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strategy and business
 / Spring 2005 / Issue 38(originally published by Booz & Company)


Point or Shoot

Why you should learn to love PowerPoint and the 2x2 matrix.

Photograph by Nick Veasey
If you’ve conceived a brilliant business idea or devised a strategic initiative you’re confident will excite your colleagues, contemporary corporate culture demands you distill it into one of two things: 1) a high-impact 2x2 matrix; 2) a killer PowerPoint presentation. Maybe both.

There is no strategy so compelling, complex, or provocatively counterintuitive that it can’t somehow be reframed into four insightful quadrants. Similarly, there’s no business proposal alive that can’t be captured in a multimedia slide show — replete with special effects — that enlightens even as it entertains.

Yeah, right. The unhappy truth is that a majority of 2x2s seem more like poorly tailored cognitive straitjackets than robust analytical tools. As for PowerPoints, let’s just note that many executives whose eyes glaze over as the lights dim think enviously of Sun Microsystems and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces — organizations that have reportedly banned the ubiquitous Microsoft package from their briefings.

In global business, analysis and persuasion are opposite sides of the same enterprise coin. Leaders don’t win arguments; they win commitment and support. The mechanisms of corporate rhetoric management — the tools, techniques, and technologies of persuasive analysis — increasingly dominate executive time and define managerial power. Any rhetorical device that business leaders can use to enhance their persuasiveness or credibility is gratefully grasped — for better or worse.

In The Power of the 2x2 Matrix: Using 2x2 Thinking to Solve Business Problems and Make Better Decisions, Alex Lowy and Phil Hood, partners in the Toronto-based consulting firm Transcend Strategy Group, set out to tell the story of the genesis of the 2x2 as a management tool. They provide welcome slivers of its history in business, tracing, for example, the marketing origins of the matrix in the 1970s to a particular group of management consultants. By 1980, it was the rare consulting firm that didn’t have its own proprietary 2x2. And the determination of which 2x2 should help guide investment and innovation was frequently among the most important managerial decisions a corporate organization could make. It still is.

The Power of the 2x2 Matrix is a brilliant book idea, but it’s disappointingly executed. The global tale of how 2x2s invaded the business world merits a narrative every bit as inviting as Longitude, Dava Sobel’s tale of how British clockmaker John Harrison solved the thorniest technical challenge of the 18th century. Although Messrs. Lowy and Hood surely recognize this, what they offer is a bloodless compilation of “best” 2x2s such as the “Good to Great Matrix of Creative Discipline” and “Dialectical SWOT Analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.” The descriptions are utilitarian.

The 2x2 is a multifaceted character in its own right; change the axis names and you transform the matrix’s analytical sweep and persuasive power. At firms like GE, IBM, and BP, the ability to design or define compelling 2x2s can be as integral to a manager’s advancement as a talent for parsing spreadsheets.

Coming up with a matrix that commands attention and changes minds about how best to think about a business problem can be every bit as satisfying — and significant — as creating a budget or forecast. I say this from firsthand experience and observation. Listening to managers tease out which quadrants should matter — and which ones the enterprise must avoid — is almost always a fascinating exercise in change management. Most every senior-level executive in a Fortune 1000 firm can recall a moment of epiphany when a 2x2 framework dramatically enhanced his or her powers of persuasive analysis — or completely undermined a pet initiative.

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Corporate Rhetoric Resources:
Works mentioned in this review

  1. Alex Lowy and Phil Hood, The Power of the 2x2 Matrix: Using 2x2 Thinking to Solve Business Problems and Make Better Decisions (Jossey-Bass, 2004), 352 pages, $45.00
  2. Edward R. Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Graphics Press, 2003), 28 pages, $7.00
  3. Cliff Atkinson, Sociable Media, Click here.
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