Why Use Models???

Introduction

Computer models have been used to describe social and economic systems for about 40 years now. Today, models are routinely used to analyse supply chains, the performance of national economies the spread of epidemics, population growth, the effects of climate change, food production and the spread of pollution. At CoDynamics, we use system dynamics models (or on occasion pure mathematical or statistical models) to underpin much of the work that we undertake. Our reasoning is that most (apocryphally 70%) of change initiatives fail to meet the promises that were made when the project was appraised and approved and this failure is in large part a failure to completely understand the problem which the change initiative is intended to fix. This post elaborates on why models are a vital component of understanding and changing what is going on in an organisation.

A point on terminology: the word model can mean a number of things but in this case, we are referring to simulations – i.e. models that reproduce structure and behaviour so that inputs can be processed and turned into meaningful results.

Everyone Uses Models, Most Aren’t Formal

People use models every day. Anyone who makes a prediction or tries to work out what is going on in a particular set of circumstances is using some kind of model. Our decisions and actions are based on our mental images of the world as we perceive it. When you close your eyes and imagine the consequences of someone’s actions, you are running a model, it just happens to be in your head and not written down.

Peter Senge [2] popularised the term mental models which he described as:

  • Deeply ingrained filters through which we interpret our experiences, understand the world and which affect how we take action.
  • Images, assumptions and stories which we carry in our minds describing every aspect of the world. They are unique to the individual and they are all flawed in some way.
  • Flexible, dealing with more than just numerical data and they can be modified as new information comes to light.

These kinds of models are implicit. Assumptions are hidden so ambiguities and contradictions remain undetected. Their structure and consistency are untested and usually, they are unsupported by data. Also, they are prone to being not understood by others. Interpretations differ.

Add to this the fact that people are not consistently rational. They are subject to emotions, unconscious motivations and a host of irrational urges Finally, our mental capacity falls woefully short of coping with the complexities of the real world . Psychologists have shown that we can only cope with a few factors when making decisions. In short, mental models are extremely simple and usually flawed.

Explicit Models Don’t Suffer From These Shortcomings

Computer models are explicit. Assumptions are laid out in detail for anyone to challenge and the effects of changing assumptions individually or in groups can be tested. They are comprehensive, coping with many factors simultaneously and they enable others to replicate your results.

Explicit models can incorporate the knowledge of many people, some of whom will be experts in their subject. Used well, they often become the focal point of multi-disciplinary teams that have been brought together to solve a problem.

You can calibrate and test the model with historical and current data and explicit models can be subjected to sensitivity analysis where a number of parameters can be tested to see which ones have the most effect on particular outcomes. With sensitivity analysis you can identify areas of risk and robustness and also, important thresholds. This in turn informs the debate about probabilities of (un)desirable outcomes and the trade-offs and options available to decision makers.

Which is not to claim that computer models are always perfect. Often they are poorly documented and therefore prone to being misunderstood. They can be made too complicated so there is no confidence in the correctness of their outputs and where factors are intangible and not easy to quantify, they can be subject to approximation and guesswork – how do you accurately portray the effects of poor teamwork for instance?

Uses of Models

Epstein [1] suggests a list of uses for models. The following is my condensed version:

Use 1: Explanation

How results occur in real life is not always obvious. Models can reveal hidden phenomena, weaknesses or imperfections in your organisation and help you understand (explain) how an event came to pass. As Epstein says “ understanding electrostatics doesn’t help you predict where the next lightning bolt will strike” – but it may persuade decision makers to install lightning rods on your buildings.

Uses 2 and 3: To Guide Data Collection and Discover New Questions

Model creation, especially when it is done by a team from within the organisation often highlights inadequacies in the available data which to be fair is usually collected for operational reporting and not troubleshooting purposes. As the model is built up and understanding increases, new theories about behaviour and relationships emerge and to test them, new questions have to be asked and new data collected. More often than not, it is the new questions which lead to breakthrough innovation.

Use 4: To illuminate Core Dynamics

As the famous statistician George Box said, “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” and the important point here is that models should not attempt to faithfully recreate reality. A model is a simplified and incomplete approximation. A good model will capture the underlying, often hidden truth about what is happening and bring it to the surface for all to see.

Use 5: To Suggest Analogies

Many seemingly unrelated syndromes have underlying rules and principles in common. Could the take up of a new product spread in the same way as an epidemic? The nobel laureate, Paul Samuelson wrote at length about the similarities between the monopolistic firm and an entropy-maximising thermodynamic system. Identifying an underpinning law can lead to an accelerated and deeper understanding of a situation and its possible solutions.

Use 6: To Demonstrate Trade-offs and Suggest Efficiencies

Once a model has been developed to the point where a simulation can be run, then any of it’s variables can be adjusted to see what effect they have on the outcome. The results can be surprising as the obvious candidates for adjustment often turn out not to have that great an effect when tweaked in isolation. The model is used to understand what combination of adjustments is needed to give the desired effect without the risk and expense of experimenting in real life. The model will also tell you how much of a performance improvement you can expect given a specific set of changes providing a more realistic estimate of return on the investment in changing your operation.

Use 7: To Guide Policy Development

It has long been acknowledged that efforts to solve a problem often make it worse. New policies can create unanticipated side effects and poor organisational performance can often be tracked back to policy decisions which were made to address a particular set of circumstances and never altered when those circumstances changed. Models can be used to show the effect of unhelpful policies.

Use 8: Test Options Cheaply In A Risk Free Environment

Most solutions can’t be tested in the real world because of the time it takes, the expense and the possibility of reputational damage if it all goes wrong. With a simulation, you can experiment to your heart’s content, trying out a range of options and tuning the most promising ones before embarking on implementation.

Use 9: To Communicate With, Educate and Train Stakeholders

One of the causes of resistance to change is a lack of trust – of managers and of the case for change. By providing a real-time demonstration of the problem and the proposed solution, models can help to overcome lack of trust. Turning the model into a management simulator by providing a set of user controls which the audience can alter is a particularly effective way of communicating the problem and its complexities.

It can be particularly powerful if when exposing the model to people, they identify variables or flows which the model hasn’t incorporated but which may be relevant. By adding new elements, which the audience deem to be important and demonstrating the effect (which may be minimal), you are not only demonstrating that their knowledge is being used – you may well discover something of importance.

Management simulators can also be useful adjuncts to the training process when the chosen solution is being rolled out.

Use 10: Reveal the Apparently Simple To Be Complex and Vice Versa

Models can be a very effective aid to decision making. They can reveal that apparently complex problems have a simple answer or alternatively they can be used to demonstrate beyond doubt that the obvious answer to a problem is not the right one and that prevailing wisdom is not compatible with the available data.

Use 11: Test Solutions In Extreme Conditions

Many organisations work well enough in everyday conditions but often, when a crisis occurs or when extreme conditions prevail, standard policies and operating procedures do not cope. Models allow you to test extremes in a safe environment and equip you with the knowledge to create meaningful contingency plans. Models can be used to inform operational risk management strategies.

Some Words of Caution

This doesn’t mean that the creation of models should be regarded as the answer to every problem. People assume that once a model has been created it can be used for prediction purposes, rather like a crystal ball. Although prediction may be feasible within bounds if the model was built with that in mind, it should not generally be thought of as the model’s raison d’etre.

Models should have a purpose and that purpose should be to shed light on if not solve a particular problem. The practitioner who proposes to model your entire organisation should be treated with suspicion. To recreate an entire system will make the model unnecessarily complicated, more prone to error and that much more difficult to maintain. Because most systems exist in an environment that is subject to regular change, the larger and more complicated the model, the more onerous the task of keeping it in line with changes in the real world and the higher the probability of introducing mistakes. The art of model building is knowing what to leave out and the model’s purpose defines the filter.

A model is only as good as the assumptions that it contains. These might be thought of as a description of the physical system and the rules which define its behaviour and the decision making process. Although this sounds straightforward, problems can occur in a number of areas:

  • Describing the decision rules: The way that decisions are made must be portrayed accurately even if it is sub-optimal. The model must reflect the actual decision making strategies used by individuals and take into account the shortcomings and limitations of those strategies. Discovering these rules is not easy requiring close observation and at times, the skills of a trained anthropologist.
  • Whereas representing numerical data is straightforward, quantifying soft and intangible variables such as reputation, optimism, product quality is not. Much soft data is never recorded and is entrenched in attitudes but if the decision making process is to be accurately represented, these factors must be included. A model which does not embrace qualitative knowledge is not going to tell you very much that isn’t obvious. The difficulty is that people will disagree about the interpretation of soft variables and so the modeller needs to understand through sensitivity analysis how conclusions might change if other plausible interpretations were used.
  • Choosing the model boundary is also a delicate task which needs a good deal of thought. Get it wrong and you are in danger of leaving out crucial elements or including too much unnecessary detail. The danger here is that the modeller will concentrate on those factors which she is comfortable with or which the sponsor deems important and in so doing, misses a crucial factor.

Models can’t be built in isolation, indeed they should be a means of uniting stakeholders around the problem – its definition and solution. Building the model with a cross disciplinary team and opening it up to regular inspection and criticism is a key part of making it represent the ‘real’ real world and as a side effect, if the consultation is thorough and wide ranging, it will help to minimise downstream resistance to change.

Conclusion

As long as the strengths and weaknesses of a model based approach are understood and accommodated, modelling a problem is hugely beneficial to the decision making process.The primary function of model based analysis is educative not predictive. Models are not meant to be a substitute for critical thought, but as a tool for improving judgement and confirming intuition, taking human fallibility out of the equation as far as possible. Indeed, the value of computer models derives from the difference between them and mental models. When the two are in conflict, the differences, when discovered will lead to an improvement in both.

Acknowledgements

This post is based on the author’s practical experience and draws on the wisdom to be found in the following publications:
[1]        Epstein J; “Why Model?”, http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/11/4/12.html
[2]        Senge P; 1994, “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook”, Nicholas Brealey Pubishing
[3]        Sterman J D; 2000 “Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modelling for a Complex World”, McGraw-Hill, MIT SLoan School of Management.

Posted in Change, Modelling, System Dynamics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Change Management: An Oxymoron

It is reasonable to say that few change initiatives are complete failures but very few are completely successful either. John Kotter first suggested in 1996 that 70% of change initiatives fail and since then, the position does not appear to have altered noticeably. Indeed, in The Global CEO Study (2004) IBM were suggesting that the rate of failure was as high as 90%.

There are a host of reasons why the number of successful implementations remains low but in this article we look at the idea of ‘change management’. I suggest that change can be facilitated, it can be led and while the thrust of this post is that it can’t be managed unless all stakeholders are behind the change, it can easily be mis-managed and therein lies a good deal of the explanation for the high failure rate.

The problem with the term ‘change management’ is that it lends a pseudo scientific aura to an activity which is rarely logical, frequently irrational and most definitely unpredictable. It creates a false yet comforting feeling of management control which in truth is an illusion. As a description, ‘management of change’ is an oxymoron, a result of our attempts to mechanise, codify and ‘professionalise’ our approach to human interaction. Reducing change to the use of formulae and tools doesn’t work because the nature of change has less to do with structure, strategy, process and planning (although these are necessary), and more to do with people and their instinctive reaction to change and to those leading it.

For change to be successful, mindsets, emotions values and assumptions must be navigated and influenced. All too often, these elements are not addressed properly and sometimes not at all. People are not the rational beings that leaders would like them to be and failure to achieve change usually has the substitution of management for leadership at its root.

The risk with change management as a discipline is that it can become an end in itself and when that happens, focus on the reason for making the change i.e. improved business performance can be lost. It is all too easy for executives to become mesmerised by the tidal wave of information available in print, online and of course provided by consultants about the why, what and how of change. Without the focus which the clear driving force that a business imperative provides, it becomes all too easy to over complicate things and get in a muddle.

So if change is not actually to be managed according to a prescription, how is it to be brought about in a way that maximises the chances of success? If a change initiative is going to improve performance, it has to address the right problem, the entire problem and all dimensions of the problem, both hard and soft. In their article ‘The Irrational SIde of Change Management’ Aitken and Keller of Mckinsey highlight the main building blocks of change which are generally recognised by practitioners:

  1. A compelling story
  2. Role modelling :- where leaders behaviours and actions set an example for the workforce
  3. Reinforcing mechanisms :- all aspects of the required change need to be continually emphasised and rewarded until they are embedded
  4. Capability building :- people have to be equipped with whatever is needed to work in the new way.

And these are hard to disagree with but I suggest they don’t tell the whole story. In particular, they don’t address the emotional, irrational side of people’s reaction to change.

Lets examine the sort of mistakes that can be made when insufficient emphasis is placed on the people dimension of organisational change management:

Leadership Mistakes
The number of ways that the leadership can get it wrong is probably infinite. Here we point to some of the more tricky examples less often encountered in the textbooks.

It is a common misperception that leaders can simply order a change. The process is straightforward (they believe): establish a task force to lay out what needs to be done, when and by whom, then all that remains is to implement the plan (a delightfully innocent sounding euphemism). But what happens when people don’t buy the rationale, don’t believe what they are being told, in short don’t want to change? Many outcomes are possible, but one thing is for sure, the plan won’t be worth the paper it is written on.

On average, 20% of an organisation’s employees will support a change from the outset, 50% will sit on the fence and 30% will oppose it. Different tactics are required for each group. The focus for leaders should be the supporters who must be encouraged and rewarded and the opponents who must be dealt with. Unfortunately, blanket approaches which don’t segment stakeholders according to their attitude are often used and these are usually not very effective.

All organisational change creates winners and losers and political skulduggery will occur when influential people are in danger of losing out in some way. In that situation, it is best to try and resolve their issues. It may be possible to negotiate a way forward although horse trading can open the door to blackmail and consequent damage to reputations. If issue resolution won’t work and a negotiated truce can’t be agreed, then the disenchanted have to be managed out quickly and leaders have to be prepared to grasp this nettle. Unfortunately, many shy away from the task even though they know that they are storing up trouble for the future.

In order to reduce anxiety, both leaders and employees, want to believe that someone, somewhere is in control of the change. However this is a vain hope. The best that can ever be hoped for is partial control. There is a tidal of wave of support for the notion that says outside of a dire emergency where speed is of the essence, successful leadership of change requires the loosening of controls combined with workforce participation in the design and implementation of the change. Yet few management teams trust the workforce to the point that they are prepared to loosen their grip on the reins in a time of flux.

Lack of trust is an issue which can lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary confrontation. If an unpleasant outcome is not perceived as fair, anger and resentment are easily stirred up. Where levels of trust between employees and managers are low, resentments must be surfaced and dealt with honestly because without prompt and unbiased attention they can develop into full blown resistance very quickly. A related, but highly tempting error is making promises of the “you do this for me and I will make sure that you are looked after” variety. It is a mistake to make such promises because in a time of change there are no guarantees and failure to deliver on a promise will quickly become highly visible.

Finally, managers must be prepared to acknowledge their contribution to the problem situation and often, they find this difficult. Either they don’t believe they need to change and so they don’t provide the necessary role modelling, or even if they do understand the need for changes in the way that they operate, emotionally they cant make the transition. Peter Drucker famously observed that managers’ inability to change their attitudes and behaviour is the major obstacle to organisational growth.

Poor Alignment
The simplest definition of alignment that I ever saw is “everyone’s noses pointing in the direction”. This is easy to say, but hard to achieve, especially when you understand that both management and workforce noses are being referred to. Alignment comes from participation in determining the problem and designing the solution. This in turn generates commitment which is much more effective than the alternative, compliance.

Leaders and employees have different perspectives on change. Whereas the leadership uses change to strengthen and renew the organisation and also as a way to take on new professional challenges and to enhance their track record, employees see change as disruptive, a threat to organisational balance and often, a risk to what they have already secured. For a change initiative to stand a chance of being successful, common ground has to be found between these naturally incompatible agendas.

Stories have a role to play in bringing groups together but employees won’t relate to a story that they haven’t had a hand in writing. The type of story matters as well. A negative story describing what’s wrong and specifying the necessary corrective measures will not resonate as well as a positive image of a bright future – but for real engagement you need both: the negative to spell out the consequences of no change and the positive to engage people in what the organisation could be. However, care must be taken when describing the burning platform to ensure that the debate does not descend into blame and recrimination.

Another common mistake is not appreciating that there are different ways to engage with the workforce, depending on the context and urgency of the situation. Diagram 1 illustrates the pros and cons of different approaches as envisaged by Kotter and Schlesinger.

Approaches for stakeholder engagement

Diagram 1. Approaches to Engaging the Workforce

The point that is often missed when planning a change initiative is that depending on the mood of different stakeholder groups, a combination of these approaches might be necessary perhaps in sequence and often in parallel. Assuming that a single approach handed down by a wise and powerful management team will work for everyone is certain to result in some recipients switching off and disengaging. Ultimately, this a sign of inadequate planning which will make the change task that much harder.

Mishandling Resistance
Resistance can kill a change initiative but it is not inevitable. People are not naturally resistant and inflexible. Left to their own devices, people change all of the time. Look back at any randomly selected day in your life. It would be surprising if you couldn’t identify changes which you made or accommodated without any great fuss. What people react badly to, is the feeling of powerlessness and unfairness which results from inadequate involvement and imposed change. Problems occur when people don’t understand or believe in the rationale or they don’t trust the people delivering the message.

Often, the leadership’s approach to resistance determines the rate and quality of progress. Lacking trust, managers anticipate resistance as an unavoidable part of the change process. Seeing it as inevitable, they plan how they are going to ‘manage’ it and sometimes even provoke it to get it out in the open. In short, their expectation becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. But change resistance does not have to be treated as a natural by-product of the change process to be anticipated and overcome. Resistance is simply an indicator that there are issues and problems which are important to a group a of stakeholders which have not been addressed satisfactorily – no more, no less. If these problems are tackled openly and fairly, then resistance will ebb away. The complicating factor is that often, the unresolved problems are closely associated with the workforce’s perception of the leadership and unfortunately, the leadership team, with their own set of filters firmly in place are not inclined to recognise and acknowledge these problems let alone deal with them. As a consequence, problems are left to fester with bad feeling becoming entrenched.

Resistance is rarely overcome by management dictat. Under pressure, it usually goes underground only to surface later. Sometimes it changes its form but rarely is it managed out of existence. The toll on managers and those who are managed quickly escalates when this approach is used. If the causal issues are not addressed, the best that can be hoped for is a painful limp to the finish line with an accumulated reservoir of resentment, bitterness and cynicism that can linger in the organisation’s culture for decades. In the worst case, the change initiative is simply abandoned with the concomitant painful consequences.

Misunderstanding Use of the Change Curve
Most people are aware of the change curve. It charts the emotional ups and downs that people go through when they are subjected to change and leaders are expected to make allowance for this cycle.

A standard depiction of a change curve

Diagram 2. A Typical Change Curve

However, there are three key mistakes which are often made when using the change curve:

  1. Not realising that change starts with an ending phase where people have to come to terms with saying goodbye to the old world before adjusting to their new situation (see the line under the graph in diagram 1). John Maynard Keynes once said that ‘the greatest difficulty in the world is not for people to accept new ideas, but to make them forget their old ideas’.
  2. Not allowing for the fact that people will progress at different rates along the curve, sometimes getting stuck in a particular frame of mind and sometimes reverting back to an earlier one. It is not a linear progression.
  3. Not understanding that by the time the change is being communicated to the workforce, the leadership have already had time to process and understand the new concepts and ideas. In effect they are in area A in diagram 3, whereas the workforce are still firmly stuck in area B. People not only need time to work through that part of the change curve, they need different amounts of time.

Leading and trailing positions on the change curve.

Diagram 3. Leading and Trailing Positions on the Change Curve.

All too often leaders feel frustrated and impatient because the recipients of their carefully honed communications fail to ‘get it’. What they are not allowing for in their frustration is the fact that everyone responds to imposed change differently and comes to terms with it at a different rate. The other thing they miss is that have the benefit of a head start of several weeks of planning and thinking about the future.

The project management fraternity don’t help either. They create linear plans which often underestimate the time taken to get people into area A and which don’t make allowances for different rates of travel. Even when it is apparent that the plan is inadequate they insist on sticking to it: “We know there are unresolved issues, Mr Sponsor but we are confident they can be dealt with downstream and we need to stick to the plan for credibility’s sake”. So everyone moves to the next stage regardless of the fact that a large fraction of the workforce are far from ready. The Change Readiness Assessment, can be another false prophet lending a false sense of security to the proceedings. Rarely does a CRA tell a story which is remotely congruent with reality because in general, they are not sufficiently context specific and don’t test the things that matter, such as where the majority of the workforce are on the change curve and whether the problems which are causing the workforce genuine concern have been identified and are being addressed properly.

Change leaders should keep in mind that when the workforce can’t cope with the extent of change and/or the rate of change necessary for the transition to be regarded as a success, further problems are not far around the corner. The change plan has to be able to accommodate the fact that bringing about a change in attitude or mindset, especially a group mindset is circular and is different from creating software or planning a construction project.

Treating The Symptoms And Not The Cause
Sometimes, a change initiative will complete on time without too much collateral damage and will be hailed as a success. As time goes on however, it becomes apparent that the anticipated improvements are not coming through. The reason? Very often it is a case of failing to identify the fundamental cause of the problem which triggered the attempted change, treating the symptoms instead.

These kinds of failures often have a structural or a timing dimension. People miss this because they tend to focus on the situation in front of them without pondering deeply about how it came about. If a change initiative is to have a reasonable chance of success then the right things must be tackled. This means taking into account that:

  • The complexity of the business environment tends to exceed our understanding resulting in seemingly obvious solutions to problems failing or generating unintended consequences
  • The patterns and cycles which limit performance emerge from structures and behaviours. If these are not addressed, then problems will re-emerge regularly
  • Processes are rarely linear and sequential although they are often depicted in that way . Reinforcing and balancing feedback loops between parts of the organisation make for circular flows, limiting performance and making it hard to isolate cause and effect. Delays and random perturbations in feedback loops create instability.
  • Cause and effect are often separated in time and people tend to miss the association. This is compounded because effects are usually not linear or proportional to the cause.
  • Time delays between the initiative and the results can result in things getting worse before they get better. A ‘short termist’ approach can subvert high leverage policies

Making sure that the hard and soft dimensions of the right problem and the entire problem are properly addressed is not simple, but failure to do this is akin to treating the symptoms of dysentery without checking that the water supply is healthy. If validation is not done thoroughly, unrealistic or unachievable benefits will find their way into the business case. Leadership must make sure that the benefits are real. They also need to make certain that the change will not introduce a new tranche of problems which in turn will lead to further(avoidable) change.

In Summary

This post list of the kinds of thing that can go wrong when initiating change is illustrative and far from exhaustive but hopefully it will make clear that change will go wrong much more easily than it will go right. It is vitally important therefore that if you don’t have the necessary skills and experience in-house, you should get help from people who can prove by dint of their track record that they know what they are doing. To help you on your way, here are some points to keep in mind:

When looking for help, be suspicious of references to best practice. Change, more than any other activity is contextual which means that what works well in one set of circumstances is not guaranteed to be successful in different circumstances. In the same vein, be wary of people who place heavy emphasis on their process. Process doesn’t help when dealing with intangibles such as anger, mistrust and resentful compliance which is the currency that you are likely to be trading in on a large scale.

Unless you are in a dire emergency, in which case you need to put the fires out before hoisting the sails and setting a new course, your best chance of success is to abandon ideas of top down ‘management of change’ in favour of getting the majority of affected people behind the problem definition and it’s proposed solution.

Give the workforce time and support while they move along the change curve. Never try to rush this phase, especially if the motivation for doing so is compliance with the dates on a project plan. If you do, you will only create the illusion of progress. Take the time to get it right if you don’t want to go back and do it again with a more disenchanted audience, the best of whom are probably in the process of jumping ship.

If you want to be sure that you will achieve the expected results without performance draining unintended consequences, you have to prove up front that you are addressing the fundamental problem and the entire problem and that the proposed course of action is not going to introduce new problems. We use models and simulation for this as they do all of the above and are an excellent means of communicating both the problem and the solution the workforce. When we get to the point where the organisation feels that it owns the model, we know that we have done our job.

You have to be prepared to acknowledge that if the organisation is in trouble, that management are just as likely to be culpable as the workforce. Do not allow managers to assume that change is only for the masses and not the leadership.

Bon voyage.

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Beyond Powerpoint

Having been in the consulting business and latterly interim management for (ahem) decades, Microsoft’s Powerpoint is a tool which has been hard to avoid. Twenty years ago, it didn’t have any serious competition and since then, due I think to a combination of overuse and misuse, audiences have become more and more underwhelmed with presentations and reports done as a powerpoint pack, especially as the ability to pack more and more information onto a page has increased. Not for nothing has the phrase “death by Powerpoint” entered the lexicon.

However, you have to ask, what’s the alternative? some time ago, I migrated all of my IT to a Mac environment – and while I have no doubt that the Apple world is a more productive world than that of Microsoft, it doesn’t solve the problem of slide abuse. I could make a case for Keynote being a better presentation tool than Powerpoint, but fundamentally it is not significantly different, it is just easier and simpler to use. Where there are gaps, (Powerpoint has more features) these are usually things which you don’t actually need. I suggest that the weakness of all conventional presentation software is the page oriented format, it is too easy to create boring slides and when done, too easy to take individual pages out of context.

Recently, there has been some media commentary about a system dynamics diagram of the war in Afghanistan created by PA Consulting in Powerpoint for the US Military

Afghanistan summary

Communication is an art form

and it does look like an unstructured mess. In a press conference, General Stanley McChrystal said “when we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war. Unsurprisingly, the media latched onto this comment and had a field day with it. As a typical example, here is what the New York Times had to say.

However there are two points which were missed in the ensuing brouhaha:

  1. The situation in Afghanistan is extremely complicated and can’t be described adequately with a simple laundry list; and
  2. The slide in question summarises an accompanying 30 page slide set which drills down into the detail, presenting the story in easier to digest chunks.

If you take the summary slide together with the backing pack you get a reasonably well constructed description of a complicated and difficult situation but the press chose not take this view.

You might argue that the folks at PA Consulting should have known better; people are who are put through the ‘big consulting’ sheep dip are taught never to make it easy for the crunch part of document (the conclusions and recommendations and definitely anything that contains estimates) to get separated from the assumptions that were used to arrive at that end point but in this case, I think they deserve some sympathy because they couldn’t really have known that General McChrystal was going to take a cheap shot at their work in front of his country’s press and it is hard to believe that he didn’t know the effect his words would have on that audience.

This storm in a teacup illustrates the damage that can be done when parts of a document gets separated form the main body and used out of context and this brings me to the subject of this post. This week, I was made aware of an alternative presentation tool called Prezi which at first contact looks pretty good. It dispenses with the page by page presentation mode and provides a single canvas on which you dump all of your thoughts. The canvas can be as big or as small as you need. When you have assembled the presentation elements on the canvas, you can then group them, layer them, emphasise some of them and define a path through them and add presentational effects.

The end result is a more visually interesting presentation and a tendency to put only one thing on the screen at a time which you can then talk about in free form, rather than put up lists of bullet points ( you can still have lists if you want, but they are not the default option). Take a look at this prezi: http://prezi.com/mojdt36mrozf/mixing-mind-and-metaphor/ and then see how it is used by the presenter James Geary http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/james_geary_metaphorically_speaking.html The presentation lasts 9 and a half minutes. As an aside, if you have not seen a TED talk before, there is some truly fascinating material to be found on their site.

I for one think Prezi looks like a more lively and engaging way of presenting. It moves emphasis away from the slide to what is being said. Judging from the enthusiastic comments on the Prezi site, I am not alone in this opinion, but it is early days for me and I haven’t tried to find its limitations – and there must be a some; here a few possibles that I can think of:

  1. You might argue that it doesn’t offer anything that Powerpoint can’t do, but I am inclined to think that the change in emphasis from page to canvas is a strong differentiator
  2. I don’t think it going to be very good as a reporting tool, i.e. hard copy does not appear not to be its forte but again, doing one thing well is probably an improvement
  3. Prezis are built online. Licensing is subscription based ranging from free – for which you get 100MB storage, to Professional which gives you a desktop version of the software as well as 2GB of storage and costs $159 per year – which I think is a bit pricy unless you are a professional presenter
  4. It is Flash based and so may not work on your iPad
  5. Too much panning and zooming can cause a feeling of motion sickness in the audience and so some restraint is required.

But overall I like it. What do you think? Let’s hear your views, especially if you are an experienced user.

Posted in Communications, System Dynamics, Tools | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Hello world!

Hello world indeed. That phrase is redolent of the first C programme I wrote thirty years ago which is fitting as this is my first ever blog post.

Watch this space for more meaningful commentary on the subject of organisations, how they work and how to make them work better.

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