The death of PowerPoint and the rise of the canvas

6 minutes read

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Doubtlessly due to the pioneering work of Alex Osterwalder and his Business Model Generation model, canvases have become a novel approach to empower problem solving. This approach isn’t simply about a new set of tools – rather, it stands for a new way to tackle management challenges.

But what is actually new and smart about canvases? To answer that question, let’s compare working with canvases to the paramount desktop tool to run and represent management problem solving over the last decades: PowerPoint slides.

What’s wrong with slides

PowerPoint slides as a single hero’s journey
In a typical strategy or management project, a PowerPoint deck takes the centre stage of attention in communicating the challenge at hand. Mostly based in a structure of “introduction, thesis, proposal, conclusion” much work goes in summarizing and visually selling work of analysis and development. Slides are above all a tool to convey ideas, content, and strategies. They are presented by an individual to an audience. As a result, the owner of the PowerPoint slides has control over the content: he or she is in command of the storyline, of what is being shown and what is left out. Subsequently, there may be debate, questions and challenges - but none of these interactions change the presented content (the interactions may still change the degree to which people buy into the content and make an iteration more likely). The strategy (or the hero’s quest) presented by the consultant or corporate development manager is what it is – at least for the meeting in which it is presented.  

PowerPoint presentations are about ownership and control
The author of the slides also owns the framework or model within which the argument unfolds. He or she makes the micro decisions of applying the framework to the case, the examples that are used, the weight of elements and data, as well as the emphasis and dramaturgy of the presentation.  As the audience, you may not like or even contest the framework, or you may be won over by the presentation. But you are generally bound to a passive or reactive mode of interacting with the presented content and of leveraging them for your own thinking. Possible influence of the audience is largely confined to their questions, challenges and inputs during the discussion. And they are highly dependent on their skill and ‘muscle’ – that is the possibility of making themselves heard and gaining influence (e.g. because they are the sponsor/budget holder directing the person/team creating the slides).

The problems of linear and fragmented working processes
PowerPoint presentations tend to follow the classical “three-act structure”: beginning with the setup, followed by the confrontation, and ending with a resolution in some form. Yet many management challenges cannot be resolved by this narrative structure but require a collaborative discovery phase in (and most likely as well outside) the meeting room. PowerPoint as a linear presentation tool hinders this achievement. If there are iterations of the content presented, they must be run in distinct phases of design/creation and presentation/discussion. As such, the progress of management problem solving based on slides often evolves in episodes (for example consulting projects) structured by a series of dedicated meetings. For example, in a strategy project, someone presents the approach in a first workshop; early findings from interviews and analysis in a second meeting; strategic recommendations and decision items in a third; and an implementation plan in a fourth meeting (assuming a smooth progress of one stage to the next). Those fragmented work processes are not only often inefficient but also break up collaborative knowledge and development drive.

How working with canvases is different

Leadership Development Canvas (Management Kits)

Leadership Development Canvas (Management Kits)

After having discussed the context and preconditions of working with slide decks, let’s have a look on how working with canvases is different and how those differences affect several dimensions of strategy or management projects.

Canvases provide open, yet structured spaces for solution development
Canvases, if well designed, translate key elements of a management question into a framework without predetermining the answer to that question. For example, Osterwalder's Business Model Canvas lays out the key components that make up a business model  – in classical form – without forcing an answer to the question how the actual business model should look like in a particular business challenge. Our own Leadership Development Canvas translates key leadership research into a model that allows aspiring leaders and the people who support them to ideate development initiatives and reflect on the interdependencies between the relevant components such as organizational platforms or personal networks. We leave out  the criteria for building and assessing canvases for a separate blog post, but a thorough reflection of key research in the respective area is in our opinion one minimum requirement to provide effective open guidelines.

Canvases as basis for collaborative action-learning
Canvas sessions facilitate learning through action. Working with a canvas, you are not simply confronted with a framework. To the contrary, you are generally invited to collaborate and to test and develop your own and other’s thinking on a given topic. Through small changes, failures, insights, through raising and answering questions quickly, and through developing and shifting, adding and removing thoughts you gain a higher engagement and competence development with the topic at hand.

The power of responsive work processes
Canvases allow for a different kind of process in working on management challenges. By combining a preconceived structure with blank space to add, develop and change content they enable fast iterations. This is the case during a given canvas exercise, for example by adding or removing sticky notes on an element, as well as between work sessions.  It’s easier to cast off a canvas draft then it is to say goodbye to an elaborate PowerPoint presentation you spent half a night preparing. Canvases also make it easier to contribute and to interact on the spot, in large part because they don’t prescribe a sequence in which to move forward. Working with canvases is thus more inclusive, more activating and more empowering compared to passively consuming a slide-based presentation with fewer possibilities to debate and elaborate on the spot.

Developing a business designer’s mindset
As a result of those features, a canvas-based working approach supports a business design attitude in contrast to a purely analytical attitude. One key difference of such a design mind and skillset is that the outcome is much more open (while being confined and, on a fundamental level, pre-structured by the scope and form of the canvas). You don’t engage in canvas work to find the one right answer – you rather enter a process of ongoing management innovation. Last but not least, canvases bring an element of playfulness to management thinking that the software-based editing work of slide production will hardly ever be able to provide (not to speak of the level of technical and aesthetic skills that are needed to produce beautiful slides).

At Management Kits we strongly believe in the power of canvases to boost action-learning and to develop business design capabilities. Discover our canvas-based Kits on organization structure, leadership development, and high-performing teams.