported late last week, Army Reserve Col. Lawrence Sellin was relieved of duty with the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Afghanistan after writing a harsh criticism of the military’s use of PowerPoint slides in a regular column for UPI.

"For headquarters staff, war consists largely of the endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information," Sellin wrote in the column. "Even one tiny flaw in a slide can halt a general's thought processes as abruptly as a computer system's blue screen of death.

"The ability to brief well is, therefore, a critical skill," he added. "It is important to note that skill in briefing resides in how you say it. It doesn't matter so much what you say or even if you are speaking Klingon."

Our readers quickly jumped to Sellin's defense.

"Probably even the analysis to fire the guy was put into a briefing deck," wrote one unidentified reader. "I can certainly identify.... We spend an inordinate amount of time tweaking charts...changing bullet points to check marks; highlighting call out boxes; making sure there is something to 'decide' (since everyone wants to be a decider).... What a waste of resources."

"Sadly, the colonel is right," wrote commenter Carl F. of Dallas. "The military has become so enamored with PowerPoint that it is rapidly losing track of its real mission and replacing it with a pablum-type spoon-fed mini-information series of slides that can't come close to truly clarifying muddy water, much less the war. Unfortunately, if today's military leaders were to put up against the Axis forces of [World War II], we'd all be speaking German or Japanese -- which we'd learn from them via PowerPoint."

Responding to Carl F., reader C.J. wrote: "I'm not so sure we'd be speaking German or Japanese at this point, but because the 'briefing' mentality is pretty cross-cultural, I'm more inclined to think we'd still be fighting some offshoot of the 18th & 19th century global colonial wars. Oh, wait..."

"After assignments in four Joint Combatant Commands and several JTFs, I can attest to the PowerPoint Ranger syndrome," wrote a reader identified as Cruise. "While PP is a good tool to convey information concisely, the battle rhythm becomes a minute-to-minute PP production cycle. As senior officers, the activity involves sparset strategic thinking but rather becomes the quest to update your piece and present of the various briefings scheduled in the day. And talk about a crisis: Your career hangs on whether your slides conform to the standard template."

"The only thing I'd add that contradicts any other comments is that this condition is not a problem just for the military," wrote another unidentified reader. "I have been military, DOD civilian and now work for another agency. At least in the military, the 'workforce' overwhelmingly tended to take care of business. The farther up the chain one got, in the regular services, the worse it got. ... Overall, I find it [over-reliance on PowerPoint] far worse in places outside the DOD. My hat's off to the colonel -- he is without question a man of personal integrity. A rare commodity in this age."

"And this underscores the other big point with current military," another unidentified reader wrote. "The colonel is right. But since he pointed out something negative about The Way Things Are Done, the solution is not to correct it, but to fire the colonel. I wholly agree with Carl F., but [I'd go] one step farther: Patton and MacArthur would be demoted or fired were they in today's military."

Have an opinion? Add your comments below. Click here to read the original article and all of its comments.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

Reader Comments

Mon, Oct 18, 2010 Dave Ainley Minnesota, USA

The Colonel's message would have been better received if he had offered a solution to the accuracy in PowerPoint communication problem. This is exactly why a FREE product which is gaining huge popularity was created. Goldmail. You can narrate a PowerPoint then send it via Outlook for free with Goldmail MS Office add-ins: http://share.goldmail.com?Play=Office&PID=13964

Sun, Sep 5, 2010

I totally agree with comment that the COL got fired because of his statement challenging the cognitive ability of higher CMD and not his PPP abilities. However, we have the gadgets we must use them...right? I wonder how many PPP presentations the Tali goes through every day??? WELL DONE COLONEL!!!

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 Paul Florida

As a retired law enforcement officer, the mind-set is quite universal. We give good meeting. Individuals do not make decisions, committees do. Bureaucracy is the norm. Indeed, perhaps the military, especially the ground pounder services, when under the gun are less so than the rest of our world. But we indeed have this new age method that administers instead of thinking.

Thu, Sep 2, 2010 Edmond Hennessy United States

Not to diminish what others have cited, however the headline should be re-wired to read "Could Powerpoint survive in Patton's Military?" Presentation-itis, prevails today - everywhere. Although leadership, decisiveness and action may be overused terms, there are still serious circles that apply them and put them to practice effectively. An underlying theme of the referenced articles poses questions not only about the pre-occupation with presentation format, but the caliber and quality of the intelligence that these presentations are based on. Gees, if Patton had the sophistication of today's intelligence systems - who knows what he could have accomplished.

Wed, Sep 1, 2010

While I loved the Colonel's article and found much with which to agree, I don't believe the Colonel was fired for "criticism of the military’s use of PowerPoint slides." That rather oversimplifies things. I would say that the Colonel harshly criticized and ridiculed the cognitive and decision making processes of senior officers in general, the political climate in which officers compete for promotions and assignments, and the bureacracy in the military. And he did it in a public column totally outside of the chain of command. The result was predictable. What would you expect his bosses to do?If the Colonel had only argued about the misuse of a software tool and the cognitive and decision making implications, I doubt the result would have been the same. Don't get me wrong. I largely agree with him, and I believe the issues he addresses are serious and need to be fixed. I'm glad he wrote the article; perhaps it will be a catalyst for changes. But I am not shocked nor surprised by his firing (I expect the Colonel wasn't either), nor do I think it was unfair. If you call your bosses idiots in front of the entire world, you will be fired, even if it's true.

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