Even intelligent people embrace dumbed-down thinking


It’s no wonder people have gotten so dumbed-down that they are now considering electing the sorts of idiots we see on TV nowadays. I now question the theory that a lack of education or even a lack of intelligence contributes to the “tyranny of the majority” that results in dumb leaders ascending power or idiotic ideas getting funded to the tune of millions of pesos.

A 'robot' made with Duplo bricks.

A ‘robot’ made with Duplo bricks.

Last week, my boss came back to me with “feedback” on a Power Point “pack” I did to summarize a design consideration for the head of my project’s steering committee. My boss said that I needed to simplify further some of the diagrams I included in the pack and to make the slides “a bit less wordy”.

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So I thought, “ok, here we go”.

I told him, we’ve been through this before. I dumb down the content “so that a four-year old could read it” (my boss’s words in another instance of this scene several weeks ago), submit the pack, and then, as we’ve observed, endless meetings followed asking us to “walk the committee through the document” to explain the details behind the slides.

Boss then goes, “Uh, yeah, Frank just needs the key highlights of these considerations to make the high-level decisions required to guide the direction of this program.”

I said, “These are complex design considerations involving multiple systems. How do you expect us to describe them in three bullet points using 24pt-sized font?”

My boss was about to respond when I added, “presumably, we all went to college, right?”

“Uh, yes?…”

“So I assume all of us, at some point, had to read books this thick written in 8pt Times New Roman text to understand stuff we needed to know to do our grownup jobs someday.” I made a gesture with my hand indicating the average thickness of a typical college textbook I assumed most of us at the office had to read as school kids.

Boss: “Okay okay, I get your point. Could I have the updated version in my inbox by four today?”

“As you wish.”

* * *

Who would’ve thought we’d all spend years in college only to find that writing children’s books is really what “business writing” is all about.

The thing with PowerPoint-based writing is that in the community of practitioners of this trendy “business skill” lies a big black chasm that separates the very expert professionals and the merely-competent pretenders. The scary thing is that our office is infested with these pretenders — the Duplo Set. Duplo is a brand of Lego bricks designed for really young kids. They are bigger, more blocky, and are not compatible with the standard Lego components used by older kids and grownups.

The Duplo Set of Power Point jockeys at our office churn out slides the way a baby would spend half a day stacking three Duplo blocks before yelling out “Mommy, look, HOUSE!” while pointing at her work.

A Lego robot kit

A Lego robot kit

Now, a “house” made of Duplo blocks built by a two-year-old is subject to a broad landscape of interpretation. Mommy will always agree with her precious kid that the outcome is, as claimed, a “house”. It seems to me these kiddos at the office expect the readers of their colorful Power Point packs to be the same — motherly.

Tough luck. The work of these Hot Shots at the office attract a wide range of interpretations of what their slides mean.

“Oh, but this is just a high-level summary of the issues…”

“Ok then, could we please drill down on the detail?”

“I’ll need another week to investigate.”

Really good and useful encapsulations are built from the bottom-up. A house looks like a house from afar. But look more closely at a real house, and you will see that the real ones are built from the ground up, with every component nailed, welded, cemented, and laid together systematically.

It seems that in the age of Power Point and 140-character “viral” messages, we’ve been conditioned even more to base our cherished beliefs, decisions, and, worse, actions on the products of the minds of Duplo “engineers”.

22 Replies to “Even intelligent people embrace dumbed-down thinking”

  1. I know your pain. What is tragic is that Powerpoint was never designed nor intended to provide the level of detail that a printed handout should provide.

    Heck, meetings aren’t even always necessary: a powerpoint slide show (created to have the summarised points and whatever glitzy animation to appear on each slide BUT with the detailed info in the notes) emailed to everyone. Quicker, more efficient, with the benefit of giving only the summarised points to those who want key points but providing the detail IF someone needed to dig deeper.

    And, like you said, if they had really gone to college, they would have learned to read fast and gotten the info they need in less time than someone reciting the info aloud in real time.

    But that’s the thing: people still think that we need these whiz-bang meetings with Powerpoint presentations—it’s the very definition of the corporate culture: big wigs seated around the long table, watching a junior exec sweat it through a presentation in real time. It makes senior management feel powerful and important.

    Ideally, all the detail needed would be in the 36-page report/notes that has the same outline as the slide show, which is there to help guide people through the report. But somewhere down the line, the management wants contradictory things: a) being able to see all of the detail on the slide show itself (not the notes), and then b) have it still be on 24pt so we are not squinting at what is essentially the low-res projection of a bunch of paragraphs at 8pt.

    1. “Heck, meetings aren’t even always necessary…” and “It makes senior management feel powerful and important.”

      – So true!!

      Like in one scenario:

      Client: We have a meeting tomorrow at 8AM and management wants you to be there.
      Me: What about?
      Client: (explains the agenda)
      Me: Sounds like it has nothing to do with me.
      Client: Yeah, but I and the manager wants you to be there.
      Me: Are you sure? Because I have a deadline with you.
      Client: Just be there.
      Me: Let me guess. It will just like the last time where I was just there doing nothing.
      Client: Pretty much. But be there, nonetheless.

      I have also been in meetings where its first hour (the meeting is either 2 or 3 hours long) spent on criticizing the fonts, the color of the slides or the themes used on the Powerpoint presentation. Never mind the contents of the report. And you can see the faces of these executives as if they scored big against their underlings. Such a waste of time.

      Despite the existence of Lync, (and almost a decade ago, Yahoo! Messenger with video conversation), I am still wondering why some Filipino executives are not utilizing these and still resort to calling for meetings as if traveling like from Quezon City to Makati is just a few minutes ride. As if we’re still in living in the 1970s or 80s. And you will be surprised that the questions and issues that will be raised in the those meetings are answerable via email or over the phone with much detail and a hundred times faster.

      Like you said, Gryphon Hall, they just need to feel important. Tsk, tsk, tsk, tragic.

      1. @Vincent: I know, right?

        I especially hate it when they spend more time on the presentation (i.e. the outward form of what is being constructed, like the fonts, the colours, the graphics, etc.) when they could be spending more time on the content (which, when one reads it, is like the efforts of a third-grader trying to sound important).

        It’s one more measure of control. I know a manager who successfully made her team so totally dependent on her that they cannot do things on their own but must always have her present directing each step in the process every damn single time.

        Any initiative is immediately and ruthlessly put down (“Aba! Junior ka lang, bakit ka pumapapel? Boss ka ba?!”) and, when these managers go on leave they glory in the fact that their toadies call them every day (why do they have their work phones with them when on vacation?) to ask what should be done.

        “Kita mo?” she would ask. “Sobrang importante ako, wala silang magawa kung wala ako!”

        Everywhere I worked in the Philippines, there’s always one manager who is like that. Kaya walang asenso: initiative is punished, sycophanty coupled with complete inability is rewarded. Multiply that across as many companies in the Philippines and you’ll see why the country is stuck in a rut.

        And why those who want only to use their skills to their utmost tend to leave the country, work abroad, and find it a more pleasant experience.

    2. @Gryphon Hall, That’s right. If they want “more” detail, then what they really want is a whitepaper (written, say, on MS Word), not a Power Point slide pack. When properly written, a whitepaper articulates stuff in a well-structured way. Power Point slides are meant to flash illustrations rather than communicate detail.

      I dunno. You’d think the above explanation will have been something imparted on these bozos back in kindergarten.

      With some of the people I deal with, I usually send out pre-reading material for them to read so that we can use the meeting to discuss the agenda by exception. There was one time I opened up a meeting asking the participants, “Did anybody read the pre-reading?”. When only two out of five hands went up, I promptly closed the meeting and said “let’s reconvene when everyone has read the material,” then walked out.

      Yeah, I agree @Vincent. Meetings have become sort of a crutch for some of these managers. They busybrag about being in “back-to-back” meetings all day! As if that is something to be proud of. That just means they fail at the most basic managerial task of delegating the small stuff to the right people.

    3. >> When only two out of five hands went up, I promptly closed the meeting and said “let’s reconvene when everyone has read the material,” then walked out.

      You have an excellent working style. A big reason the Philippines never changes is that bozos at the top are NEVER challenged. It’s yes sir, no sir, all the way down the line. Mediocrity or worse is the inevitable result.

      Frankly, I’m surprised you haven’t been fired. I suppose one little neuron still flickering away in their tiny minds tells them that without competent employees, they’re just idiots in suits.

      Among all the halfwitted, borderline criminal human flotsam I bump into in everyday life, there are about 5% who are incredibly smart, decent people. They can do absolutely nothing about the failed country they live in, because the idiots run the show.

      1. @marius, Just to clarify, I take that approach only when I’m meeting with my peers (or subcontractors working on our projects). So I’m not as brave as you think! 😛

        BUt, yeah, to be fair to our company, management does encourage people to challenge ideas. Some managers pay only lip service to that concept, but in general, we are encouraged to voice our opinions. It probably helps that most of us are specialists in our respective fields, we’re all pretty qualified to take strong positions on certain design issues and actually back them up with sound arguments.

  2. The word for that is “pseudo-intellectual.” Just like the middle class, “thinking” people who go for the Yellows. Like the people who go into mile-long “intellectual” discussions that only end up with the same old conclusion: I hate people who disagree with me.

    1. Hi Robert,

      Exact same question I have when I look at the upper management in the company I work in. Notice that most of the examples cited above are from Pinoy superiors. Even in provate firms, padrino system is the dominant form of gauge for staff promotions and the like. It’s not an exception in Pinoy society. It’s a rule.

      1. @Tomas,
        I can give you a real, genuine, exact example of how such things work in my country. But whats the point? Almost everything in my country works differently compared to how things work and are run in the Philippines.

        In general, every company wants the best candidate with the best papers (diplomas) for the (right) job. And sometimes the candidates have to undergo a phychological test and/or assessment (depending on level of job). In some cases, it may help if a canditate knows somebody in the company but it is not always beneficial.

  3. By the way, there are another set of bad traits that I have noticed among Filipino managers/superiors. “Hugas kamay” and, so far among the nationalities that I have worked with, the “Kiss up, kick down” attitude is much common among Filipinos.

    Hugas kamay – Have you ever heard of excuses like “di ko nakita ‘yan” (I didn’t see that) or “Wala akong kinalaman d’yan” (I have nothing to do with that) despite that some of the outputs went through and even signed by them? Talk about command responsibility. Making one self responsible or accountable for something is quite scarce among Filipinos (which reflects their leaders, by the way) and when it comes to taking credit, being praised or rewarded, they shove off their faces or their names like a pack of wild dogs (or zombies, sorry for the dogs) wanting to get a bite of the meat. It is as if they truly have a share in the accomplishment. “Congratulations to all of us. We made it!” – Ulol! Mukha mo!
    But when the team fails to submit on time or completely, time to play the blame game. Kulang na lang pati yung security guard ng office building idamay sa sisi.
    I once worked with an Australian team leader and one time he called us his members for a meeting. We were scheduled to submit the week before that but we failed despite all of the member’s effort. In that meeting he told us, “Well, we didn’t make it. We did our best. That’s just the way it is. It’s no one’s fault. Let’s just continue working to finish this.”

    At least for once, I saw a Filipino manager that exhibited a “Kick up, kiss down” attitude. Well, she’s about to retire anyway. But aside from her, all of the managers that I have worked or dealt with are good examples of animals displaying displaced aggression. They (sheepishly) absorb the berating of the people in the upper management only to vent it out to their poor underlings. And when one will truly analyze the situation, it will be found out that it was actually that manager’s insufficiency that caused him to be scolded. Ang sarap talaga sipain sa mukha lalo na pagnagkabukuhan!

    1. It’s a fine balance though. Some swing way out the other way. 🙂

      Check out my article Do women make bad managers? which I wrote some time ago. Here’s the passage I like:

      Perhaps the very traits that make women the supposedly top-notch managers they can potentially be is what makes them the psychos they turn out to be in practice. I once had a female manager who was just too empathetic. She’d ask me about my workload before assigning new tasks to me. I’d tell her: ‘Boss, just pile it on. Leave it up to me to manage my time and your expectations’ — ten thousand times a day.

    2. @Vincent: I’ve worked with Australians exclusively since 2006 and, I’m telling you, it makes up for all the years I’ve had to deal with all the drama and politics of working with Pinoy managers.

      I had one, exactly one Pinay manager that I liked (made her a Ninang in my wedding; that’s how much I like her). But the only reason she’s good is because she’s the daughter of a missionary and have seen how non-Pinoys operate. So when I was part of her team, only time I was satisfied.

  4. I just re-read your saying “I don’t believe lack of education is the problem,” and I just recalled this: there is a severe lack of common sense among people today. You tell someone, you can’t tow a car with a motorcycle, they’ll say, yes you can, you find a way you lazy ass! Or you tell another supervisor that doing 12 takes more time than doing 2, then they tell you “no, no, you can write 10 articles in the same time it takes to do 2, there’s a way and you don’t want to know it!” Perhaps you can tell these people, if you jump off a 1000 foot cliff, you’ll die when you hit the bottom, or if you play with fire, you’ll get burned. And they even scoff at you, saying you’re just pulling their leg. Until they jump off or play with fire indeed, then they blame you for what happened (well, the guy who jumped couldn’t blame you anymore, LOL). People just seem so disconnected from reality and the limits of it, that they actually become the real kind of dumb. Dumb that you wonder if there’s anything within their skulls at all.

  5. Judgement is not only to see the cover of the chapter however internally will reflect the motivation in regards to the owner of the builder.

  6. Powerpoint is the technological equivalent of index cards— not meant to have heavy duty information, more like a placeholder of talking points. It’s a misunderstood, abused program.

    Also, graphics are not the enemy. In the right hands, they can enhance and add to an idea, a conversation, or a project.

    So the problem here then, is the logic— how people communicate, process information and divulge it. Which actually is a worldwide problem, not just here. Whether or not its a TV induced thing or simply a refusal to process information through the eyes, I’m not sure. The truth is prolly somewhere in between.

    In the meantime, my office kids have to bear me repeating “Nothing more than 6 slides to illustrate a concept…” If you can’t nail attention in two slides, in my line of graphic induced work— you’ve lost the client.

  7. Just adding some experience. My supervisor wants me to be on a meeting with him and his boss and another boss from another department because I will be the one explaining all the issues and solutions of the project to them which supposedly my boss should be the one doing it. Boss just sat there piggy backing like a back up singer/rapper repeating everything I say. Then when the project is successful takes all the credit from higher management, goes to celebration parties and flaunts it on social media. Well at least there’s feedback from every project by higher management

  8. PowerPoint Makes You Stupid. (See link here.)

    During my short teaching experience at a university in the Philippines (first time last semester, and I decided not to return), I was shocked to find out that students relied on PowerPoint slides for learning. They didn’t even read their textbooks. Likewise, they had the English writing skill of a 2nd grader. I am not exaggerating.

  9. Got your point Madame Kate.

    But, oppss! Powerpoint Presentation as its name suggests, one should only present the “power-points in whatever presentation it plans to show. It’s more of a “show” than of a textbook!

    In just a click away, we can leave details in the notes portion or in the attachments as PPT is designed intentionally for this–i.e., like tv ads, only to capture the attention and trigger the interest of the target audience who are usually busy and can’t afford to spend longer time watching long presentations. Once interest is triggered, expect people to fly even to the outer space or swim the deepest sea just to gain access any information related to it!

    In oil & gas industry, we simplify everything in the presentation just to have more time to spend to the real thing. See the link here one good simple PPT presentation about how oil & gas extracted and you’d sure say you’ve learned a lot, but I’ll tell you, it takes forever to know everything in O&G industry but a PPT presentation open someone’s eyes to : http://www.earth4567.com/talks/oil/oillect.ppt

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