Power Dependency in the Post Information Era  and the
Question of Why are Captains Leaving the Army?

April 27, 2000

Comment: #353

Discussion Thread:  #s 126, 136, 137, 206, 281, 282, 303, 321, 336, 337, 344


Greg Jaffe, "What's Your Point, Lieutenant? Please, Just Cut To The Pie Charts," Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2000. Excerpts attached.

In the referenced article, Greg Jaffe rocked the Pentagon by discussing one the most sensitive topics in the military as it struggles to survive in the sound-byte polluted, post-information era of the 21st century - its dependence on PowerPoint briefings for everything but going to the latrine.

I asked Major Emory Upton (a pseudonym for an active-duty Army officer who is concerned about the health of the military) for his read on Jaffe's article. 

Read the excerpts from Jaffe's expose first, then examine Maj. Upton's analysis, which takes the form of a life history of modern captain and the two emails he attaches. 

---------[email from Maj Emory Upton]----------------

Dear Chuck,

The problems Jaffe describes are reflected the priorities with regard to how military officers are being managed and has a lot to do with our officer retention problem, as Jaffe correctly indicates.  I have received hundreds of e-mails and heard countless Army briefings describing why officers are getting out.  I have also interviewed tens if not hundreds of officers in the last few years.

The bottom line, in my view, is that PowerPoint dependency is only an symptom of a personnel values that is out of whack with what is needed to achieve effectiveness in the 21st Century.  The wrong system rewards the wrong behavior and leads to the adverse effects brought to the officer corps are represented by PowerPoint (see the email comment by the LTC instructor after my message). 

I also may add that PowerPoint is a good briefing tool when kept simple, but the causes of PowerPoint Dependency include:

  • An obsession with short term results

  • Measuring statistics as a way to determine an officer's success (or failure)

  • An intense competition that steams from a bloated officer corps operating under a negative and rank focused "up or out" promotion system

  • And the tendency to substitute tangibles such as outward appearance for the intangibles of professionalism such as the perishable skills of a tactical commander,

As a result of these deeper symptoms, PowerPoint has come to symbolize what is wrong in today's officer corps.

I contend that the exodus of officers and the sagging morale of those who remain begin early in one's career with a conflict between what is written in manuals and speeches and what is real in the every day life of a military officer. 

The following vignette describes the typical life of an of officer's early career in today's Army.  It is constructed from hundreds of emails and personnel interviews, as well as first hand experience.

Let's begin with the sales pitch given to prospective officers by ROTC and West Point.  The  Army tells young potential officers "hey, you will get the ultimate job out of the starting—leading a platoon, leading soldiers—and it will be only one of the highlights of your career." 

Now let's look at what really happens.  After being commissioned, the idealistic 2nd lieutenant goes to his first assignment after extensive schooling at Benning/Knox/Sill, and receives his first platoon. But only a few months later (4-6mos) he is moved to the S3 shop to make room for other lieutenants.  His new job is to assist a battalion staff that already has too many officers.  What do they do, they become the PowerPoint rangers.  They spend hours and days building and rebuilding super presentations that look pretty but lack substance. In regards to Quarterly Training Brief (QTBs), they see a lot said, but little done, exaggerations  in the pursuit of career aspirations on the parts of their bosses. Finally, he is moved back into the line. Now, though the line does not do a lot of maneuver training (our high tech weapons have priced us out of being able to train with them a lot - although, troops might do some simulation), but at least our lieutenant is back with troops. Still, the fire in the belly remains burning after his first tour, in part because the lieutenant believes the time spent in the '3' shop was just a passing phase and things will change because he is about to make captain.

Life as a Captain usually starts after a few months as a company/troop/battery XO.  Newly promoted captains start by going the Advance Course. The "career course," where, Wow!, they will learn a little more about warfighting, from some shit hot instructors using the most up to date PowerPoint tools (I am guilty of it too). After a few months at the "career course", they return to a unit.

They report into the S1, and Bam!, they are back in that Brigade or Battalion S-shop, again making PowerPoint slides, spending countless hours making sure pictures look right, fonts are the same throughout the multiple pages, every word is spell checked, and most important, making sure that all that data says exactly what one of numerous layers of hierarchy want it to say, running off copy after copy, reloading paper, and unjamming printers—what's missing? (see e-mail below from CPT YYY)   After many months, sometimes a year, our new captain finally gets command of a company/troop/battery. 

Our new company CO is likely to occupy his highly desired command position for only a year, however, because a long line of other captains are in the queue, working fourteen hours a day in the PowerPoint sweat shops, waiting for their "turn" at his coveted command. With a little luck, the newly minted commander may even get to take his unit to one major field event (of course, he probably went to the National Training Center before assuming command, but he worked in the brigade Tactical Operations Center, where he learned to print out orders from computers). 

Even so, his year in command is not a total escape from the PowerPoint revolution.  He must still prepare his company briefings for the battalion and brigade commanders' QTB.   This takes precious time away from being with the troops, because his presentation must be as good or better than his peer commanders (remember this brief is his big shot at the outstanding fitness report, which he needs to get selected for the Command and General Staff College residence course). 

The captain is acutely aware that this briefing could be one of the most significant steps in his career, because a company commander does not get a lot of face time with his senior rater.  In this captain's case, he has gotten not time because his command missed that last NTC rotation, and gunnery was not much to speak of because of low operating funds.  But he does not yet realize that it does not really matter that he missed NTC, because there would not have been much opportunity to see the senior rater in any event.  The senior rater was only present at the last major training event for a few days due to his commitment to present a PowerPoint briefing describing how he planned to sustain his training proficiency, given current low funding,  to the Commanding General at a commander's conference. 

Our idealistic young captain nevertheless manages to survive command for fifteen months, and he decides the would like to teach ROTC in his next assignment to help next generation of officers into better officers than what he had to deal with.  The nobility of his ideas has not died out - not yet, anyway.

He arrives at ROTC, looking forward to teaching cadets and turning civilians into warriors. But the instructors for the four class years of the cadets are already filled, so the Professor of Military Science (PMS) (who is also called a battalion commander), tells the "newby" captain to take over the "ops job" for a year while he waits for a class.

He soon learns that the ROTC ops job is not the backwater that he feared, but lies at the center of Army culture.  

The PMS gives him his first order: "Captain, we have a critical mission for you, I am scheduled to brief the 'state of ROTC' next month at the ROTC Regional Annual Progress Review (APR).  Get the presentation format from Captain xxx, and start updating my brief."

After a few days of finding and updating various recruiting and training "data" (a lot of statistics), the PMS comes to his "ops officer" and says "the staff at cadet command have just come up with a new format for our presentations.  It is different from last year, just transfer the data from our old presentation to the new one." 

His experience in the S3 comes in handy now, because he knows transferring data is easier said than done.  He knows how to tell his wife she will not see him much for the next few days.  The briefing day arrives, the PMS departs with his brief on a disk, together with back-up acetate slides in case the computer breaks down.

The captain waits eagerly to learn how his presentation went over with his senior rater, the brigade commander (his senior rater) and the Region Commander (his PMS's senior rater).  The PMS returns, but not realizing how important his response to the captain is, says, "well, we were limited to 10 minutes each, so I could only brief the first 10 slides [of 36]."  Despite the frustration of his time spent on a meaningless presentation, and the numerous others, our captain maintains a positive outlook and waits hopefully for the coveted instructor position that comes open earlier that expected (the ROTC unit loses more personnel than anticipated with the new Army Chief of Staff pledging to fill up MTOE units to a 100percent).

He begins his teaching assignment, but like his troop command, reality is different than he imagined.  The number of personnel manning the ROTC detachment has declined but the bureaucratic taskings from the hierarchy have not.  This means the remaining people "will doing more with less."  The captain now finds that the only enjoyment he gets from being in the Army is the teaching he manages to do for two hours a week.  The rest of his time, he spends on reports, responding to various requests from "higher-ups," or updating PowerPoint briefings.

So, after eight years in the Army, seven moves, his wife unable to work in her chosen field, and a realization that he will get little chance to be with soldiers again, the captain chooses to leave the Army.  He loves being a soldier, and he would be good at it, if only given a chance.   But he also realizes he did not join the Army to spend most of his time in front of a computer pumping out briefings, updating administrative trivia, or having to validate his word.  He is very angry with the lack of trust that comes down from the chain of command, and the lack of autonomy he has in accomplishing missions.  If he had wanted to do that, he would have majored in information technology or management in college.  As a result the captain joins the ranks of thousands of others making the exodus from the 21st Century Army.

[Major Upton concluded his message by attaching the following two E-mails, the first is  from LTC XXX, instructor at a staff college, who also possesses vast field time and the second is from Capt YYY, a former company commander]

------[Email from LTC XXX]-------

Jaffe's article is good, but it misses the most negative effect that PowerPoint has on officers.  It teaches them to make bold, bulletized assertions rather than tightly reasoned arguments. We see the result in student essays here at the staff college.  Students are unable to build arguments based on evidence.  They are helpless to do research and are befuddled by requirements for documentation.  They have been trained to anticipate that none will question their bold assertions or probe their sources. I call it "PowerPoint Thinking."

-----[E-mail from Captain YYY]-----

I agree wholeheartedly with this, but a point that is missed is that this thinking is expounded by the fact that we spend so little time practicing the art of war.  The only way an exceptional officer can standout from his peers is that he has great PowerPoint presentations when he briefs his commanders! 

How many times have we heard a commander say "Make the presentation cheesy"?   From my own experience, I can't count the hours wasted on QTBs because of the ridiculous format used and putting together a presentation that is over 100 slides long; do we really need to brief every quarter our PT stats or EIB stats?  We miss the forest for the trees in these kind of briefs and this thinking is permeating it's way down to platoon-level. I had platoon leaders who wanted to  take courses in PowerPoint so they didn't feel "behind the curve" when it came to computer skills! We are treading on thin ice here.

----[end of message]----------

Chuck Spinney

Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]


Wall Street Journal
April 26, 2000

What's Your Point, Lieutenant? Please, Just Cut To The Pie Charts

By Greg Jaffe, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal



There is even a "PowerPoint Ranger  Creed," a parody of the Marine Corp's famous "Rifleman's Creed":

"This is my PowerPoint. There are many like it, but mine is [PowerPoint] 97 … I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its fonts, its accessories and its formats … My PowerPoint and myself are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our subject. We are the saviors of my career." 

The parody is zapping around the Defense Department as a PowerPoint slide complete with the sound of explosions and featuring an animated John Wayne in Army Ranger garb wielding a laser pointer.

How did a piece of technology that was supposed to improve communication become a barrier to it?  Some military sociologists say the endless presentations are a product of the military's zero-defect culture, in which one mediocre review by a superior can torpedo a career. "Young officers are worried that they might leave something out of their briefing, and a supervisor might say something about it. So they pack their presentations with every detail that they can think off," says Charles Moskos, a military-culture expert at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.