Powerpoint and a visual view on strategy making: How visuals do more than they show

30 November 2017

Those who design and edit the PowerPoint slides can shape strategic conversations and the strategy process

There is a growing body of research focused on examining the role and impact of tools used by strategists, but the precise role of visuals as tools remains a black box.

Following a continuing interest in visuals and strategy making, Sotirios Paroutis, Professor of Strategic Management, and Loizos Heracleous, Professor of Strategy, both at Warwick Business School together with Dr Eric Knight at University of Sydney Business School in Australia, undertook a research study to understand how strategists employ visual information, specifically in PowerPoint slides, and its effects on the strategy process. Unlocking this puzzle is important because it can provide a more holistic explanation of how those involved in strategy decipher visual information and how related conversations influence strategy adoption and change.

Commenting on the motivation behind their study, Professor Paroutis notes: “Unpacking how strategy is visually made and executed is an exciting new frontier in strategic management research. With the growing use of data visualisations, big data analytics and PowerPoint presentations embedded in strategy analysis and communications; managers know that the ways they visually present their strategies really matters.”

The study reviewed PowerPoint presentations arising from consulting interventions of a strategy consulting firm at varying stages of their development. Visual semiotic analysis, based on the theory that defines the relationship between signs and interpretations and the meanings arising out of this interaction, was used to understand the interplay between visuals used in slides and subsequent dialogues that ensued, and how issues were framed in these dialogues.  

 

A key finding was that visuality may provide the conceptual glue that creates meaningful intersections between strategy process and practice, by linking visuals and how they evolve, with meaning making practices and the evolution of meanings over time. The authors identified three visual mechanisms:

i.Depiction visuals refer to pictorial representations of strategy

ii.Juxtaposition visuals provide new logical linkages between previously disconnected aspects of strategy.

iii.Salience visuals offer nuanced ways to prioritize strategic agendas by adding weight to key pieces of information.

Each visual mechanism influences the visibility of particular strategic ideas by prompting and framing these ideas through the conversations visuals simulate. As participants react to visuals they exhibit interpretations of the strategy that both crystallises what was shown on the slides and also uncovers important aspects that are not explicit in the visuals. This enables a better understanding of the emergent strategy, termed by the authors as strategic resonance.

Strategists’ use of multiple visual mechanisms evolved with the successive development and design of slides over time, and shifting the emphasis of visual mechanisms influenced the evolving strategy formation.

The findings suggest that those who design and edit the slides strongly influence the direction of the strategy. On the implications of the research findings for strategy practitioners Professor Paroutis comments that:

The ‘power’ in PowerPoint is not about the bullet points or other visuals managers use in their slides but about the strategic insights and discussions their slides generate. Our research highlights how PowerPoint slides, as a critical strategic tool, are used and employed to create strategy. Slides are not an end product, but a tool to stimulate engagement and wider discussion. Since the power is in the eye of the slide creator, practitioners should consider: by whom, for whom and how these slides are created. Starting with a draft pack of slides and using a wider group of managers to co-produce and develop these would be a good approach for strategists designing a more open strategy process in their firms. Opening up discussions from the visuals in the slides is as important as the design of the visuals itself.”

The paper, published in the Strategic Management Journal, has an accompanying YouTube video animation conveying the key messages. To date, the video has had over 4,000 views on LinkedIn and received double the usual weekly view rate on YouTube. There is also a useful Video supplement providing dynamic illustrations from the dataset.

Knight, E., Paroutis, S. and Heracleous, L. T. (2017) "The power of PowerPoint : a visual perspective on meaning making in strategy", Strategic Management Journal. DOI: 10.1002/smj.2727.

The YouTube video can be viewed here

The LinkedIn of Professor Paroutis post can be viewed here

The twitter post by Professor Heracleous can be viewed here

If you are interested in these topics you might find useful the British Journal of Management paper on visual interactions with strategy tools which was recognised as a top 10 article and the Journal of Management Studies paper on the usefulness of strategic tools that won the 2013 JMS best paper award and the 2016 Emerald citations of Excellence award.

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