Power Point and the Afghan War
On Tuesday, April 27, 2010, a complex diagram appeared on the front page of The New York Times. It was the featured centerpiece of an article in which the U.S. command specifically blamed power point for unnecessarily complicating analyses of how to win the Afghan war. The basic complaint was that armed with power point, junior officers produced diagrams that were too complicated for senior officers to comprehend. General Stanley A. McChrystal, head of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, summed it up when he said, “When we understand this diagram, we’ll have won the war.” He was right, but for all the wrong reasons!
The particular power point slide that was the unrestrained object of General Stanley McChrystal’s contempt attempted to portray as many of the overall cultural, drug, government corruption, and military factors that were involved in fighting and winning the war. Most important of all, it attempted to show as many of the interactions as possible that existed between the various factors. Indeed, this was the whole point behind the slide even if junior officers didn’t necessarily understand any better what they were doing. Because they neither exist nor function in isolation, without seeing all of the factors and how they interact and reinforce one another positively as well as negatively, one cannot formulate effective strategies for fighting the war.
However, since they were neither educated nor rewarded to appreciate systems thinking, senior officers didn’t understand that merely by assembling in one diagram as many of the factors as possible that affected the war, junior officers were attempting to show the true nature of the full mess that had to be managed.
Blaming power point for showing the complexities involved in fighting the Afghan war is equivalent to blaming the telescope for showing the detailed features of craters on the Moon that by definition cannot be seen by the naked eye alone. We should be praising our instruments for showing us the full and messy dimensions of reality, not blaming them.
We Are Confronted with Messes on Every Front of Our Existence
The late system’s philosopher Russell Ackoff was the first–and to the best of our knowledge, the only person–to appropriate the term mess to stand for a system of problems that were not only constantly changing in direct and rapid response to one another, but were so highly intertwined such that they couldn’t be separated either in principle or in actual fact, i.e., basic existence. In other words, the individual problems that constituted a mess didn’t exist independently of one another or of the entire mess of which they were “parts.” Individual problems couldn’t even be defined, let alone solved, separately from one another. The notion of “individual problems” was thus more a figure of speech than it was a characteristic feature of reality. Indeed, the idea of separate, individual problems is so flawed that it is a complete and fundamental misrepresentation of reality.
Increasingly, on every front of our existence, from the environment to the global economy, health care, the fight against terrorism, etc., we are confronted with messes of ever greater and growing complexity. And yet, essentially none of our basic systems (educational, economic, public and private, etc.) have prepared, allowed, and rewarded people to cope with and to manage messes. As a consequence, the gap between the size of our problems and the narrowness of our thinking grows daily.
Enormous hurdles stand in the way of merely acknowledging the existence of messes, let alone in managing them. We not only have to face head on the tremendous emotional and political resistance that exists in our culture towards dealing with complexity, but we have to find ways of surmounting it.
First of all, the academic world is of little help.
read full news from www.huffingtonpost.com