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


Point or Shoot

The best part of The Power of the 2x2 Matrix is the foreword by James Gilmore and Joseph Pine, authors of The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre and Every Business a Stage (Harvard Business School Press, 1999). In a few hundred words, their ode to the 2x2 captures the essence of its appeal better than the 300+ pages that follow. “We have Rene Descartes, of course, to thank for the 2x2 matrix!” they write. “The best business people, too, are Cartesians. Their use of any pertinent 2x2 matrix aims not at simplifying the world into four finite categories, but at moving to fuller, more reasoned certainties in an uncertain world — managing the complete Cartesian coordinate system that is business.”

Yet the persistent presence of 2x2s as conceptual frameworks remains oddly dissatisfying. For example, why 2x2? You would think a 3x3 grid might have greater business appeal. For one thing, the tic-tac-toe layout is both familiar and easy to draw. Intriguingly, it offers something important that a 2x2 can’t: a center. Organizations in general — and businesses in particular — like the option of a center. Sometimes it’s better to be in the center than at the extremes.

That leap from four quadrants to nine squares offers such obvious opportunities for more nuanced categorization: for example, Above / Average / Below; Underperform / Match / Outperform; Collaborator / Neutral / Competitor; and so on. Yet I’ll bet the ratio of 2x2s to 3x3s in PowerPoints and presentations is 40:1 or 60:1. The harsh corporate Darwinism of competitive rhetoric has ensured the survival of the 2x2 as the fittest way to frame a business concept. Maybe the 3x3’s additional dimension simply demands too much additional cognitive complexity or time to explain in comparison with the streamlined 2x2. Perhaps the intrinsic dichotomy of two axes of opposites appeals to the minds of 2x2 creators and consumers in some mysterious way that psychologists will eventually discover.

At the serious core of these considerations, of course, is the perennial challenge of how best — and most persuasively — to present complex information and ideas. This is the realm that Yale professor and graphic designer Edward Tufte has been so fruitfully cultivating since the publication of his 1983 classic, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Graphics Press). What Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is to clarity of exposition, Professor Tufte’s Visual Display is to the presentation of complex data — but with niftily illustrative charts, graphs, and pictures.

An excellent lecturer, gifted designer, and slick packager of graphic self-help texts, Professor Tufte has successfully branded himself as the guru of quality information design for the managerial masses. It so happens that he loathes PowerPoint with a passion that burns like a white-hot nova. He decries PowerPoint’s cognitive straitjacket of presentational constraints. He believes that PowerPoint promotes a seductive laziness of thought that is anti-rigor, anti-elegance, and — most damaging — anti-audience. The corporate world, in Professor Tufte’s view, would be a far better, happier, and more productive place without Microsoft’s spawn-of-Satan software.

Professor Tufte enumerates his arguments in a cranky and brief pamphlet titled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. His flair for condescension and contempt actively competes with the not-unfair criticisms he proffers of PowerPoint-the-tool and the misguided managers who use it. His wicked sense of humor saves him from sounding like a scold. He reproduces the notorious parody of the Gettysburg Address done as a sequence of PowerPoint slides. Lincoln, who reputedly wrote his most famous speech on the back of an envelope, would no doubt have appreciated how PowerPoint’s bullet-point imperative inherently corrupts elegance of expression.

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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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