by Grant Martin
We should make no mistake: great commanders have not “done” Design thinking in the past; adding three steps and some critical and creative thinking to the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) does not mean we “do” Design; and even if our doctrine did incorporate Design thinking our current institutional paradigms are incompatible with the concept. In short, a brigade-level staff doing Design thinking would be undermined by the greater organization in every way possible and, thus, I submit, it is impossible for the military to “do” Design at this point in time. So why do we argue about things like whether we should incorporate Design with MDMP?
I believe this confusion comes from a misunderstanding of what Design is and where our current concepts come from. For starters, Design is to MDMP as the universe is to apples. MDMP is a rational decision making process that relies on some pretty specific factors to be present in order to be useful (such as a mission and a clearly defined end state). Design is a way of thinking (a philosophy) that rests on the assumption that in uncertain situations (some like to call them “complex”, “wicked”, or “sticky”), a wholly different epistemology (the theory of how we learn and gain knowledge) is necessary- not just a different theory than the current one, but one that allows different theories to emerge that will eventually best fit the situation. Unfortunately, the military is stuck on attempting to force Design principles into our current epistemology, a wholly impossible mission.
In this paper I will attempt to explain why the current debate about Design is wrong-headed by offering an explanation of what Design was meant to address. I will then explain the issues with how it was eventually incorporated into doctrine. Finally, I will offer a way ahead, both for units attempting to “do” Design and for the institution as a whole. First, however, I would like to address “complexity” and clarify a concept that continues to plague us: that concept being that complex operations (like counterinsurgencies) are the “PhD level” of warfare. This is simply not true.
The False “Complex” versus “Conventional” Comparison
Is it harder to do complex operations than it is “conventional” operations? I think this is like arguing whether we should do MDMP or Design. Conventional operations can be complex depending on the situation and executing a complicated operation can be more difficult than a complex one. The key isn’t which is more difficult, it is the approach one requires and the different tools one needs for each that are important. A force geared for counterinsurgency, for instance, would most likely fail miserably at a frontal assault on an armored division. Likewise, a Combat Aviation Brigade conducting unconventional warfare would also, I submit, normally have a difficult time. The frontal assault would, in my mind, be very difficult, perhaps “more” difficult, but it is again like comparing universes to apples. Organizations are fit for a purpose and organizations built to conduct complicated situations are not fit to handle complex situations.
The Invasion of Normandy, Operation Overlord, for instance, is a good example. I have heard many military commentators state that Normandy was complex and that Eisenhower was using Design to execute it. This line of reasoning belies a misunderstanding of what the term complex means, assumes that something is complex because of its size, and asserts without foundation that Design was used (the reasoning is often, “it must have been Design, because it was complex and we were successful”- an illogical statement on several levels). Normandy was a very difficult operation, but it was not complex. Instead, it was “complicated”. The term complicated does not imply it was less difficult than a complex operation, it simply implies that a different approach was needed than what would have been required had it indeed been a complex situation. I am wholly convinced that Overlord was much more difficult than any operation of the same timeframe during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan or Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in Iraq (the trouble in proving that, of course, is that the term “difficult” implies some subjectivity). OEF and OIF may indeed have required some “PhD level” conceptual thinking, but that is only because most military members exposed to those concepts are those who have had some post-graduate level instruction. The concepts themselves are not that difficult to grasp, but they are outside of the usual scope of military education.
Complex operations normally are characterized by ambiguity (uncertain time and scope limitations and imply a difficulty in figuring out what is going on in the given situation and what our interests are), interdependence (understanding linkages between entities are at least as important as understanding the entities), emergent forces (characteristics of the environment have come from the environment and thus causality is very difficult, if not impossible, to figure out). This implies that one cannot simply observe behavior to understand something in a complex situation- complex entity behavior is unpredictable over time. Complicated operations, which again can be just as difficult to do if not more, are normally characterized by less ambiguity (being more limited in time and scope and imply a greater clarity in what the situation is and what our objectives should be), and not being as dependent upon emergence or interdependence. In order to be successful in complicated operations the military must be good at the synchronization of combat forces and effects in a given time and space (something very difficult to do). It implies backwards planning, scheduling of movement, decisive action, exploiting the initiative, decentralized execution, innovative thinking, and concentration of effects. Complex operations, on the other hand, imply the possibility that detailed planning can be counterproductive, what to do is often counterintuitive, and perhaps the most essential task is to learn as an organization.
A Better Term than “Complex”
As noted in the first footnote, I prefer the term “uncertain” to the terms “sticky”, “wicked”, or “complex”. I have to caveat the term, however, by further describing what I mean by uncertain. It is obvious that when we do not understand what is going on in a particular situation or what our interests are that we should describe it as “uncertain”. But I would go further and define most uncertain situations, or at least those that need a Design approach, as those in which we think we understand the situation and what our interests are, but in actuality we do not. Unfortunately we are usually unaware of this ignorance until it is too late politically to admit it or to do anything about it. I submit that this description characterizes the vast majority of our operations as of late and, further, that they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I think this is a very important point that should not be glossed over: it goes to the crux of why I argue we must incorporate a Design approach and why we do not do so currently.
If our only problem was that we were finding ourselves in uncertain situations, then some of the concepts that have made it into our doctrine might indeed be, if not sufficient, at least a good start. If, however, I am right and we have institutional barriers to even acknowledge that we do not know what we are facing or how our interests are tied to situations, then I submit we face a much more difficult problem, one that requires a different approach. Design, or at least the foundational literature, acknowledges that this more confusing circumstance actually characterizes most situations, even ones that are seen as more “conventional”.
At this point I would like to ask the reader to imagine for a moment that the foundational literature that underpins Design supports the idea that an organization operating in an uncertain situation must engage in some specific activities. First, the organization must already be a part of an institution that rewards long-term and on-going results, demands organizational honesty and official modesty, is comfortable with failure as long as it is tied to learning and an institutional-wide acknowledgement and discussion of failures, is anti-hierarchical, anti-regimented, anti-doctrinal, and anti-bureaucratic. Second, the organization must be expected to constantly question paradigms and constantly be learning- learning beginning with constant exploration of “self”: how the organization itself learns, what its philosophy and epistemology are, what obstacles exist within the institution, the organization, and the current situation to learning, and ideas on how to overcome those obstacles (ideas that are not limited to coming from inside the organization or institution). Third, the organization must be held to a learning standard. I propose using Peter Senge’s disciplines found in his book The Fifth Discipline as well as Chris Argyris’ work on double-loop learning organizations. Fourth, and finally, the institution as a whole must learn from the organization’s experience.
If, as I propose here, these are necessary activities, then I think most who are familiar with the military would agree that this does not characterize the current institution and would see why subordinate organizations conducting their own versions of Design- even if they were effective- would not be sufficient. If, to be successful over a long-term period in an environment of uncertain situations, an institution must have these characteristics and this is what Design advocates, then one can begin to see what Design was meant to do for the military. This is very important, since many pronounce that Design is intuitive, good commanders have done it in the past, or all we really need is some tweaking to our current processes. Much of what one faces in uncertain situations is actually counterintuitive, good commanders alone- even if they engaged in Design-like thinking- could not do Design without their organization also doing Design thinking and the institution writ-large built to take advantage of that thinking by encouraging action linked to learning.
What Was Design Supposed to Do for Us?
In the beginning Design was supposed to assist us in overcoming those situations wherein we do not know what is going on or our objectives are nebulous at best, or, the more likely condition, we think we know what is going on and what we are aiming for, but we are wrong. This ignorance of one's own shortcomings in terms of understanding a situation implies that a more fundamental solution is required, as opposed to simply tweaking one's current planning constructs.
Design, therefore, was supposed to help us in those situations wherein we do not know what our objectives should be or what we are getting involved in and, most likely we do not acknowledge that we do not know. The early military thinkers associated with this task turned to the latest in complexity theory and systems thinking as a start and naturally that is what most influenced our doctrine. What they ran into, however, was an institutional resistance to too much change, especially change tied to esoteric concepts or concepts wherein the application was a little fuzzy. What was missing in the effort was a clear example of how the military should change in order to take advantage of some of the latest ideas in dealing with complexity. Although many different disciplines have confronted the topic, the military quite naturally shied away from sociology, psychology, and fields that were related to the “softer” sciences and preferred to turn more to the harder sciences. The field of architecture provided much influence and even the term: "Design".
Unfortunately Design was meant to help us deal with that focus of the softer sciences that the military usually reluctantly addresses: humans. Because humans are unpredictable and enough of them thrown together to be called a population group exhibit very complex behavior, operations involving influencing population groups is seen as very complex. These situations require a different approach than, say, an operation limiting itself to influencing a division of enemy troops (although one should quickly protest that divisions of enemy troops are made up of humans too…). Moreover, if one's involvement with said population group is difficult to connect to one's interests and the scope of the operation seems to be unlimited, then it makes sense that a different approach may be warranted.
In order to address a situation wherein one does not acknowledge that one does not understand the situation, the early Design thinkers realized that a philosophical change was needed, and that the first step was to understand the current philosophy that defined the military and kept us from acknowledging our ignorance in certain matters. Many realized that the current philosophy of the military was wholly incompatible with dealing with uncertain situations. This philosophy was positivism: a discredited philosophy that few disciplines have followed since the mid-Twentieth Century. This philosophy holds that one can understand how the world works- to include complex adaptive entities like population groups- by simply asserting a universal law and then observing and gathering data that will either assist in proving or disproving one’s hypothesis. It not only assumes there are universal laws for all entities, but also that we can discover these laws through data gathering and deductive analysis. This, of course, goes a long way towards explaining the military’s fascination with metrics and grandiose processes that purport to be able to predict decisive results.
Instead of the military’s current philosophy, these thinkers supported a turn to one that most of the rest of the science world has already turned to since about the time of the development of the concept of Quantum Mechanics, and that is postpositivism. Postpositivism, not to be confused with post-modernism, is a philosophy that acknowledges the difficulties with measuring and gathering data on and assigning universal laws to such abstract notions as “insurgencies” and especially complex and adaptive entities like humans and social populations. Unfortunately, the military did not accept several key findings of the original Design thinkers: 1) that we do not acknowledge our own ignorance in uncertainty, 2) that the solution requires a change in the military’s philosophy, and 3) that the foundational literature of Design concludes numbers 1 and 2. Therefore, what our doctrine today describes as Design will not help us; it is in many ways "anti-Design".
What Has Design Instead Done?
Instead the military attempted to incorporate some of the concepts in complexity theory and systems thinking into its current doctrine. That many of these concepts are actually at odds with our current doctrine did not stop the powers that be from forcing them together. In the resultant atmosphere, some Design advocates relented and hoped for incremental change, reasoning that some systems thinking and complexity theory in military doctrine was better than none- no matter how badly incorporated. Others jumped on the bandwagon and began promoting the pseudo-Design in the doctrine as a panacea which, along with MDMP, would supposedly make us more effective in uncertain situations. A smaller group protested that because the problem rested at least partially with the way we thought as an institution, tweaking current planning processes without addressing our flawed and antiquated philosophy (how we think) wouldn't change a thing. Perhaps the largest group, however, reasoned that we had always done Design (defining it more in terms of critical and creative thinking and doing mission analysis correctly) and that current processes like MDMP just needed to be done “right”.
This is perhaps the antithesis of Design thinking (how the Design concepts have been incorporated into doctrine), but I submit there is a reason we are like this: it is something ingrained in the institution itself, arising as an emergent phenomenon tied to our culture, education, domestic forces, the natural evolution of bureaucracies, and our traditions. As Ian Morris posits in Why the West Rules- For Now, social development paradoxically sows the seeds for its own failure. Similarly, I submit that bureaucracies develop to a point that they naturally evolve into irrelevance as well. Instead of fighting this natural force (since it is emergent it is also very resilient), we must understand it (Design would demand that we understand ourselves), attempt to mitigate it, and start thinking of ways to best overcome it and usher in something that is relevant.
Today we find ourselves in the challenging position wherein other disciplines have recognized the need for fundamental philosophical change in order to address uncertain situations and yet our institution seems to be fighting that requirement. We are either in denial that there is a need to change or in denial as to what change is required. We might not see change is needed because we are assured that conventional war is all we need to worry about and/or that conventional war does not require a Design approach. In terms of what change is required, tweaks to planning constructs is juxtaposed with fundamental philosophical change. This has led us to the current situation wherein we argue about how to incorporate concepts into the institution that are incompatible with our current understanding of how the world works. Therefore, the reason most are confused with Design is not that it is esoteric, but because the concepts are naturally at odds with our institution and no amount of doctrinal or process tweaking on the fringes will fix that. The question becomes, then, what do we do now?
Where Should We Go From Here?
Since Design requires such a fundamental change and so far we have either denied that or we are okay with small, incremental change regardless of whether it really helps us or not, it is easy to become cynical and declare that Design is dead and we should just limit ourselves to worrying about conventional fights or doing poorly in those other-than-conventional activities we are forced to engage in. After all, most, if not all, of those activities are so complex that we can often spin the results to look like whatever we want them to look like. No perception of harm, no foul. Surely that keeps us from enacting fundamental change as the institution does not readily see any need for it.
Another option would be to stress the requirement for us to be focused on something we should be able to understand: that is the need to "learn". In my understanding of uncertain situations, the best way to be effective is to learn as fast as one can. Even though the overall effort: to turn our institution into one that supports a “learning organization” at every level- really would require fundamental change, this can also happen at other levels independently in the interim. If a brigade sees itself as needing to write its mission statement as, "setting up an effective, efficient, and quick learning system" anytime it goes into a potential uncertain situation, it may assist in breaking that brigade out of some of the institutionally-forced obstacles to being effective in uncertain situations. Of course, it won't be able to overcome a centrally-managed and inflexible personnel system, a uniform and insufficient educational system, a non-adaptive compensation system, and many of the other roadblocks in his or her way, but it is a start and could allow subordinate units and headquarters to stop fooling around with “enterprises” and other surface changes and instead work on learning.
In the long-run, though, in order for our entire institution to be more effective in uncertain situations and for us to be able to most effectively take advantage of organization-level learning, we must be able to turn every unit and headquarters into a learning organization and support them institutionally. To fix this the institution itself must be geared towards learning. Part of that learning must take into account the current institution's philosophy- how it thinks about the way it thinks. The current philosophy, I submit, is one that comes from our own education, our military and national culture, and our own institutional systems- they reinforce one another. But, it is antiquated and not even in keeping with the latest hard sciences, much less the softer sciences, of which I think we should look to more often as we are, after all, dealing with humans. Since philosophy underpins everything else, this is at once a massive call for change as well as a very necessary one. Simply put, one cannot be more effective in uncertain situations unless one understands one's own institution, how the institution thinks, and how that affects one's understanding of situations.
The second step would be to determine if changing our philosophy is warranted (do we need to be more effective in uncertain situations and what does that change mean in terms of the law, our traditions, and views on conventional warfare, etc.). It might be that we are okay to accept risk in not being very effective in uncertain situations. It might be that the change required would be too painful and at this time is not warranted. At least as long as we are making that decision within a critical process of self-reflection and the idea of the ramifications of what we are able to offer our nation – and not offer – then that would be better than what we are doing now. What we cannot do, I submit, is to pretend we are getting better at handling uncertain situations by utilizing the current doctrine on Design.
The third step, assuming we recognized the need to change, would be to change the philosophy to one more in line with being effective in uncertain environments. The current philosophy is a positivist philosophy and is conducive to seeing the world in an anti-Design fashion. All of our doctrine, training, education, and personnel systems are steeped in positivism. It results in us believing things about how the world works that do not match the current scientific understanding of the world. Lastly, it results in an increasingly bureaucratized and process-driven institution that seems to make progress, but in reality simply increases the complexity of even the simplest of tasks.
Philosophy is not something that most in the military are comfortable with. We intuitively understand the world and that intuition holds that observations allow us to see the real world, that we see the world objectively and that we can learn about the world objectively and base improved processes on that knowledge. This way of thinking- our philosophy- comes from a complex combination of multiple sources: our national culture, our educational system, our military traditions, and even our religious backgrounds. This philosophy drives what we do and it is not conducive to operating in uncertain environments, environments wherein links to our interests are fuzzy and what is going on is even fuzzier- and yet we are usually ignorant of our uncertainty. If we cannot learn faster, then we will become irrelevant. Design originally offered us a better way to learn faster than our current philosophy. The question now is, are we curious enough to investigate our own philosophy and confident enough to question whether it is the best one to have? This must be the crux of our debate going forward, not how we can or if we should tweak our current processes: our current processes are increasingly making us irrelevant. Design is dead- at least the way we’ve incorporated it into doctrine, it was dead on arrival. Long live what Design was intended to do.
 Military Decision Making Process (MDMP): the military’s preferred process for planning, originated with other rational decision making processes during the Industrial Age and advanced during World War I. Consists of analytical steps that result in a detailed Course of Action that can be turned into a detailed set of orders for subordinate units that purports to assist higher-level units in their missions by “nesting” the higher’s intent within the subordinate’s concept. Is reliant on higher level units understanding the situation, a clear end-state, and linear and logical assertions.
 I prefer the term “uncertain situations” to the faddish expressions “complex”, “wicked”, or “sticky” simply because the latter words are intertwined with complexity theory and although some complexity theory concepts are useful, it is, in the end, simply another paradigm we would be trading for the current one. Design thinking, I submit, would have us avoid all paradigms.
 One way, I propose, in which complexity can be artificially limited is to limit one’s purpose and objectives in time and scope as opposed to, say, Haiti in 1994, wherein some SF teams were told to go into an area and "establish peace".
 See Chris Argyris’ work on organizational defensive routines and skilled incompetence explaining the barriers to institutional learning.
 I think it is a mistake to assume that conventional warfare is not associated with uncertain situations or that future conventional engagements will not require a Design approach. I submit there are growing systemic forces that may be resulting in all military operations having a certain element of situational uncertainness to them (writ large, as I defined it in this paper), not the least of which are that national interests will be increasingly difficult to clearly articulate and the situation individual troops are faced with and the way they intuitively react (intuitively including that which emerges from institutional pressures) will be more likely to be divorced from what is deemed effective policy.
 Senge, Peter M., The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday/Currency, 1990.) His “disciplines”: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning. As an institution, I do not believe that the military encourages, much less requires, knowledge of, much less behavior shown in, any of these disciplines.
 Argyris, C.; Schon, D., Organizational Learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading MA: Addison-Wesle, 1978. Argyris proposes that most organizations engage in single loop learning- effects are sought and objectives linked to those preferred effects are achieved. Double loop learning means that not only is the organization focused on the preferred effects, but also is responsible for questioning whether the effects themselves should be preferred. Also see http://www.infed.org/thinkers/argyris.htm and http://pds8.egloos.com/pds/200805/20/87/chris_argyris_learning.pdf
 Dr. Alex Ryan has described three common responses to Design as “the deniers, the stretchers, and the missionaries” and that all are equally dangerous to effective use of Design. “Deniers (“Design is nothing new”) usually use cynicism to hide their ignorance, stretchers (“Design is just another tool in my toolkit”) adopt some of the metaphors but not the mental shift required, and the missionaries (“Design has changed my life!”)” who can come across as too esoteric and call for change totally beyond the pale of possibility.
 Design was a response to the feeling that we missed something in the planning run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom
 All kind of disciplines have approached complexity (or, uncertain situations) in different ways suitable to their situations. It is my belief the military should have turned to economics (“complexity economics” according to Eric Beinhocker in his book The Origin of Wealth, Harvard Business School Press, 2006), evolutionary change mechanistic theory, quantum mechanics, sociology, and psychology before it turned to the world of architecture for guidance. If the military had approached the topic in a Design thinking fashion, it is my position that we would have studied all of these disciplines and then developed our own concept for further study.
 One good example is Design thinking influence on business schools that has emphasized ethnography and qualitative research methods to improve upon simple rational business school concepts. See Rotman and Darden Business Schools’ concepts for instance.
 As one example, notice the current effort to incorporate “the human domain” into doctrine with Special Operations Forces as proponents. See: www.ausa.org/publications/armymagazine/archive/2012/06/Documents/Sacolick_0612.pdf
 A better word might be “worldview”, although I think both could be used. I think the source of much of our philosophy is our worldview, but the word “philosophy” to me explains the effects of one’s worldview on everything one does and how one thinks.
 For a good description of positivism as it relates to the military, see COL (ret) Paparone’s article here: http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/fm-3-0-operations-on-the-cusp-of-postpositivism; Paparone, Chris, “FM 3-0: Operations on the Cusp of Pospositivism”, Small Wars Journal, 28 May 2008.
 See http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/positvsm.php for an easy to understand explanation of the difference between how science used to view knowledge before the mid twentieth century and how it views knowledge today. Trochim, William M. The Research Methods Knowledge Base, 2nd Edition: http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/. From the article: “In a positivist view of the world, science was seen as the way to get at truth, to understand the world well enough so that we might predict and control it. The world and the universe were deterministic -- they operated by laws of cause and effect that we could discern if we applied the unique approach of the scientific method…” “The positivist believed in empiricism -- the idea that observation and measurement was the core of the scientific endeavor. The key approach of the scientific method is the experiment, the attempt to discern natural laws through direct manipulation and observation.”
 Buchanan, Richard, “Is Army Design Methodology Over-Designed?”, Foreign Policy, http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/11/01/is_army_design_methodology_over_designed_there_are_trust_issues_too, 1 NOV 2012.
 A good example of our flawed philosophical approach is something that I often hear when peers comment that "MDMP is good enough for any situation." In conversations, very few, if any, know where MDMP comes from. The fact that educated people in our military are willing to support a process without even critically examining where the process comes from suggests a flawed approach to knowledge within our institution. The fact that we do not reference most of our doctrine exacerbates this as it leaves us with a choice of either spending a lot of time researching the doctrine or taking it on faith and, unfortunately in my experience, most simply take it on faith.
 Morris, Ian, Why the West Rules - For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
 Progress in Afghanistan, for instance, seems to be reliant on the observer: General Keane recently commented that General Petraeus turned the effort around in Afghanistan, others argue that nothing different happened while he was in command. Some have argued recently as well that progress in Iraq was exaggerated and more of an information campaign vice progress tied to long-term U.S. objectives.
 Of course, this will require leaders who are willing to take risks- career risks, trust subordinates, and have enough self-confidence to allow dissension and demand input from the bottom-up. That the current institution possibly would punish leaders like this makes me doubtful this will be incorporated by many and sure that it will not be sufficient.
 Dennis, MAJ Matthew B., “Systems Thinking and Design: Making Learning Organizations a Reality in the U.S. Army”, SAMS monograph, 2010: http://cgsc.cdmhost.com/utils/getfile/collection/p4013coll3/id/2693/filename/2694.pdf. Dennis’ paper traces the Army’s current philosophy back to General Dupuy and his methodological approach to the preparation for war. He contradicts that approach with Senge’s learning organization and argues for a broader epistemology (way of learning and gaining knowledge) to enable a learning organization.
 Although I advocate for a shift in philosophy, that is a very tall order, if not impossible. I do, however, think it would be useful for the military to at least investigate what our philosophy is as an institution and make it part of every level of our professional military education.
 And that is why I submit we must “do” Design for all types of operations, not just those that appear “complex”: because our society has changed to an extent that internally we make things complex- and there’s little that anyone can change about that. Many argue we need clear guidance from politicians- clear end-states and objectives. Maybe the reason we can’t get that is because of the way our society has progressed- and at this point we are incapable as a society to identify clear objectives and end-states. I propose that this condition will only get worse.
 One example of this is that as bureaucracy has expanded, the amount of people and time required to procure weapons within Special Operations Command has increased exponentially to the point wherein even when Special Operations units have money and authorization for weapons, it is still a struggle to obtain them. This, in my mind, would be correctly categorized as a “simple task” versus the task of “disrupting Al Qaeda in Yemen”, for instance.