Ironically filed under Corporate Intelligence on the Wall Street Journal’s website is an article, Did PowerPoint Ruin GM? by Joseph B. White. It’s an opinion piece whose central thrust is that, “Chief Executive Mary Barra can start fixing her company’s management culture” by banning PowerPoint. This is based on findings in GM’s self-sponsored probe into its mishandling of recalls and defects surrounding the poorly engineered Chevy Cobalt ignition switch.
This is an argument similar to Edward Tufte’s postmortem of the Challenger Disaster, where blame is laid squarely at PowerPoint’s door.
In one example of the numbing barrage of slides that obscured important information about safety risks, the Valukas report says that in March 2009, as GM was sliding toward its government-led bankruptcy, former GM CEO Rick Wagoner “may have viewed” a 72-slide presentation that mentioned, in a “back-up slide,” a change in the design to the Chevrolet Cobalt’s key that replaced a slot for attaching key rings to a small hole.
White goes on to point out that,
In 2012, a GM engineer uses a bullet point in a PowerPoint slide in an effort to explain a theory about why data from the “black boxes” on cars that crashed without triggering the airbags showed that the ignition switch was on. “Neither the plain text of this bullet point nor its implications are crystal clear,” the report notes.
PowerPoint as the “Frankenstein’s monster” of these business horror stories is an appealing scapegoat for many communication woes in corporate America. It’s the rallying cry for the villagers to come out with pitchforks and firebrands chanting, “ban PowerPoint!”
But perhaps that’s too easy.
There is a chicken and egg argument here — Do tools shape the way we think, or does our thinking shape the way we use our tools? Does our corporate culture shape our thinking, or does our thinking shape our corporate culture? If you think about it hard enough, you’ll find the answer is yes.
The sad case of the Cobalt recall is a stitched together monster. Failure was part communication, part critical thinking, part ethics and part spine. PowerPoint can’t be responsible for that. The last time I checked the label on the box it didn’t make any claim as a critical thinking tool, an ethics enhancer or a lumbar support.
If we’re looking to blame something perhaps we should put down our pitchforks and take a broader look at corporate America, starting with its leadership and culture. All businesses today are faced with increasing competition. That same focus on the bottom line and immediate results has led to “short-termism,” where managers aren’t actively encouraged to build cultures and lead for the long-haul. Does your culture create the space for critical argument or time for critical thinking? Competition and focus on the bottom-line means once rich training budgets have been slashed. Are your managers and executives as well-trained and versed as they once were in Leadership, Critical Thinking, Ethics or Communication?
Fears around job security make it difficult for employees to rock the boat or raise difficult issues (like spending millions of dollars on a recall) when sometimes it’s safer to take no action or delay any decision.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has famously banned PowerPoint, but not in a short-sighted way. He’s replaced it with a system of critical thinking and short-form written narratives. In Amazon’s “builder culture,” executives are tasked with writing a critical analysis in prose on a Word document. Meetings start with all executives reading the memo prior to discussing it. According to an Amazon insider, this encourages critical thinking and assures that all voices are heard.
Consider GM’s crosstown rival, Ford. Its CEO, Alan Mulally, has famously used PowerPoint as the platform for a management system that is fast becoming legendary in business circles for its ability to drive accountability and foster teamwork.
While 72 slides were apparently too much for former GM CEO Rick Wagoner to digest, Mulally and his senior leadership team review more than 300 slides every Thursday as part of their weekly business process review meeting. Instead of hiding Ford’s problems, these meetings have become a powerful tool for exposing and correcting them.
These “PowerPoint made me do it” arguments are candy for the business press. But before you reach for your pitchfork, think about how much communication is in the fabric of your culture. Rate its effectiveness — the gap between intention and impact. And look underneath, at the appetite for critical thinking, the ability to provide clear arguments and take positions, and the stomach for constructive dissent.
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.