The death of PowerPoint and the rise of the canvas

6 minutes read

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Due to the pioneering work of Alex Osterwalder and his Business Model Generation framework, canvases have become a novel approach used to empower problem-solving. This approach isn’t simply about a new set of tools – it stands for a new way of tackling management challenges.

But what is actually new and smart about canvases? To answer that question, let’s compare working with canvases to working with the desktop tool that has been essential to running and representing 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 (or Google Slides, or Apple Keynote) takes center stage in communicating the challenge at hand. The focus lies on summarizing and visually selling the results of knowledge work. 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 author/presenter of the PowerPoint slides has control over the content: he or she is in command of the storyline. He or she decides what is shown and what is left out. Subsequently, there may be debate, questions, or challenges – but none of these interactions change the presented content (the interactions might 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, and chooses the examples that are used and the relative weight of elements and data, as well as the emphasis and dramaturgy of the presentation.  As the audience, you may be won over by the presentation, or you may not like or even doubt the presented content. But you are generally bound to a passive or reactive mode of interacting with the presented content and of leveraging it for your own thinking. The audience’s influence is largely confined to its questions, challenges and inputs during the discussion. And audience members are highly dependent on their skills 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 that created the slides).

The problems of linear and fragmented working processes
PowerPoint presentations tend to follow a classical “three-act structure”: they begin with the setup, are followed by the confrontation, and end with a resolution in some form. Yet many management challenges cannot be resolved by this narrative structure. Instead, they require a collaborative discovery phase in (and most likely as well out of) the meeting room. PowerPoint as a linear presentation tool hinders this achievement. Any iterations of the presented content 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 through episodes (such as 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 are presented 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 they also break up collaborative knowledge and development drive.

How working with canvases is different

Leadership Development Canvas (Management Kits)

Leadership Development Canvas (Management Kits)

Let’s have a look on how working with canvases is different and how those differences affect several dimensions of 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 without forcing an answer to the question of what 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’ll leave the criteria for building and assessing canvases for a separate blog post, but we believe that a thorough reflection of key research in the respective area is one minimum requirement to providing effective open guidelines.

Canvases as the basis for collaborative action-learning
Canvas sessions facilitate learning through action. Working with a canvas, you’re not simply confronted with a framework. On the contrary, you’re generally invited to collaborate and to test and develop your own and other’s thinking on a given topic. Through small insights, iterations and changes, this allows for a steeper learning curve. Raising and answering questions quickly empowers collaboration and leads to learning from each other in the canvas session. And through developing, adding and removing thoughts you gain a higher engagement with the task at hand.

The power of responsive work processes
Canvases allow for a different kind of process in working on management challenges. They enable fast iterations by combining a preconceived structure with blank space to add, develop and change content. This can happen during a given canvas exercise, for example by adding or removing sticky notes on an element of the canvas, 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 to and interact with 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 as 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 these features, a canvas-based working approach supports a business design rather than a purely analytical attitude. One key difference of such a design mind-set and skill set 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 –rather you 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 can’t really provide (not to mention 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. Canvases will probably not replace the use of slides, but they certainly enrich the practices of strategy development and management work (so hopefully the slight exaggeration in our title can be forgiven!). Discover our canvas-based Kits on organization structure, leadership development, and high-performing teams.

* PowerPoint as a business technology has drawn considerable attention from management research, showing a rich set of dynamic practices around the use of slide decks in strategy development and management work (see the references below). We are not aware of similar in-depth work on the use of canvases but look forward to seeing our thoughts above challenged through further study (and practice).

Kaplan, Sarah (2011): Strategy and PowerPoint: An Inquiry into the Epistemic Culture and Machinery of Strategy Making, Organization Science 22(2), 320-346.

Knight, Eric; Paroutis, Sotirios; Heracleous, Loizos (2017): The power of PowerPoint: A visual perspective on meaning making in strategy, Strategic Management Journal 39, 894-921.