Home > Creativity, design, education, leadership, management, Military, politics, research > Systems dynamics meets the Afghan war via Powerpoint

Systems dynamics meets the Afghan war via Powerpoint


It is becoming a common practice to laugh at that slide, but try on this thought experiment:

what if someone made a slide of a zoom in on the surface of a semi-conductor chip?

Wouldn’t that seem as incomprehensible and “foolish”? and yet by the slow process of developing knowledge we have become capable of extraordinary things enabled by semiconductors and information theory

In 2005 or so, MIT Systems Dynamics lab came by Bell Hall to demonstrate their model of COIN in Iraq which had many thousands of nodes and relationships between nodes.

It was much busier than that slide. And yet somehow that very complex model yielded important insights related to the management of complexity in a way that transcended simple rules of cause and effect.

Complexity requires new forms of building and communicating understanding and appreciation, which cannot be easily transmitted through the linear text modes favored by those who want to see a return to management by info papers only.

It would take many books to flesh out a detailed description of what that one slide is already able to represent in a single image, admittedly busy.

Does anyone think war in Afghanistan is any less complex than the slide indicates? If anything, it’s absurdly simplistic.

In any event, developing models of complexity is exactly how you go about making the unknown a little more knowable.

A systems dynamics model is the first step towards building collaborative understanding of complexity.

We laugh about the 6 blind men trying to describe the elephant, but we forget that after each has shared his limited experience of the elephant, we are left with a pretty good list of what qualities the elephant actually has, and those 6 blindmen collectively know more about elephants together than they did individually.

that’s what that slide says to me.

And those who would eliminate Powerpoint on principle are apparently making the argument that visual learning and graphics degrade communication.

Like any other tool (Powerpoint, not me) I am against the misuse of Powerpoint in the classroom or in decision making.

I acknowledge that it is all too easy to confuse activity (including “busy” slides) with results

But I also know of excellent resources broadly available that make visual display of information a communication multiplier:

Garr Reynolds: Presentation Zen

Cliff Atkinson: Beyond Bullet Points

Edward Tufte: everything he has ever written

Seth Groden: many things he has written

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