Sotirios Paroutis, Professor of Strategic Management at Warwick Business School, reveals how PowerPoint can be used to develop strategy and provides a new, enlightening framework for managers to do so.
PowerPoint’s Surprising Role in Strategy Development by CoBS Editor Nicolas Desarnauts, based on an article appearing in Warwick Business School News
Across all countries, languages, and cultures, there are few managers involved in organisational strategy who have never used PowerPoint for their professional work. In fact, the visual presentation program—invented in 1990 by Microsoft and counting over one billion users—is so popular, it has experienced something of a backlash. Organisations such as Amazon have forbidden or discouraged its use, its misuse has led to the emergence of the “death by PowerPoint” phenomenon, and some have argued that over reliance on the program’s slide presentations has encouraged a lazy and ineffective approach to the representation of information. Nevertheless, Professor Sotirios Paroutis believes PowerPoint and other visual presentation programs remain important and powerful tools. He argues that—while most people already use such visual aids as part of their strategic toolkit—there is a strong case for making programs such as PowerPoint central to the creation, discussion, dissemination, and implementation of organisational strategy.
The versatility and influence of visuals
Strategy professionals face considerable challenges in the current business environment. The coming “fourth industrial revolution” and its many technological advances will only amplify the volatility, uncertainty, and complexity inherent in the business world. Moreover, digital disruption is redrawing the boundaries of value ecosystems, reshaping organisations and their relations with other players in the market while rendering traditional business models impotent. In this dynamic context, managers are constantly striving to keep their business strategy up to pace with the shifting demands of their stakeholders. According to Prof. Paroutis, this is where, rather than merely being an adjunct to strategy development, visual representation can come to play a central role. Visuals contain a number of attributes that make them suitable for strategy development in the modern world; they involve the easily understood representation of information, provoke meaningful discussion, involve all the stakeholders that the organisation believes relevant to any formulation of the strategy, are immediate, and are amenable to updating and evolving.
In order to better understand how these attributes could apply to the development of strategy, Prof. Paroutis along with his colleagues, Professors Eric Knight of the University of Sydney and Loizons Heracleous of Warwick Business School, conducted an in-depth study of two consulting cases. The first involved the reorganisation of a global mining company’s IT functions and the second the implementation of government-wide cost-saving measures for the state treasury. Through their research, the professors discovered that PowerPoint slides are particularly useful for tackling complex issues—especially when those issues may be susceptible to a range of different interpretations and opinions or involve politically sensitive situations. What’s more, they found that those involved in the creation of PowerPoint slides strongly influenced the direction of an organisation’s strategy.
A framework for successful strategies and visuals
Manifestly, strong PowerPoint skills are critical for managers seeking to shape their organisation’s strategy. But effectively using the visual program may not be as easy as it seems. From their observations, Prof. Paroutis and his colleagues succeeded in collecting numerous insights that can help managers optimize their use of PowerPoint. To organise these insights, they developed the Visual Strategy Framework that makes it easier to place visuals at the heard of strategy development. The framework—which relates different aspects of PowerPoint’s use as part of the strategy development process—consists of a number of elements, notably strategic resonance and visual mechanisms.
Strategic resonance refers to the translation of the strategy to a visual format. In doing so, managers must strive to add relevance while understanding the multi-faceted and politically-sensitive nature of strategies. Prof. Paroutis emphasises the two key aspects of this visual strategy-making process that must be carefully considered:
- The first is the importance of determining key strategic objectives. Does the organisation want to target a particular market or reposition itself within its value ecosystem, for example? These objectives must be decided at the outset by the organisation and considered with respect to both internal and external stakeholders.
- The second is the importance of considering the so-called three C’s—clarify, communicate, co-create. By rendering information in a visual format, the aim is to clarify the strategy to others—notably key stakeholders. It is, therefore, crucial to provide answers to questions such as: “Where is the organisation heading? What it is trying to achieve?” before they are asked. Through these clarifications, managers will be doing more than just communicating to stakeholders—they will also be delivering and framing the debate about the strategy while proving relevant information. Creating a dialogue—especially by using visuals—can be highly beneficial. However, while inviting input on a strategy from a variety of sources can help it evolve, it is important to manage the scope of a co-creation process and recognize its limits.
Central to Prof. Paroutis’ framework are visual mechanisms such as depiction, juxtaposition, and salience. They 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. For those seeking to use PowerPoint for their 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 slide with only text, or a visual metaphor alluding to the strategy’s principles.
- Juxtaposition refers to the combination of different elements within a slide, side-by-side, to give new meaning to information. This can be done, for instance, using matrices, tables, flow charts, and graphs. Strategists use juxtaposition to provoke new linkages between previously disconnected aspects of a strategy—to reveal previously hidden connections.
- Salience is the use of visual elements to draw attention to different aspects of the strategy and make them stand out relative to other areas. Colour contrasts, bright colours standing out from darker colours, larger shapes that are more noticeable, features placed centrally in a slide can all help attract more attention to the specific aspects of the strategy which need to be emphasised. 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 support.
The discussion around visuals and the iteration and evolution of visuals is a continual process working towards delivering key strategic objectives agreed on at the outset. Visuals used effectively help prompt discussion, which prompts their own revision and a virtuous cycle of strategy development.
An invaluable tool for strategy development
Despite some criticism of the use of PowerPoint, Prof. Paroutis’ Visual Strategy Framework highlights how PowerPoint can play an invaluable role in strategy development and is particularly useful for addressing contentious or conceptually complex issues. It can help organisations comprehend open-ended issues that are often subject to multiple interpretations because of their conceptually ambiguous, analytically complex, or politically contentious nature. Moreover, appropriate use of PowerPoint slides can provoke meaningful discussion and expose divergent opinions that support the development of strategy. Managers who decide to make use of visuals in this process should keep Prof. Paroutis’ research in mind. By considering strategic resonance and visual mechanisms, they can enhance their use of visual presentation programs like PowerPoint to achieve greater influence on their organisations’ strategies.
- View Prof. Sotirios Paroutis’s academic profile
- Link up with Prof. Paroutis via LinkedIn
- Discover the degree portfolio at Warwick Business School.
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