By Sotirios Paroutis
There can be few executives involved in organisational strategy work who have not used PowerPoint, or some similar visual device.
In fact, PowerPoint, invented in 1990 and with more than one billion users, is so popular it has experienced something of a backlash. Some organisations, notably Amazon, for example, have forbidden or discouraged its use, and then there is the widely discussed “death by PowerPoint” phenomenon.
However, while some might argue that overreliance on slide presentations encourages a lazy approach to the representation of information, PowerPoint and other visual presentational software are important and powerful tools.
Indeed, while most people use such visual aids as part of a strategic tool kit, I believe there is a strong argument for making visual aids, such as PowerPoint, central to the creation, discussion, dissemination and implementation of organisational strategy.
Strategy professionals face considerable challenges in the current business environment. For example, the fourth industrial revolution and its many technological advances only serve to amplify the volatility, uncertainty and complexity inherent in the business world.
Digital disruption is redrawing the boundaries of value ecosystems, reshaping organisations, and their relations with other players in the market and rendering traditional business models impotent. Executives ask: “How can we make sure our business strategy keeps pace with the shifting demands of our stakeholders?”
This is where visual representation can play a central role, rather than merely being an adjunct to strategy development. Visuals contain a number of attributes that make them suitable for strategy development in the modern world; they involve both the easily understood representation of information, provoke meaningful discussion, involve all the stakeholders that the organisation believes relevant to any formulation of strategy, are immediate, and they are amenable to updating and evolving.
In studying the use of PowerPoint in strategy development, together with my colleagues Eric Knight, of the University of Sydney and Loizos Heracleous, of Warwick Business School, we focused on two consulting engagements in particular.
The first involved a global mining company that wanted to centralise its multi-divisional IT function. The second case was the newly formed Budget Management Office (BMO) of a state Government treasury, tasked with implementing Government-wide, cost saving measures.
We discovered that PowerPoint slides are particularly useful for tackling complex issues, where those issues might be capable of a range of interpretations or involve divergent opinions, or politically sensitive situations. Equally, those involved in creating and modifying the PowerPoint slides strongly influenced the direction of the strategy. Thus, effective PowerPoint skills are critical for managers that want to shape the nature and speed of strategy engagements.
Visual Strategy Framework
From our observations, we were also able to set out the Visual Strategy Framework (VSF) which practitioners can use in order to place visuals at the heart of strategy practice. The framework, which relates different aspects of PowerPoint’s use as part of the strategy meaning making process, consists of a number of elements.
1 Visual Mechanisms
Principally there are three visual mechanisms: depiction, juxtaposition, and salience. The visual mechanisms prompt recognition of different aspects of strategy through the conversations they stimulate, both in terms of what is contained in the slides and what is missing.
2 Strategic Visibility
This recognition is associated with the ideas of taking notice, seeing linkages, and recognising prominence. We call this element strategic visibility.
3 Strategic Resonance
This is when in making the strategy visible through slides people then go-ahead and put it into action through organising meetings, browsing and collecting documents, conducting interviews or modifying slides. Strategic resonance is associated with the ideas of adding relevance, multi-faceted strategies and politically acceptable strategies.
Taken together these three elements represent an iterative strategy development process involving the PowerPoint slide visuals along with the discussions, understandings, and actions, associated with them.
Before examining the three visual mechanisms — depiction, juxtaposition, and salience — in more detail, there are two further aspects of the visual strategy making process that need to be considered.
The first is the importance of determining the key strategic objectives. Does the organisation want to target a particular market, or reposition itself within its value ecosystem, for example? These need to be decided at the outset and considered in respect of both internal and external stakeholders.
It is also important to consider the three C’s — clarify, communicate, co-create. This is a simple way of thinking about the overall objectives for the use of visuals in strategy-making practice. By rendering information in a visual format the aim is to clarify to others, notably key stakeholders, what the strategy is all about. To set out key strategic objectives, make clear and answer fundamental questions such as: ‘Where are we heading? What are we trying to achieve?’
By clarifying, strategists will also be communicating to stakeholders. Not just communicating information per se, but delivering messages and framing any subsequent debate about strategy.
The third point, co-creation, is perhaps the most interesting. It is perfectly legitimate for organisations to seek only to clarify and communicate their strategy, limiting the opportunity for input from those outside the core personnel engaged in strategy development. However, many organisations will choose, to some extent, to create a dialogue around strategy development and seek the input from a variety of sources. Thus, the visuals will prompt debate, and consideration given to how to edit, iterate, and evolve them.
Assuming an organisation wishes to engage in the co-creation of strategy it will also need to consider how to manage the process. For example, should the strategy team develop the PowerPoint, then take the output from that process and engage the rest of the organisation? Or should the strategy team involve the rest of the organisation from the very early stages?
There is no right or wrong choice between a more closed process, focusing predominantly on clarification and communication, with co-creation restricted to limited individuals, or a more open process.
However, if there is a discrepancy between the organisation’s values generally and the visuals creating process, that could cause some issues. For example, an organisation that professes to be transparent in its values and to empower employees and encourage employee participation, would have to think carefully before opting for visuals development that stressed a more closed clarification and communication process, rather than co-creation.
Equally, if other key players in the industry are more open in their strategy development, especially in connection with external stakeholders such as consumers, it may be necessary to follow their example.
The three visual mechanisms
For those seeking to incorporate PowerPoint as a central element in strategy development, it is essential to understand the three visual mechanisms and their roles within the development of visuals (and therefore strategy).
Depiction is often deployed early on in the strategy development process. It might be the use of a picture, such as a photograph, a text only slide, or a visual metaphor alluding to strategy principles.
One reason depiction is useful is that it can put some distance between emotions and biases that might exist, relating to the slide’s author or the subject matter, for example, and the information conveyed, enabling the analysis, discussion and evaluation of contentious issues. It can depersonalise disagreements.
The second mechanism, juxtaposition, is about how people choose to combine different elements within the slide, side-by-side, to give particular meaning to information. They can do this, for example, using matrices, tables, flow charts and graphs. Strategists use juxtaposition to provoke new linkages between previously disconnected aspects of a strategy, to reveal connections that were hidden.
Conversations associated with the juxtaposition of information in slides will inevitably cover the comparisons and connections drawn between different aspects of the strategy. And in turn the connections and conversations will motivate new and revised strategy actions, providing a multi-faceted dimension to strategic resonance.
Then a third visual mechanism is salience. This is where elements of the visual stand out relative to other areas. Strategists will use salience to draw attention to different aspects of the strategy through various devices within the slides. So for example, they might use: colour contrasts, bright colours standing out from darker colours; larger shapes that are more noticeable than smaller shapes; and place features centrally to attract more attention than features on the periphery.
The effect of salience, is that the specific aspects of strategies which are emphasised, take on greater symbolic meaning or importance, provoking discussion, and gaining strategic visibility. This visibility gives a degree of legitimacy and power to a particular aspect of the depicted strategy, making it more politically acceptable and expedient to use terms given prominence in this way in the slides.
Thus the visuals, discussion around the visuals, iteration and evolution of the visuals, is a continual process working towards delivering key strategic objectives agreed at the outset. The visuals prompt discussion, which prompts revision of the visuals, in a virtuous cycle of strategy development.
This VSF highlights how PowerPoint can play a central role in strategy development and is particularly useful for addressing contentious or conceptually complex issues. It can help to make sense of open-ended issues that, because they are often conceptually ambiguous, analytically complex or politically contentious, are capable of multiple interpretations. Appropriate use of PowerPoint slides can provoke discussion, not only about what is present in the slides, but also what is missing from them, and in doing so expose divergent opinions.
Strategists who decide to make visuals a central part of the strategy development process must bear in mind the framework outlined.
As they do so they will not only consider the three visual mechanisms and their particular use, as they construct the visual elements, but also how they will handle the discussions around the visuals. How is discussion around that input, going to be structured? Which aspects of that discussion are going to be represented back in the visuals? How can that representation of stakeholder discussion incorporate the three visual mechanisms outlined?
Despite some criticism of the use of PowerPoint our research shows that PowerPoint and similar visual presentational tools can play an invaluable role in strategy development.
One major benefit of using the VSF for strategy development is that the output can be both fixed and constantly evolving. Thus, if particular strategic outcomes are required by a specified date they can be produced in a PowerPoint for that milestone. While, at the same time, the visuals can continue to be modified in an emergent way to reflect necessary changes as the business environment demands.
Knight, E. and Paroutis, S. (2019) “ How Visual Methods Can Enhance Our Understanding of Strategy and Management”, Research Methodology in Strategy and Management, 11, 77–90.
Knight, E., Paroutis, S. and Heracleous, L. T. (2018) “ The power of PowerPoint : a visual perspective on meaning making in strategy”, Strategic Management Journal, 39, 3, 894–921.
Paroutis S., Knight E. 2019. Visuals in Open Strategy. In The Cambridge Handbook of Open Strategy, Seidl D., Von Krogh G., Whittington R. (eds), Cambridge University Press, 205–218.
Sotirios Paroutis is Professor of Strategic Management and lectures on Strategy and Practice on the Distance learning MBA, Full-time MBA and Executive MBA. He also teaches Strategy in Practice on the MSc Marketing & Strategy
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