Small Wars Journal

To Design or Not to Design (Part Three)

Fri, 03/18/2011 - 9:00am

To Design or Not to Design (Part Three):

Metacognition: How Problematizing Transforms a Complex System towards a Desired State

by Ben Zweibelson

Download The Full Article: To Design or Not to Design (Part Three)

FM5-0 Chapter 3 Design describes design's purpose as a methodology used to "make sense of complex, ill-structured problems." The term 'make sense' deals with explanation of the open system. The previous article of 'To Design or Not to Design' demonstrated how military institutions have a strong propensity for describing an open system instead of explaining it. To make sense of a complex system, humans instinctively attempt to categorize information through descriptive monikers and reductive classifications. Knowledge is usually "pursued in depth in isolation...Rather than getting a continuous and coherent picture, we are getting fragments- remarkably detailed but isolated patterns." FM5-0 Chapter 3 Design follows military institutional preference for reconstructive and mechanical methodology prevalent at the tactical level of war by misapplying it to the operational level with design. Army design doctrine does not articulate why and how to transform a complex system into a desired one.

To understand something conceptual requires thinking about thinking, also known as metacognition. FM5-0 Chapter 3 Design implies metacognition by stressing the requirement of thoroughly understanding the nature of the problem and prescribing three frames through which planners operate to transform the system. Design doctrine graphically depicts the environmental frame, problem frame, and operational approach with minimal insight on how they function, or how operational artists actually 'transform the system.' Ironically, design doctrine stresses the importance of clear and illustrative graphics with explicit narratives for conveying understanding, yet the below vague and generally incomprehensible graphic is all that design doctrine offers for conveying design methodology.

Download The Full Article: To Design or Not to Design (Part Three)

Major Ben Zweibelson is an active duty Infantry Officer in the US Army. A veteran of OIF 1 and OIF 6, Ben is currently attending the School for Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He has a Masters in Liberal Arts from Louisiana State University and a Masters in Military Arts and Sciences from the United States Air Force (Air Command and Staff College program). Ben deploys this June to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan as a planner.

Editor's Note: This is part two of a six part series on design. Parts one and two can be found here and here.

About the Author(s)



One complaint about "design" in its philosophical frame is that it offers little as to "tools" for the practitioner.

The closest description I have found (several years ago) is the following method and assumptions that may be quite useful to the ideals of design (although, I am not suggesting this is the only way to frame, nor that this should somehow be imported into doctrine!).

The authors aptly call it "Affirmative Postmodern Research."

The affirmative postmodern research method:

- Requires all the instruments of traditional criticism and more to deconstruct (identify and criticize) beliefs and assumptions we take for granted.
- Sees the professional's duty as pursuing revolutionary challenges to conventional wisdom.
- Mixes and matches styles to achieve an aesthetic, interdisciplinary approach to research.
- Develops an important creative tension that can lead to transcendence of old ways of thinking because, while postmodern research is informed by traditional research, postmodernists are ambivalent toward it.
- Both celebrates and denies tradition and the myth of progress.
- Emphasizes paradox, irony, eclecticism, and pluralism.
- Suspects paradigmatic consensus as an outmoded value; hence, paradigm consensus is an outmoded goal of social science inquiry; for example, embracing diverse positions rather than synthesizing them.
- Believes that the dangerous dogma of normal science prevents necessary shifting among competing paradigms.

Affirmative postmodern research assumes-

- Certain aspects of the contemporary world can be reevaluated.
- Margins and softer voices can have as much meaning as majority positions or the mythical mean.
- It is possible to transgress propriety, challenge convention, and articulate voices previously silenced.
- There is a real world that can and should be systematically investigated through coherent and outof- the-box sensemaking.
- There is a difference between puzzle-solving (using traditional paradigms and theories to explain phenomena) and innovation (using bold conjecture, controlled by self-criticism).
- The objective world created by traditional social scientists is really a subjective interpretation. (These models have been socially constructed; that is, invented by humans, but traditional social sci- entists tend to forget that they are and that they are value-laden and not objective.)

What do you think? (I see some real brilliance from these authors)

[I adapted these from: Martin Kilduff and Ajay Mehra, "Postmodernism and Organizational Research," Academy of Management Review 22, (2) (1997): 453-81.]

Ben Zweibelson (not verified)

Sat, 03/19/2011 - 11:00am

Chris- cool, we are thinking the same thoughts. 4th article coming up is on linear and non-linear; how design breaks all of the reductionist biases of detailed planning- but how can we transfer a non-linear concept like 'swarm' into detailed planning for execution?

The fifth article is all about design doctrine- I think you will like it since you essentially outlined my doctrine thesis above!

Thanks again for all the feedback and comments- this has been a most enlightening process thus far!


"wonder if we are talking about similar things when you discuss 'objective-subjective' and I use 'interior-exterior'?"

I am not sure. Perhaps the link is the philosophical concept of "ontology?"

But our community's use of "ill-structured problems" (coined by HA Simon almost 40 years ago) should also give us pause to how we become quickly insular and self-referencing.

My argument is we should have NOT imported design into doctrine as we then create conditions for self-referencing dogma and ideological insularity (there is a lot of evidence this is already occurring). Design is an eclectic endeavor (the "art" is the bricolage of combining various knowledge communities as "new recipes"), not something we want to call "esoteric knowledge" in our typical way of excluding "laypersons" from our "professional" community. [George Bernard Shaw once defined this trap as a dangerous façade that can be created by use of jargon -- a phenomenon he described as a "conspiracy against laity."]

Ben Zweibelson (not verified)

Fri, 03/18/2011 - 8:36pm

I will hit you up on AKO; I have another product that tries to get at this argument from another direction.

If this one relies a bit too much on GST, my later work explores more of post-modernism, Australian and USMC design processes, and some mathematics/Game Theory approaches.

I moved away from 'ill-structured problem' but this series of articles takes FM 5-0 to task because they inserted it constantly in the doctrine. Hence, my 'problem with the word problem.' The USMC planning doctrine also seems overly enamoured with Conklin and 'ill-structured problems'; I need to check out HA Simons because I was not tracking on his work.

Thanks for the feedback; I wonder if we are talking about similar things when you discuss 'objective-subjective' and I use 'interior-exterior'?



My compliments on the essay, part 3!

My concern is to link design (let's temporarily define as the crossing between the objective<---->subjective sensemaking and the simple<---->complex continua) to systems theory.

As design is about "imaging" the world and conditions thereof, a systems view is just one useful image.

There are countless other ways of imaging/imagining -- this is the framing and reframing idea behind design. A systems view is an imaginary frame and is not THE theory for design (just as a painter has more than one color on their palette.

Second, while I agree that the word "problem" carries a lot of baggage (as in "problem definition"), we have to also be careful even when we describe them as "ill-structured." This meaning stems from HA Simon's 1973 article -- and Simon was an objectivist and he spent much of his life in pursuit of artificial intelligence in a classical empiricist manner.

The ontology of design sees a continuum between objective and subjective ontology. I think Simon was wrong in projecting that a quality of the problem was "ill-structured." From the subjective view, it's not the problem that is ill-structured. We have not invented (imagined) a structure to place on the situation at hand in order to "see" it as a problem.

Other decision researchers have actually demonstrated that "problems" are contrived and defined by solutions (and not the other way around)("Garbage Can DM"). In other words, situations do not become problems until humans can conceive them to be amenable to human intervention (hence we can then place structure on them). "Structure" is tautological to "solution."

This explains why language has to be flexible (as you insist). It's the way we structure (i.e. we "build structure" to imagine/frame).