Godins and Generals

The image shown below (from the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) has been floating around on the web for a few months, but the New York Times covered it today in an article called ‘We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint.’


(click for larger image)

The caption at The New York Times reads: “A PowerPoint diagram meant to portray the complexity of American strategy in Afghanistan certainly succeeded in that aim.”

Seth Godin blogged about it today at his TypePad site saying: “The US Army reports that misuse of PowerPoint (in other words, using Powerpoint the way most people use it, the way it was designed to be used) is a huge issue.”

The problem, he claims, is PowerPoint’s default use of bullet points, which can be a bad way to present complex information. “Here’s the problem,” he says (in bullet form, no less) “Bullets appear to be precise. Bullets that are read from the screen go in one ear and out the other. Bullets are used as a defensive measure.”

But on Twitter, SEO expert Rand Fishkin disagreed with the assertion that the software is the problem, saying that it’s the people who use the software who are responsible: “Apparently, the military sucks at PPT [PowerPoint]”, he said. “Step 1: Blame the right party (hint: it’s not the software’s fault)”

But there are two glaring problems with Godin’s and Fishkin’s criticism of the bullet points on this PowerPoint slide: (1) it’s not a PowerPoint slide, and (2) there are no bullet points on it.

I’m not a gambling man, but I’d be willing to wager that this picture (not slide) was made in Vensim and perhaps a graphics editing package like Adobe PhotoShop.

It looks very complex (and it is!). It’s actually a stock-and-flow diagram and this technique is probably the single most powerful tool in existence for understanding the dynamics of social and economic systems. If it resembles an electrical circuit diagram, that’s probably because the inventor of this methodology, MIT professor Jay Forrester, was trained as an electrical engineer and was the inventor of magnetic coil core memory.

The stock-and-flow approach was the technique used in the best-selling book The Limits to Growth to study the interaction of humanity, the economy and the environment, has been used to study Hubbert’s Peak of gas and oil production, and was used by MIT professor John Sterman at the Copenhagen summit last winter to help teach the delegates about the effects of climate change. The application by the US military to attempt to diminish the insurgency and narcotics trafficking while building up the local government enough to allow the withdrawal of US troops, frankly, is brilliant.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” the Times quotes General McChrystal as saying, and he’s absolutely right.

The stock-and-flow language itself only has a couple of parts: There are stocks, which represent quantities of things (as in a stockpile). There are 5 stocks in the diagram, the five little squares, one for each group of people in Afghanistan who actively support the government, actively oppose it, or are somewhere in between.

And there are flows. The ‘pipes’ that connect the stocks represent the flow of people between the different categories. Most of the rest of the diagram is comprised of the ‘spaghetti’ (as the Times calls it) of flows of information (some with significant delays) between the many different factors influencing the system. (To those with a mathematical background, this diagram is simply a visual representation of a 5th-order system of ordinary differential equations, with their attendant variables. Even undergrad engineering majors learn to solve systems of this complexity by numerical means like Euler integration or Runge-Kutta integration.)

To those without a strong math background, just note that the diagram is not just a ‘jumble’ –  it has an elaborate and intricate structure, and, as the General said, only by understanding that structure do we have a hope of winning the war. Some systems are just complex, and there is no known way to make them simpler.

There’s no known way to make an Intel processor from a piece of copper wire and a 9-volt battery. Which is why circuit diagrams of computer processors are incredibly intricate. But they work. So, it’s surprising that technophiles like Mr. Godin and Mr. Fishkin would belittle this methodology when they wouldn’t belittle the processor sitting in the computers they used to write their observations.

Mr. Fishkin is right: the military does suck at PowerPoint. But the thing he misses is: the purpose of the military is not to make good PowerPoint presentations. It’s to win wars.

Unlike Mr. Fishkin or Mr. Godin, the military doesn’t have the opportunity to walk into their local Starbucks and get exactly what they what handed to them with whipped cream on top. They have to make do in a country far from home, with millions of people living in a pre-Industrial society, each of whom has a different agenda, and with dozens of conflicting social groups, many of whom speak different languages and have long histories of conflict and cooperation (when it’s in their game-theoretic best interest to do one or the other). That is a complex system.

Maybe one individual cannot understand all of the different parts of this diagram. But I’ll bet that no individual understands all the pieces of a modern computer processor, either. Probably no individual has ever read every line of code that runs Google’s search engine, its Maps feature, its Android operating system, Gmail and AdWords either. Lots of people each understand their little piece and how their piece fits into the whole. The purpose of this diagram is to show that high-level view, and it’s only from that point that we can being to understand how the pieces fit together.

If you liked this post, please also read ‘Putting the Cart Before the Horse.’

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