PowerPoint takes another hit

So, what to make of the recent editorial by Col Sellin in which he describes ISAF Joint Command (or IJC which is an acronym within an acronym and kind of seems like an ouroboros to me) as a do-nothing HQ which focuses on:

…endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information.

I didn’t find the substance of what Col. Sellin said particularly shocking.  I mean, c’mon.  HQs are always bloated, overly choreographed affairs, aren’t they?  I mean, I can remember being at JRTC in the late ’90s and being amazed that the staff officer in charge of the evening shift change brief would start pestering us for our slides at 10am!  I agree, you’d hope that sort of nonsense would fall to the wayside when there was actually a war going on (and one we’re struggling with) but I can’t say I’m totally surprised.

In that regard, I’m really coming to appreciate Afghanistan circa 2003.  Bagram was relatively stable and secure yet it was so new that the bureaucracy hadn’t yet had a chance to crystallize.  It was a time when a couple of NCOs or some company grade officers could actually do stuff without having to figure how to maneuver through a byzantine system (Of course, that was a bit of a double edged sword and there were plenty of bad things that came about from that system too…).

He does hit on what I think is an important point (yeah, go ahead and plug one of your own posts again.  eds.).  The information we’re collecting isn’t being collated and organized so it isn’t getting absorbed into the collective conscious.  Instead, we’ve got…

Each briefer has approximately 1 or 2 minutes to impart either information or misinformation. Usually they don’t do either. Fortunately, none of the information provided makes an indelible impact on any of the generals.

One important task of the IJC is to share information to the ISAF commander, his staff and to all the regional commands. This information is delivered as PowerPoint slides in e-mail at the flow rate of a fire hose. Standard operating procedure is to send everything that you have. Volume is considered the equivalent of quality.

Unfortunately, I’d have to say that’s not unique to Afghanistan or even the military.  Current law enforcement thinking on the use of ‘fusion centers’ is all about pumping information out and not so much on giving it context or meaning.  I suspect that’s just a feature of the ‘lessons’ we’ve internalized over the past 10 years:  that the chief flaw in our failure to prevent 9/11 was that information wasn’t being shared enough.  So now, we share everything ‘just in case’ or hoping that the right piece of information will stick in the right place if thrown around enough.

And this is where Col. Sellin falls short.  He’s got a platform to talk and reach a lot of people and what does he do?  He confines himself to pissin’ and moanin’ about how everything sucks and leaves us hanging.  Look, he clearly knew he was putting his position in risk by writing this article so could he have really said anything that would have worsened his position?  If you’re going to start your article professing what big balls you have (“Throughout my career I have been known to walk that fine line between good taste and unemployment. I see no reason to change that now.”) then don’t soft peddle it when you get to the end.  If the ICJ needs to be disbanded or every one, two and three star general needs to be relieved for incompetence than say so (maybe bring back decimation?).

And that’s where I have a bit of doubt.  Col. Sellin was in his position for two months when he wrote that letter and had obviously reached a position of total disgust (and believe me, I totally sympathize with the guy…I’ve been there…several times).  It would be interesting to know what, if anything, he did to try to change the system he describes.  Even in a place where you ‘can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a colonel’ you’ve got leeway.  There are always some workarounds.  And even for someone as impatient as me, two months isn’t a terribly long time to exhaust all the potential possibilities for change, is it?

And so, is it possible that Col. Sellin’s letter was a self inflicted wound?  A guy who decides that this gig isn’t quite as fun/interesting/important/whatever that he originally thought and needs to find a way out?  Sure, he could pull a Cpl. Klinger but this letter did quite a good job.  Is there any way they could have kept him there?  After all, he essentially called every general officer in range a mindless drone.  How could you keep the guy around without threatening good order and discipline? And he did tell Danger Room “I feel quite rather alone here at the moment.” (Uh, yeah…you just called everyone in your vicinity an idiot..it may be true but did you really expect a group hug afterwords?)

Sellin says he tried to send constructive criticism up the chain before he typed out his UPI piece. He gave his superiors a briefing on “proven organizational methodologies” to streamline IJC, but it went nowhere. “It was only my rant that everyone read,” he says. …The irony? His briefing was a five-slide PowerPoint.

Gentlemen, we have met the enemy and he is us….
UpdateTom Ricks has a letter from Col. Sellin who gives a bit more of his perspective:
I was assigned to the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) in Kabul for the last two months. Since arriving in Afghanistan my job had changed twice and in both cases I had no clear duties. Twice I asked my superiors for a more substantive assignment.
With that in mind and after two months of observing the IJC function and speaking with people from all the sections, I decided to write a tongue-in-cheek description, an obviously over-the-top and sarcastic article hopefully containing threads of constructive criticism woven into the text.
It’s my experience that if you need to explain how a piece of writing was satire and lay out more plainly the central ideas of what your were trying to say you probably didn’t do a very good job to start with.  Especially if your primary theme is that the general officers (the ones who can institute the change your talking about and, therefore, one of your primary audiences) are a bunch of knuckleheads, you probably don’t want to go for subtle threads of ideas.  You want to knock them over the head.  Besides, what are they going to do?  Kick you out of a war zone?
But, here he identifies some important issues:
A second theme was the way in which organizations function and why they don’t e.g. stovepipes, ad hoc or absent processes, run-away egos or adding bodies as a solution to every problem.
Maybe it’s just me but I much prefer this second letter (as a means to an end) to the first.
I, unfortunately, can completely relate to Col. Sellin’s frustration and sympathize with his position.  Events like this are a sign that you have a motivated person whose energy is being stifled.  That energy is going to express itself one way or another, if you suppress it through stupefying bureaucracy you’re likely to get events like this.  (Or a blog named after your dog, right?  eds.)
I suspect these organizations are simply too big to change, even if everyone agreed they were all screwed up without some major shock to the system.  Col. Sellin just ended up being collateral damage.
(h/t P.K.)

2 responses to “PowerPoint takes another hit

  1. Pingback: PowerPoint takes another hit | Travels with Shiloh | Great Powerpoint Presentations

  2. Pingback: Am I a hypocrite? | Travels with Shiloh

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