Home > Systems Thinking > We have met an ally and he is Storytelling

We have met an ally and he is Storytelling

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by isee’s consulting & training partner Chris Soderquist


iStock_000010849371XSmall The April 26, 2010 article in the New York Times titled “We have met the enemy and he is PowerPoint” has created quite a stir. It is particularly telling that three days after its publication, it is the most emailed article on their website! The most interesting aspect of the article to me, as a system dynamics practitioner, is the publication of a system dynamics map on the US Counter-insurgency strategy as the example (i.e. visual sound bite) demonstrating why PowerPoint is so problematic. This is actually a poor example of the author’s point, since it is not PowerPoint, and because the map was shown out of context.

Although the diagram doesn’t portray how or why PowerPoint is misused, it does demonstrate some reasons why system dynamics maps and models are not more broadly used to communicate systemic issues. In this post, I will describe what issues a PowerPoint paradigm creates and how system dynamics can address those issues; more importantly, I will show why the STELLA and iThink software have features such as storytelling and web publishing in order to help people develop deeper, more systemic understanding of the complex problems humanity must address.

The Problem with PowerPoint

I don’t have anything against using PowerPoint. Those of you who have taken one of my webinars for isee systems know that I rely heavily on the software in my instruction and facilitation. I think there are inherent software limitations that combine with a cultural paradigm, that lead to its misuse. Currently, I see it promotes the following approaches to problem solving:

  1. Narrow focus in space and time – due to limited screen real estate
  2. Passive absorption of information of data – lazy learning, not experiential
  3. Simplistic bullet point thinking – linear thinking, focusing on factors in a non-operational way

iStock_000005896614XSmall This all creates confusion between reducing complication and simplifying complexity. The world is a dynamically complex place, and thank goodness for that! Picture the blandness of a world that is simple, where everyone thought and acted the same, where you always knew exactly what would happen because it was so simple. Boring! On the other hand, dynamic complexity makes it difficult to resolve what currently appear to be intractable problems, such as environmental degradation, poverty, global economic turmoil. Living in a dynamically complex world necessitates finding ways to simplify complexity to its essence, making manageable and useful mental models.

That’s why people are drawn to lists (e.g., bullet point and linear thinking), believing it simplifies complexity; just give me a list of what’s wrong or what to do! What lists do well is remove complication, but they also remove the dynamic essence of reality, often making mental models that are less than useful.

System dynamics

System dynamics is an approach to building understanding that expands boundaries, looks at the world as comprised of feedback loops, uses a visual language that promotes operational thinking, and creates active learning. It’s a terrific approach to counter the many problems inherent in applying PowerPoint paradigm!

All of the above helps develop useful mental models that are both simplified and still capture the essence of reality. However, taking a map out of context – even one much simpler than shown in the article – and including it in PowerPoint will not create understanding, only confusion! When I’m in front of a group and have enough time, I will always draw it up on a flipchart or board, to bring the group along with its unfolding. The rapid feedback creates an engaged group capable of learning. But in the absence of time, or if you need to communicate to people “on their own time” you will find features in STELLA and iThink invaluable!

I’ve published a map to the web with the isee NetSim software to demonstrate how you can use system dynamics to create online experiential learning labs. Take a tour of the map below to see how the stock/flow language and Storytelling can overcome the passive absorption of bulletized information that PowerPoint facilitates.

Click on the image below to make sense of the map

Launch the story of COIN dynamics

Another interesting perspective from Linda Booth Sweeney on the New York Times article can be found on her blog.

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  • bruceskarin

    Excellent post Chris. The diagram discussed has made the rounds on the internet a few times and it's been disappointing to see it lambasted without a single suggested alternative. It'd be nice if we could simply dismiss complicated problems like conflict, the environment, and a global economy, but the reality is, they are here to stay. And if PowerPoint obviously isn't the answer, then it is time we figure out what is.

  • Craig Weber

    Chris aptly illustrates that with systems modeling–as with any bona fide discipline–practice and skill are essential. In the hands of a poor practitioner it is a blunt instrument, capable of producing far more confusion than insight, while in the hands of a able practitioner, the same tools provide a sophisticated level of understanding unavailable with more conventional ways of seeing and thinking.

  • chrissoderquist

    For those of you who may have seen Kim Warren's excellent post on the system dynamics listserv, you will know that he recommended a more explicit description of stocks vs. flows (levels vs. rates) when presenting a stock/flow map. Based on that posting (which I wholeheartedly agree with!), and further feedback from other colleagues, I've updated the Storytelling example on the Forio Simulate site. In particular, I've explicitly described the stock/flow distinction and how the word of mouth process works.

    The value of the stock/flow language, versus other mapping languages, is the explicit representation of things that accumulate and the flows that change those accumulations. Wherever possible, we should use that extra level of rigor to facilitate conversations, because that will support deeper understanding…what we've termed Operational Thinking.

    What should be noted about this rapid turnaround, is that the use of the iThink/STELLA software makes it easy to receive feedback, to modify the map/model, and repost as a netsim…in a matter of minutes!


  • Hi Chris,

    This is a great post! As a fan of systems dynamics I'm going to have to get a copy of the software you mention.

    There are of course, lots of other ways of modelling complexity…

    I also like to use Checkland's rich picture. For organisational diagnosis, Stafford Beers Viable System Model (VSM) is extremely powerful. However, sometimes nothing captures complexity as well (or as naturally) as a metaphor, and there can be some incredible shifts of thinking that can occur.

    Best regards,


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  • Mefletcher

    Imagine a world where complex human issues are discussed using shared models as a framework where ideas can be rigorously put the the test and and discussed, instead of the usual road of PowerPoint interleaved with Ideology and assumptions.

    • This is a great point. It's important to have a clear picture of what we are working for so we can measure our success as we move toward the goal.

      Sharing models the way Chris has here is a step in the right direction.

  • Pedro Dagoberto Almaguer Prado

    Si nosotros revisamos el diagrama mostrado en The New York Times Los autores del artículo, lamentablemente, parecen no darse cuenta de que el diagrama justamente no es un “bullet list” de los que se critican, ya que muestra las interconexiones.

    Tampoco mencionan que es la visualización final de una elaboración paso por paso, y el lector que ha seguido la elaboración no se ve confrontado con esta complejidad de manera repentina.

    En la siguiente dirección se puede bajar la presentación de los ciclos causa-efecto paso a paso, capa por capa que nos da una idea de lo que estoy afirmando en mi comentario. (Acceda la siguiente dirección para bajar el documento PDF).


    Más allá del error de los autores, llama la atención la frase del general. Si la intervención militar en un país es un asunto de alta complejidad, no debe extrañarnos que su representación no sea simple. Más bien, si el alto mando no comprende el tema en toda esta complejidad, no es de extrañar que la guerra no se gane (ni se logren los propósitos de la intervención).

    Muchos saludos a todos.

    Pedro Dagoberto Almaguer Prado

  • The Afghan Spaghetti diagram returns! This time in a TED talk, no less. A thoughtful analysis from Tom Fiddaman http://blog.metasd.com/2010/11/return-of-the-afghan-spaghetti/