Small Wars Journal

Military Design in Practice: A Case from NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan in 2012

Mon, 06/04/2012 - 5:28am

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Over the past decade, western military institutions such as the United States Army have devoted greater attention towards conceptual planning when confronting ill-structured or ‘messy’ problems in conflict environments.[1] Conceptual planning develops cohesive and innovative approaches for subsequent detailed planning and traditional military decision-making, yet our military profession struggles with how to fuse traditional planning with novel and emergent concepts. This article demonstrates the utility of blending theory, military doctrine, and an appreciation of socio-political mechanisms within our organizations during military planning.  It is based on observations of planning efforts at the operational level for NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) in 2012. Intended not only for military professionals and academics, the author aims to bridge conceptual planning discussions between military and civilian leaders with the mutually beneficial applications of design theory, doctrine, and politics.[2], [3] Fusing conceptual and detailed planning requires greater discourse and debate.


Modern warfare presents complex and dynamic environments that continuously challenge the ways our organizations apply emergent theory, established doctrine, and how the inter-social politics of our organizations can help and hinder us. Military and civilian planners confront similar challenges concerning organizational knowledge production, institutional communication, organizational decision-making, and often share similar hierarchical structures with strong root metaphors and institutional tenets.[4] Whether increasing market share with novel products or securing local or regional stability through lethal and non-lethal operations to accomplish national objectives, leaders must plan, synchronize, and execute complex human endeavors in a cooperative, collaborative, and competitive organization.[5]  Yet how do we actually blend theory, doctrine, and inter-social organizational adjustments to accomplish our goals? Is ‘fusion’ the latest doctrinal buzz-word, or can we illustrate ways to encourage conceptual and detailed blending with self-awareness of our own institutionalisms?

This article uses an operational level planning effort from NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) to illustrate some useful patterns that leaders can use to explore other applications where a blend of politics, theory, and doctrine result in a cohesive design deliverable for a military organization. All of the illustrations in this article are facsimiles of unclassified white-board planning sessions, and demonstrate the integration of a variety of design and operational theory processes into established military decision making. Again, this article seeks further discourse on planning fusion, and is not intended to provide design templates for mimicry with the expectation of similar planning results. Complex environments and ‘messy problems’ require uniquely tailored approaches. Here is one such example for consideration.  

2014: the Catalyst for Transition from Coalition to Afghan Control

In the spring of 2012, NTM-A faced a ‘messy problem’ concerning the organization and synchronization of all of its training and advising elements and various subordinate elements across a diverse geography within a combat environment. NTM-A would plan to transition Coalition-led training sites throughout all of Afghanistan within a particular time and resource limitation. Whereas until now, NTM-A trained, operated, and was responsible for all Afghan Police, Army, and logistic training sites, the Afghan government had to assume complete responsibility through phased transition of over one hundred sites across the entire country while waging a counterinsurgency against the Taliban and other rivals. NTM-A had to incorporate the still developing Afghan Defense Ministry and Afghan Ministry of Interior, with the weak Afghan legitimate economy, low literacy rates, and other major third-world problems plaguing the country.[6]

Under a compressed timeline, senior leadership directed a planning effort with the goal of producing a simple, cohesive plan that combined the various subordinate elements within NTM-A and synchronized them with both the Afghan security forces and sister Coalition organizations conducting combat operations. The reason we term it a ‘messy’ or ‘wicked’ problem set is because the environment would continue to adapt after the initial implementation of this planning deliverable. Our own organization as well as the Afghans would adapt and new, unexpected problems related to this would emerge later. Yet a successful fusion of design and detailed planning should produce a design deliverable that is flexible and provides the organization an ability to adjust, refine, and anticipate as conditions change.

Initially Bound a Messy Problem with a Small Planning Team

In previous planning sessions within NMT-A, select military planners initially made sense of the environment, generated iterative approaches to bounding the problem, and successfully constructed the organizing logic for all subsequent planning. In this case, four military planners with specialized planning backgrounds were intentionally assembled from across the entire organization to confront this ill-structured planning problem. The dissimilar perspectives that each planner brought to the core team contributed to a holistic perspective on how the NTM-A functioned with respect to communication, language, knowledge production, and command directives.[7]

Providing a specialized team the ability and resources to appreciate complex environments without shackling them to the inhibiting elements that maintain organizational uniformity, repetitiveness, and hierarchical control nurtures critical and creative thinking. Small planning teams break away from the rigid military hierarchy that often conforms to the Machiavellian politics of alliances, division of power, and selective confrontation or rivalry within an organization.[8] These small teams can shift to a different planning paradigm where collective decisions and democratic consensus occurs in what philosopher Juergen Habermas terms ‘communicative rationality.’[9] Free to apply bricolage and seek dissimilar disciplines and fields that offered potential insight, the team applied organizational theory models that are largely unknown within the greater military community and freely discussed them in a collective decision environment.[10] These organizational theory applications as outlined below break from traditional military doctrine, procedures, and military realpolitik - yet their utility in ill-structured problems is something for military and civilian professionals to consider within the context of organizational doctrine, theory, and socio-politics.

Critical Reflection Brings Appreciation of How your Organization Thinks and Acts:

The immediate doctrinal instinct within many military organizations is to spend less time on making sense of the problem, with a higher emphasis on solving it in the preferred manner of our own institutionalisms.[11]  We prefer to describe an environment rather than explain it with detailed checklists and tangible statistics sought in an attempt to reduce ill-structured problems into manageable chunks.[12]  Relying on the communicative practice, this small team avoided this tendency through discourse and design theory application. Thinking broadly to first appreciate and make sense of the problem, the team applied organizational models and sought to improvise a novel approach that embraced a holistic organizing logic.[13]

While military planning doctrine may provide some basic melodies for a planning team to improvise off, true innovation does not occur by rigidly following generic sheet music (doctrine) note by note.[14] Instead, creative interpretation of the existing problem coupled with the freedom to explore and apply novel and dissimilar concepts often yields success in unexpected ways- this is bricolage under the flag of communicative practice.  By ‘bricolage’ we mean the practice of using a variety of dissimilar and often eclectic disciplines, theories, and fields available to the planners to create novel solutions. Since the overarching problem confronting NTM-A in this situation was an organizational knowledge and synchronization based one, the planning team initially applied variations of  a ‘value program/schema’ as a cognitive model to begin design practice.[15]

Without getting into the nuances of why the team selected one element over another within the context of Figure 1, the significance of improvising and creating with the ‘value program/schema’ concept is that the team gained valuable insight and appreciation of the ill-structured problem.  Through improvisation and bricolage, the team crafted their first perspective on making sense of the ‘messy problem’.[16]

The team blended the schema concept (theory) with graphics and military planning language (doctrine) to develop an increased awareness of three interrelated organizations (NTM-A, ISAF fielded forces, and the Afghan Security Forces). All had differing motives and core tenets on shared objectives. From a socio-political perspective, we looked how each organization viewed itself within the greater context of the multi-organizational strategic view. Improvisation within Figure 1 led us towards recognizing abstract tensions of how western military logic was often paradoxical with the Afghan “non-western” logic, as well as amongst western-centric military organizations themselves. [17] Continuing with iterative white-board sessions, our team used abstract concepts such as the semiotic square to progressively advance awareness of the organizational problem.[18]  Figure 2 provides another example of unexpected results by improvising a fusion of accepted doctrine with design theory through appreciation of organizational socio-politics.[19]

Using a geometric concept to form the semiotic square, the two rival tensions highlighted from Figure 1’s schema session helped us seek explanation instead of description concerning the major obstacles to our transition goals. Synchronization requires vertical (hierarchical) integration as well as horizontal (various NTM-A directorates and staff sections) so that tactical sites could be transitioned to Afghan responsibility. Elements within NTM-A operated largely from a linear and compartmentalized focus; the Afghan Army Directorate focused exclusively on Afghan Army matters, while the Police Directorate within NTM-A did the same with Afghan Police concerns. Support Operations looked only at logistics. We were compartmentalized in how we approached things, which prevented us from viewing things holistically. If our planning team inquired to any directorate on topics that fell outside their purview such as asking the Army Directorate about Police transition planning, none could articulate any other directorate’s plans, position, or how all of the directorates could synergize actions into a holistic planning effort.

This line of critical inquiry illustrated that one of the socio-political tensions within our ill-structured problem was NTM-A itself.[20] Our organization featured strong planning capabilities within each directorate, yet their efforts remained isolated from one another and exclusively focused on tactical actions that ignored the linkages to higher level actions. Our design practice helped us gain an appreciation of the messy problem by including our own organization in our deliberate critical inquiry. This helped trigger emergent thought for our team.

Novel knowledge production within our planning team led from Figure 1 to Figure 2, which again remained highly abstract and holistic.[21] At this early stage in sense-making and improvisational planning, the team did not want to solve the problem; rather we sought to understand which problem needed solving, and why.[22] Figure 2 features the organizing logic of operational theory’s ‘semiotic squares’ approach that again used geometric structure to help planners make sense of things. Earlier socio-political observations of NTM-A are reflected as ‘W=WESTERN LOGIC’ with ‘-W=NON-WESTERN LOGIC’ applied to the Afghan security forces.  In some respects, Figure 2 has greater abstraction than Figure 1, yet military planners should not expect to travel a linear path where conceptual planning leads directly to highly tangible detailed military planning.[23] Abstraction may lead to even greater generalizations before providing the explanation that military planners seek.[24]  It is the process of gaining explanation that leads to cohesive and beneficial design deliverables containing the necessary description for detailed planning to structure tasks, timelines, and phased sequences of action for an organization to execute.[25]

Figures 1 and 2 provided our team with a blended perspective of theory, doctrine, and politics in order to isolate institutionalisms and root metaphors within the organization that obscure holistic appreciation of a messy problem.[26] By improvising with the observed ‘meta-questions’ that emerged through iterative white-board sessions and discussions surrounding the production of Figures 1 and 2, our team subsequently applied scenario planning quadrant concepts to their bricolage approach.[27]  We developed some quad-charts using those tensions to illustrate two distinct paradigm shifts within the environment confronting NTM-A and the Afghan forces.[28] Instead of simply labeling these observations as paradoxes and moving on, the team improvised with quad-chart structure to explore emergent themes instead of searching only for intended results.[29]

Figure 3 illustrates some of the emergent patterns that the team associated with understanding, bounding, and subsequently planning to “solve” the messy problem.[30] Again, no complex system can be neatly solved; rather it is influenced by planners to transform into an emergent future state that holds advantageous positions for the organization. With Figure 3, the team recognized that NTM-A was moving away from a highly western end-state with the Afghan security force and towards a more feasible and sustainable ‘non-western/Afghan’ end-state. Simultaneously, a second paradigm shift demonstrated emergence where NTM-A moved from a highly compartmentalized and reductionist planning approach towards a centralized, holistic planning approach for transition.[31]  Instead of many separate directorates building their own plans, NTM-A needed to design and implement one ‘unified transition plan’ that could cohesively synergize the vast NTM-A organization in a systemic rather than systematic approach while acknowledging organizational socio-politics.[32] These abstract improvisations through the planning team’s fusion of theory, doctrine, and critical reflection provided the necessary foundation for them to move from abstract perspectives towards more tangible operational planning deliverables.

Focusing Abstract Perspectives into Operational Approaches

The first several iterations and white-board sessions that the team conducted resulted in abstract understanding as illustrated with Figures 1-3.  However, these initial conceptual products are explicitly part of the design process and not intended for any briefings to senior leadership. Military planners often confuse conceptual planning products with final design deliverables; although there are no ‘rules’ the final design deliverables should be concise, informative, yet simplistic for wide organizational consumption and application. Many conceptual products (Figures 1-3) may make sense to the core team, but this has more to do with their shared and cultivated group development through discipline, language, and collective decision-making under a communicative practice rather than the Machiavellian politics of large military organizations.[33]

  In other words, a sculptor presents the finished statue at the end to an audience, but would only share the chips and shavings of the original marble with fellow artists for discussing technique or the iterative artistic process from which the statue emerged. The public demands a statue, and has no interest in how you chipped the stone to get there. Figures 1-3 are analogous to marble shavings and should not be confused with the final planning deliverables. As an important transition step between conceptual and detailed military planning, the team took their deeper understanding of the messy problem built through Figures 1-3 and began to develop refined conceptual planning products that were intended for the larger NTM-A audience. This begins the socio-political shift from a small group governed by communicative practice towards larger planning groups featuring a blend of Machiavellian realpolitik through rank, responsibility, and military tradition.

Figure 4 took existing military language and the institutionally familiar ‘hierarchy structure’ for decision making into consideration when applying core tensions that emerged from earlier abstract design work.[34] Although still a conceptual planning product, Figure 4 reflects the three hierarchy-bound organizations (ISAF fielded forces, NTM-A, and the Afghan Security Forces) as overlapping pyramids with strategic, operational, and tactical levels within the organizations.[35] Military organizations prefer to organize their levels of responsibility, focus, and scope through the following interdependent echelons that use Machiavellian realpolitik as a socio-political forcing function. Our team associated levels of war (doctrine) within each of the three organizations due to their tendency to mirror these categories when making sense of the world.  We did this intentionally as the final deliverable required components that resonate within our larger institution. ‘Fusion’ means that we need to draw from the conceptual, yet also blend and apply detailed planning elements with an appreciation for how our organization will execute the plan.

Each level within each of the overlapping organizations reflects the ‘rival’ within the social ecosystem where our own institutionalisms can become more of an obstacle to accomplishing our objectives than our physical enemies.[36] We can become the greatest rival within a complex system.  The design term ‘rival’ differs from the tactical concept of ‘enemy’ in that an enemy is tangible and destroyable. Rivals transcend the tangible, and cannot be directly targeted or defeated. As our team considered these elements of organizational tension, we sought to illustrate this through additional white-board sessions.

Continuing with the socio-political reflection on how NTM-A, ISAF, and the Afghan security forces operate at each level within the hierarchies, the planning team recognized that tasks at the tactical level within any of the three organizations were often linked to operational tasks, and even strategic tasks within the same or other organizations. For instance, trying to get an Afghan tactical-level unit leader to perform a tactical task often required a series of inter-related actions within NTM-A at the operational and strategic level first to stimulate organizational action within the Afghan institution at higher levels. Some tasks required significant interface across ISAF at various levels and often simultaneously to generate synchronization across the diverse multi-organizational topography. 

Figure 5 illustrates a conceptual model that builds upon the previous Figures 1-3 abstract design approaches, yet Figure 5 intentionally moves towards accepted doctrinal elements of military language, concepts, and structure to communicate our earlier improvisations with theory. This intentional effort reflects the ‘fusion’ aspect of blending conceptual and detailed planning.  Figure 5 became one of the featured graphics for subsequent briefings with senior NTM-A leadership and as the planning team expanded. Figure 5 reflected a new phase in the transition between conceptual and detailed planning where a wider audience and larger planning team began to fuse doctrine and theory with a shift in socio-politics.

A larger military audience requires a reduction in communicative practice with an increase in Machiavellian confrontation and strategic alliances.[37] Figure 5 possesses many key elements of earlier graphics, yet it avoids a common planning pitfall of presenting complex issues in complex ways. Simplicity is perhaps the greatest challenge in communicating novel concepts and innovative thinking to the larger organization, yet it is essential in the delicate transition from abstract thought to detailed execution. Another way to distinguish Figure 5’s simplicity in form is to contrast it with another graphic developed during the conceptual planning phase. In a separate effort, we built a flow-diagram to illustrate in detailed terms how each of the three organizations interacted and influenced each other in the environment under examination. Figure 6 goes into extensive detail to show many of the same concepts captured within Figure 5. However, both of these illustrations serve different purposes and generate different results when viewed.

Requiring a complex key and color code, Figure 6 provides significantly more detail than Figure 5, yet the context of this illustration is one of internal planning collaboration and not intended for wider briefing applications. Figure 6 was never briefed to any decision maker during the Unified Transition Planning process, although it was used across various planning cells within the NTM-A and ISAF organizations informally. Figure 6 is not simple, and does not lend itself to briefing senior leadership in the military planning environment. Yet Figure 6 was included in this article to highlight the critical editing requirement for all military planners- just because something is highly explanatory does not mean it should be cast in front of your CEO or General Officer.[38] Sensitivity to socio-politics and your audience are critical for successful design efforts.

Military planners are often challenged to walk the fine line between briefing Figure 5 or Figure 6 as the conceptual linchpin to explaining the organizational logic to a particular design approach; their decision may impact acceptance or rejection of the conceptual planning by the larger organization. In this case, NTM-A senior leadership approved the conceptual planning for the unified transition plan and supported an expansion of the core planning group as the team progressed towards tangible design deliverables.

Expanding the Planning Team changes the Socio-Political Climate:

Conceptual planning alone is insufficient for execution in military applications. We require tangible military objectives described in a uniform language and formatted within precise orders. We use linear sequencing of events to synchronize our actions, and we collect descriptive information to adjust execution. A core planning team using conceptual planning cannot alone produce this detailed deliverable for such a large organization such as NTM-A. Thus, the core planning team needed to expand the size of their planning element to include the myriad of NTM-A staffs and directorates to transition the conceptual plan into subsequent detailed planning processes. This would alter the socio-political climate, with a departure from a purely democratic consensus (communicative practice) observed within the core planning team.  

Detailed planning reflects how the military as an institution prefers to operate, communicate, and make sense of ill-structured problems.[39] When an organization accepts design applications during the conceptual planning phase, subsequent detailed planning should experience those results in the content and form of superior outputs.  It seems that design and conceptual planning needs to remain less visible to the broad military organization during the initial phases, with the final deliverable in a form that is both familiar and palatable to the larger institution, to include shifts in socio-political climates as planning progresses. This has to do with common organizational language, institutional tenets, shared training experiences, and the undeniable influences of time, resources, and space. If the vast majority of our organization clearly understands a linear execution checklist, but only an insignificant minority is familiar with non-linear approaches fusing general systems theory and swarm theory, it would be self-destructive to develop a final planning deliverable that used the latter instead of the former. The same occurs with socio-politics; communicative practice and democratic consensus may work in core planning groups, but traditional military political culture requires more of the Machiavellian structure of power, alliances, and hierarchical control. 

In this planning effort, senior NTM-A leadership accepted the conceptual planning results as the core organizing logic for all subsequent planning. Tasks would gain designations according to their level (tactical, operational, and strategic) and feature a strict association with task linkages and a linear timeline based on a final transition date. Although earlier work remained abstract, all final planning results would take on the doctrinal language and structure with the socio-political context of the military hierarchy.

Once the core framework for the transition execution matrix took initial form, our team expanded and introduced Army and Police advisors, logisticians, engineers, and a variety of other critical staff elements into the planning effort. Each element added their own products and concepts into the execution matrix (communicative practice) while following the organizing logic of task-linkages and military control mechanisms (Machiavellian strategy). Figure 7 illustrates an example of the execution matrix with just a few sample tasks. The final transition execution matrix featured well over a hundred different tasks that linked across tactical, operational, and strategic levels within NTM-A, ISAF fielded forces, and the Afghan Security Forces.  This familiar content and form proved useful in that the wider organization clearly understood and accepted the structure, language, and concepts (Machiavellian) of the matrix without losing the previous design applications and conceptual planning (communicative practice).

NTM-A understood and sought to solve the right problem instead of rushing to solve a variety of different yet irrelevant problems on transition, and the matrix was both cohesive and simplistic in its approach. As stated earlier, messy problems are not ever ‘solved’, but design and detailed planning fusion requires planners to shift from one logic to the other and often share language to convey deep understanding. Packaging your design deliverables within the language and structure of detailed planning concepts is why the team designed a traditional execution checklist as the framework to convey all previous design work.

Figure 7 illustrates the transition from conceptual planning products to detailed and rigidly structured deliverables for organizational application. Although linear in structure, the matrix exploits those familiar concepts and military lexicon that the larger NTM-A organization operates effectively with, while retaining the necessary conceptual logic of earlier design work. With the execution matrix and other associated detailed planning products under development with the expanded planning team, the remaining issue of how to lead and control the execution of the Unified Transition Plan required a return to some conceptual elements as more senior leadership across the entire NTM-A organization were introduced to the transition plan.

Finalizing the Deliverable requires a Return to Conceptual Planning

In many military organizations, an interesting pattern develops where a portion of the hierarchical leadership directs an organizational-wide planning effort that incrementally gets exposed to the larger organization. Although the senior leadership that directed the planning process was exposed to the conceptual planning initially, as planning progressed and our planning team expanded to conduct the subsequent detailed planning, more senior leaders required a briefing to familiarize them with the concept, and at times gain their approval. In all of these cases, it proved detrimental to simply brief the unfamiliar senior leaders with the latest detailed planning products alone because they did not convey the necessary conceptual planning.

Thus, briefing a senior leader with only the execution matrix featured in Figure 7 was insufficient because most leaders then attempted to conduct their own hasty conceptual planning and “connect the dots” to reinvent the wheel, potentially in divergent or redundant directions. This proved disruptive because leaders of elements or directorates that already relied on earlier transition planning products would often return to those concepts and seek to incorporate them into the transition plan (Machiavellian) without realizing that it assimilated all existing transition products (collective practice) in earlier planning sessions.

Outdated concepts such as the “Transition Implementation Packet” and other draft orders that a directorate already assimilated into their daily operations became obstacles to the new unified plan because the older work had to be discarded or cannibalized into the holistic transition approach. Again, our own organization struggled with institutionalism as the final phases of briefing and implementing this organizational-wide plan took effect. At times, elements within NTM-A were extremely resistant to letting go of these outdated concepts which created internal friction and drove the Machiavellian strategy for political unity of effort. In an iterative manner, planners and decision makers reached back into select conceptual products to bring new members into the process and to convince those that clung to older compartmentalized yet familiar products.

            Figure 8 presents an example of reaching back into conceptual planning products from earlier abstract stages in order to continue to convey the broad, abstract concepts while fusing detailed planning components such as command and control to the output. Figure 8 fuses elements of Figure 5 while integrating the necessary specific levels where NTM-A would use regular meetings and decision points to adjust the execution. Figure 8 has little of the abstract theoretical elements found in the earlier Figures and planning products, yet it continues to convey the results from that work within the familiar doctrine and socio-political mechanisms (detailed planning language and concepts) that our larger military organization preferred.

Thus, the wider audience gained the benefits of conceptual planning conducted in a small planning group using democratic consensus, with products transitioning from the conceptual to the detailed as our planning team expanded in size and scope to finally include the entire organization. This helps establish several important patterns that military planners can take into consideration when fusing theory, doctrine, and politics when facing ill-structured problems.

Conclusions: Messy Problems Demand Innovation, Fresh Perspectives, and Reflection  

Military organizations appear to struggle with adapting knowledge production with ever-changing complex environments while often bounded by socio-political structure and doctrine. The term ‘knowledge production’ is the intangible process that an organization builds and expands upon collective understanding. We can increase or decrease our organizational knowledge through many actions. We can improvise and create, but we also can become stagnant or corrosive with our shared knowledge. One of our major institutional points of friction is our desire to re-apply successful actions in a generic format, which potentially inhibits improvisation and adaptation.

Often, something that worked yesterday fails to work today- yet changing your organization’s acceptance of new theories through cohesive planning becomes an organizational problem punctuated with institutionalism, resistance to improvisation, and rejection the conceptual in favor of the more tangible yet positivist.[40] ‘Positivists’ try to use hard science and technology to fix everything, and tend to disregard anything that cannot be categorized or validated (measured) as irrelevant or anecdotal.  For the military (positivist-centric), we tend to crave certainty, and while artists (non-conformists, improvisation-centric) often are delighted by surprises, military professionals and civilian managers often abhor them.[41] Yet theoretical concepts and alternate socio-political structures actively encourage creative, artistic, and often asymmetrical thinking that critically challenges institutionalism and the procedural memory of our own organization.[42]  Is this a major reason that our military struggles to fuse the proper balance of conceptual and detailed planning? Can we forge new paths to discovery, and subsequently not force our organizations to mimic our actions with the expectation that future discoveries will follow the same methods and procedures? Fusing conceptual and detailed planning might require a paradigm shift from our reliance on doctrine and uniformity towards an emphasis on design’s tailored and unique approaches. Instead of drawing one blueprint and reproducing a thousand exact grey suits in three standard sizes, we may need to consider how a suit tailor creates a custom suit for each client’s needs, and never expects identical twins to walk into his shop demanding the same product twice. Why does our doctrine do this?

This article used a recent NTM-A planning event to highlight one way to fuse theory, doctrine, and politics by showcasing examples and illustrations of design applications to messy military problems in a combat environment. There are many organizational concepts as well as other dissimilar yet useful disciplines that military planners can draw from while conducting design. Furthermore, planners may draw some of the lessons learned in this planning process to include the utility of starting with a small planning cell and gradually expanding that team as the plan moves from the highly abstract to the tangible detailed planning for military operations.

Figures 1-8 provide a variety of military design examples moving from the highly abstract to the tangible. This last figure provides an overarching phenomenon observed throughout this and other military design processes. The size of a planning team expands as the content transforms from highly abstract/conceptual towards the necessary military deliverable that is a tangible, executable product written in simple and well-understood organizational language.  Not every military planning process follows this path, as complex systems reject categorization and universal laws, yet this pattern does offer utility for planners to consider.

Figure 9 offers an additional consideration for military and civilian leadership alike. Although earlier conceptual work represents the efforts and intellectual breakthroughs for a planning team, those early products are not intended for mass distribution and application as final design deliverables. The core team functioned under a different socio-political mechanism, using collective decisions instead of the Machiavellian politics of alliances and realpolitik of the larger military organization.[43] The size of the organizational audience grows as the planning team progresses through conceptual to detailed planning, yet there is also a shift in politics from democratic consensus with a core group towards military realpolitik as the larger hierarchy is exposed to the plan. For example, although Figure 8 did represent a return to earlier conceptual work, it nonetheless took a modified form and infused key detailed planning concepts for a wider military audience.  This delicate balance between artistry and military science and socio-political blending requires a deep understanding of one’s own organization.

Lastly, military and civilian leaders focus towards an end-state or objective. Returning to the statue metaphor and the sculptor, planners must be conscious editors of what their desired statue will become (the deliverable plan or product) and not become enamored with the chips of stone that have collected under them as they progress through improvised fusion of doctrine, theory, and politics. Figure 6 helped this planning group yet is too intricate for mass organizational use, whereas Figures 1-3 are too abstract for the wider audience. These all aided the planning team on their journey, yet all conceptual applications within an environment eventually need to result in a tangible, functional, and effective product. Otherwise planners become detached philosophers sitting upon the mountain as the villages down below are razed and burned.  

[1] Design practitioners use ‘messy’, ‘ill-structured’, and ‘wicked’ interchangeably for a variety of reasons. This article uses ‘messy’ but acknowledges these other similar terms. For information on ‘wicked’ or ‘ill-structured’ problems, see: Jeff Conklin, Wicked Problems and Social Complexity (CogNexus Institute, 2008. (accessed 05 January 2011).  Refer to the following Joint and U.S. Army planning doctrine for additional information on traditional military decision making (MDMP): United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, Field Manual 5-0; The Operations Process (Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2010); See also: Department of Defense, Joint Publication 5-0. Joint Operation Planning (26 December 2006).

[2] The U.S. Army recently changed their term from simply ‘Design’ to ‘Army Design Methodology’ which attempts to indoctrinate various conceptual planning processes into a military-oriented planning procedure aimed at appreciating complex dynamic systems and ill-structured problems. Army design doctrine remains controversial, and is frequently criticized as incomplete when considering the wide breadth of available disciplines for military applications.  This article uses the more generic and unaffiliated term ‘design’ to encompass a wider conceptual range beyond U.S. Army doctrine.

[3] All of the subsequent figures are facsimiles of original white-board work and conceptual products for this article and are devoid of any operationally sensitive information. This article was screened by NTM-A CJ2 personnel in accordance with standard vetting processes. All graphics were created by the author.

[4] For information on ‘knowledge production’ concepts, see: Martin Kilduff, Ajay Mehra, and Mary Dunn, From Blue Sky Research to Problem Solving: A Philosophy of Science Theory of New Knowledge Production, (Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36m No. 2, 2011); for ‘root metaphors’, see: Mats Alvesson, Jorgen Sandberg, Generating Research Questions Through Problematization, (Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2011) 254.  See also: Karl E. Weick, Improvisation as a Mindset for Organizational Analysis (Organizational Science, Volume 9, No. 5; September-October 1998) 551. Weick discusses improvisation and how organizations are tempted to avoid it by following “the chronic temptation to fall back on well-rehearsed fragments to cope with current problems even though these problems don’t exactly match those present at the time of the earlier rehearsal.”

[5] E.R. Alexander, The Planner Prince: Interdependence, Rationalities, and Post-Communicative Practice (Planning Theory & Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3, 2001) 311-324. Alexander argues that planning situations requires a fusion of consensual (Foucauldian) theory and Machiavellian ‘realpolitik’ through interdependence and strategic maneuvering within the organization. See also: John Molineux, Tim Haslett, The Use of Soft Systems Methodology to Enhance Group Creativity (Springer Science and Business Media, LCC; Syst Pract Act Res 20; 2007) 477-496.

[6] Army Doctrine Publication 3-0; Unified Land Operations, (Headquarters, Department of the Army, October 2011), 11. “Army Doctrine Publication 3-0 states that when the US Army faces unfamiliar problems, finding “executable solutions typically requires integrating the design methodology and the MDMP [military decision making process].”

[7] Eva Boxenbaum, Linda Rouleau, New Knowledge Products as Bricolage: Metaphors and Scripts in Organizational Theory, (Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2011) 272-296. Boxenbaum and Rouleau argue that knowledge production of organizational theories use a combination of concepts, empirical material, and metaphors.  See also: Kilduff, Mehra, and Dunn, 297. Kilduff, Mehra, and Dunn term ‘logics of action’ defined as organizing principles that shape ways of viewing the world by “providing social actors with vocabularies of motive, fameworks for reasoning, and guidelines for practice.”

[8] Alexander, 311-324. “the effective planner achieves results by recognizing power and applying strategic (not communicative) rationality in playing Machiavellian realpolitik.”

[9] Ibid. 311-324. Alexander cites the work of German Philosopher Juergen Habermas on ‘communicative rationality’ that “sees planning as interactive communication more than problem solving or decision making.” 

[10] Boxenbaum, Rouleau, 280-281.

[11] Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War; American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1989) 11-17.

[12] Conklin, 4-5. “This is the pattern of thinking that everyone attempts to follow when they are faced with a problem…this linear pattern as being enshrined in policy manuals, textbooks, internal standards for project management, and even the most advanced tools and methods being used and taught in the organization.” See also: Phillip Clampitt, M. Lee Williams, Managing Organizational Uncertainty: Conceptualization and Measurement (University of Wisconsin- Green Bay; TH 331 UWGB) 9-10. “Thus, most people use rule of thumb like representativeness, availability, and anchoring as ways to make decisions when faced with uncertainty…they use rule of thumb to strip away much of the uncertainty during the recognition and evaluation phases.”

[13] Ervin Laszlo, The Systems View of the World; A Holistic Vision for Our Time, (New Jersey, Hampton Press, 1996) 16. “Systems thinking gives us a holistic perspective for viewing the world around us, and seeing ourselves in the world.” For more on complex adaptive systems, see: Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory (New York: George Braziller, 1968); see also: Walter Buckley (Edited by Open Systems Group), Society as a Complex Adaptive System (Systems Behavior, 3rd edition; London, Harper & Row Publishers, 1981).

[14] Molineux, Haslett, 479. Molineux and Haslett argue that organizations with an emphasis on control may impact employee creativity negatively.

[15] Stephen Corea, Refocusing Systems Analysis of Organizations Through a Semiotic Lens: Interpretive Framework and Method, (Systemic Practice and Action Research, volume 18, No. 4, August 2005) 339-364. Corea uses a value-program/schema model that this planning team used as a baseline concept to improvise with.

[16] Shimon Naveh, In Pursuit of Military Excellence; the Evolution of Operational Theory (New York: Frank Cass Publishers, 2004) 220. “Due to a traditionally non-systematic approach in the area of learning and assimilation of operational lessons, field leaders and staff officers lacked uniform conventions in both planning and analysis…in most cases the learning process focused exclusively on the tactical field and technical issues.” Naveh criticizes existing military doctrine as rigid and unable to assist organizations with making sense of complexity.

[17] Anatol Rapoport (editor), Editor’s Introduction to On War, Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, (Penguin Books, 1968). A Games Theorist, Rapoport takes a decidedly non-western approach by framing Clausewitzian logic as a political theory of war that is incompatible with various other rival war theories; he describes early Soviet theory as ‘messianic eschatological’ while later Cold-War Soviet became ‘global cataclysmic eschatological.’ Rapoport lays useful conceptual groundwork for understanding extremist religious war theories as ‘divine messianic eschatological’ and identifying different perspectives on conflict from western and decidedly non-western logics.

[18] Corea, 339-364. Corea uses a semiotic square model that this planning team used as a baseline concept.

[19] Gary Jason, Critical Thinking: Developing an Effective System logic, (San Diego State University: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2001) 337. “People tend to compartmentalize: they divide aspects of their lives into compartments and then make decisions about things in one compartment without taking into account the implications for things in another compartment.”  See also: Laszlo, 2; Laszlo states that 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.” See also: Pasquale Gagliardi, The Revenge of Gratuitousness on Utilitarianism; an Investigation Into the Causes and Consequences of a Collective Repression (Journal of Management Inquiry; Vol. 14 No. 4, December 2005) 309-315.

[20] Gagliardi, 311. Gagliardi argues that organizations have needs that cannot be legitimately expressed, so they disguise themselves and become blended into organizational culture so that the organization demands a behavior or action without realizing that it is harming itself. Outdated traditions, expensive social events, and military rituals that cost more than they provide are all examples of this behavior.  See also: Clampitt, Williams, 13. 

[21] Novel knowledge production represents how organizations develop new understanding for organizational use; refer to: Kilduff, Mehra, and Dunn.

[22] Valerie Ahl and T.F.H. Allen, Hierarchy Theory: A Vision, Vocabulary, and Epistemology, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996) 18. “Meaning, and explaining the “why” of a phenomenon, comes from the context. The lower-level mechanics, the “how” of the phenomenon, have nothing to say about “why.”

[23] Molineux, Haslett, 487. The authors describe a workshop where planners built numerous rich pictures that led to “a fuller understanding of the current state.”

[24] Gerald M. Weinberg, Rethinking Systems Analysis and Design, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1982) 12. “If our previous experience with systems analysis proves anything, it proves that anyone who tries to use all the information- even about the simple systems existing today- will be drowned in paper and never accomplish anything…The synthesist is someone who makes very specific plans for action, and more often than not stays around during the execution of those plans to adjust them to ongoing reality.”

[25] Weick, 552. “Preference for and comfort with process rather than structure” is one of Weick’s prescriptions for group characteristics of adaptive and improvising organizations. 

[26] Alvesson, Sandberg, 254. Alvesson and Sandberg use the term ‘in-house assumption’, ‘root metaphor’, and ‘field assumption’ to describe organizational resistance to change.  See also: Clampitt, Williams, 7. “Societal rules, rituals, educational standards, religious orientations, and technologies are cultural forces that shape an individual’s responses to uncertainty.”

[27] Weinberg, 65. “One of the most effective anthropological techniques that I’ve observed is the meta-question. A meta-question is a question that directly or indirectly produces a question for an answer.”

[28] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Kuhn’s theory of ‘paradigm shifts’ illustrates the ever-growing errors and flaws that a theory might generate until eventually an entirely novel theory destroys and replaces it while answering those flaws and errors effectively.

[29] Weick, 551. Weick discusses implications for improvisation in theory by suggesting that theorists “may, for example, be able to do more with the simultaneous presence of seeming opposites in organizations than simply label them as paradoxes.” See also: Gagliardi, 309-315.

[30] The term ‘solve’ is quoted intentionally because as designers, we do not solve wicked or ill-structured problems. These complex systems adapt with our actions, and linear concepts such as ‘objective’ and ‘end-state’ are poorly translated into emergent systems.   

[31] Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1996) 29. “In the analytic, or reductionist, approach, the parts themselves cannot be analyzed any further, except by reducing them to still smaller parts. Indeed, Western science has been progressing in that way.” See also: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan, (New York: Random House, 2007), 16. “Categorizing always produces reduction in true complexity.”

[32] Systemic relates to appreciating a complex system holistically. Systematic refers instead to a reductionist perspective. A systematic view looks at individual parts of the bicycle, while the systemic view sees the bicycle assembled and in motion with a rider.

[33] Mats Alvesson, Dan Karreman, Constructing Mystery: Empirical Matters in Theory Development (Academy of Management Review; volume 32, No. 4, 2007) 1265-1281.  The authors discuss the “acts of construction” where the framework of the researcher and the social reality of language, concepts, and social contexts are inescapably combined within the process. See also: E.R. Alexander, The Planner Prince: Interdependence, Rationalities, and Post-Communicative Practice (Planning Theory & Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3, 2001) 311-324.

[34] On the concepts of narratives, history, and language, see: Paul Ricoeur, (Translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer) Time and Narrative, Volume 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); See also: Peter Novick, That Noble Dream (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988); See also: Hayden White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1987). How human societies construct language and consider history becomes critical in understanding why two societies perceive the same event as completely different in meaning and context.

[35] United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, Field Manual 3-0; Operations (TRADOC, Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2001) 2-2.  “The levels of war are doctrinal perspectives that clarify the links between strategic objectives and tactical actions. Although there are no finite limits or boundaries between them, the three levels are strategic, operational and tactical.”

[36] Shimon Naveh, Asymmetric Conflict; An Operational Reflection on Hegemonic Strategies (Tel Aviv: The Eshed Group for Operational Knowledge, 2005). Naveh discusses ‘rival’ as a more abstract element within the understanding of a complex system that transcends the traditional military understanding of ‘enemy’ in tangible terms. 

[37] Alexander, 312. “Machiavellian politics of strategic action, of instrumental alliances with some powerful actors and selective confrontation with others” reflects how military rank, responsibility, and tradition shapes military decision-making within larger organizations. Democratic consensus is often trumped by the hierarchy of orders and policies.

[38] Perhaps the most infamous PowerPoint slide of the modern warfare era: Elisabeth Bumiller, We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint, (The New York Times online; 26 April 2010; last accessed: 28 APR 2012; ). This NYT article features the “spaghetti slide” where planners briefed General McChrystal and he remarked, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” This extremely detailed and ultimately confusing slide is a great example of a planning product thrown in front of senior leadership for all of the wrong reasons.

[39] United States Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 5, Planning, (Headquarters, United States Marine Corps, Washington D.C. July 1997), 25. The Marines warn that a planning pitfall is “the tendency for institutionalized planning methods to lead to inflexible or lockstep thinking and for planning and plans to become rigid and overly emphasize procedures…attempts to [institutionalize planning] will necessarily restrict intuition and creativity.”  See also: Valerie Ahl and T.F.H. Allen, Hierarchy Theory: A Vision, Vocabulary, and Epistemology, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996) 1. “Contemporary society has ambitions of solving complex problems through technical understanding…the first strategy is to reduce complex problems by gaining tight control over behavior. It is a mechanical solution in the style of differential equations and Newtonian calculus.”

[40] A positivist relies upon the scientific method and reductionism to “solve everything.” See: Gerald M. Weinberg, Rethinking Systems Analysis and Design, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1982), 121. “Reduction is but one approach to understanding, one among many. As soon as we stop trying to examine one tiny portion of the world more closely and apply some close observation to science itself, we find that reductionism is an ideal never achieved in practice.”  

[41] Weick, 553. Weick discusses improvisation and how “musicians love surpises but managers hate them.”

[42] Christine Moorman, Anne S. Miner, Organizational Improvisation and Organizational Memory (Academy of Management Review Vol. 23, No. 4, 1998) 698-723.  Moorman and Miner argue that two different types of memory moderate organizational improvisation- procedural and declarative.

[43] Molineux, Haslett, 480. Molineux and Haslett cite numerous studies on creativity and group dynamics to argue that democratic and collaborative leadership fosters increased creativity. This implies that military hierarchical and confrontational leadership along with an emphasis on uniformity has the opposite effect. 


About the Author(s)

Ben Zweibelson is the Program Director for Design and Innovation at the Joint Special Operations University and is a doctoral student at Lancaster University. A retired U.S. Army Infantry officer and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ben has provided design education across USSOCOM, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Government, academia and industry as well as internationally. He was named “design conference ambassador” for the second year in a row for the upcoming IMDC, and has recently lectured on design at the Polish and Danish War Colleges, the Canadian Forces College, NATO Schools at Oberammergau, the National Counterterrorism Center, the IBM capstone SPADE conference for NATO in Copenhagen, as well as numerous Special Operations and strategic level defense assets in 2018. He resides in Tampa, Florida with his wife and three children. He can be reached at




When I wrote this article, I wanted to stress the socio-political aspects of how design thinking fuses with traditional planning. The last figure in the article helps illustrate the point that perhaps small planning cells can abandon the strict military heirarchy, yet as the plan evolves over time, it slowly moves back towards the military heirarchical structure.

Trust, as you discuss below, is a critical component of how any organization functions- regardless of the politics. Dictators as well as elected democratic leaders require a trust-relationship in some form for power to function. So, perhaps design theory works well in small core groups that start with the initial trust from the senior leader; that leader may or may not be present during the initial design work; the leader may just be updated periodically as the work progresses. Our military doctrine likes to recommend that leaders be a lynchpin within all planning efforts- yet the realities of command in practice limits a senior leader's time and space. They cannot be the leader of every planning effort going on- at least not in my experience.

So, once a small planning team gets the TRUST of the senior leader and begin design work, the team may adapt a collaborative and more democratic relationship that does not translate well in traditional military environments. I have done it several times, and with the right mix of folks, it works well. Throw in some professionals that are unable to deviate from the traditional military heirarchical mindset, and you start to get problems because I theorize that these political-socio structures are paradoxical.

As the planning progresses, the core team needs to expand because if we continue a core planning effort for too long, it mutates into vaccuum planning where a small group overlooks too many aspects of the organization and they end up frustrating the rest of the organization. I saw this happen several times with CAGs and SIGs in Afghanistan.

To expand the core team means that we have to move from one end of the paradox to the other; we have to go from the small democratic structure where creativity and critical thinking thrives towards the military hierarchical structure I use the term 'Realpolitik' and associate Machiavelli with as an example. This tends to make sense in how military planning fuses with design, as every plan (even design ones) need to be pitched to the senior decision maker and implemented in the end. While we can choose to plan in small democratic structures, we must return to what we are in the end- a military heirarchy. We use orders, tasks, conditions, standards, timelines, EXCHECKs, and other accepted concepts/terms/language.

I think that design theorists and planners tend to fumble the football in this regard; either they try to implement through stovepipe processes where the big boss loves the concept but the rest of the organization is in the dark; or they retain too much of the language and design conceptual work that is confusing to the larger organization; and design planning usually ignores the subtle political-socio tensions and try to force everything through one end or the other of the spectrum.

But I strongly agree that trust is a critical element of how our organizations plan (successfully and unsuccessfully).


Outlaw 09

Thu, 06/21/2012 - 2:31am

Hubba---another side comment on micro-management by BCT Cmdrs ---while a Trust issue (between Staff sections, in the Staff itself, between Staff and Cmdr) it also is being caused by the fact that the stepping stone to BG for a BCT Cmdr is over his OER rating earned while his BCT is in theater-it is his last chance for one more review as he usually leaves the BCT upon return from theater--no BCT Cmdr is willing to let any Staff sink his chances so therefore micro-management is almost a given.

Hubba Bubba

Wed, 06/20/2012 - 7:12pm

In reply to by andy_attar

With the decade of cycling units in and out every 12 or 9 months, and each organization inheriting the previous "plan" and LOEs and processes, and given the nature that we tend to brief that "things are going well" all the time- does anyone really know where we started failing, and why?

Or does the perpetual cycling of organizations in and out produce two interesting results?

First- we, as a military, tend to blame the last organization yet assume precisely the same processes, concepts, products, briefings, patterns, policies, procedures, and methods while spinning failures into successes? We are not a business- so economics will not simply eliminate failing enterprises- we just dump more resources in and measure differently.

Second- the Afghans that have remained there the entire time (both our enemies, and our "friends" continue to smile and wave, as our cycle of organizations continues to filter in and out. They both get to play the "wait until these guys leave, then try it out on the new ones" in a regular yearly pattern.

Slides help hide the explanation (which may be bad) and drape details over the problems as we continue to admire them....



Wed, 06/20/2012 - 7:01pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

If we agree that micromanagement produces a lower quality product, then we have to ask what is it that is allowing the lower quality product to be deemed acceptable? If the lower quality product wasn't acceptable do you still thnk that commanders would regardless push forward with micromanagement? Are they so committed to micromanagement that they'd sacrifice their careers in order to doggedly pursue it? I don't think so. I think they micromanage because at best the organizational culture allows it, at worst the organizational culture demands it. An organizational culture that prizes risk and consequence management above substantial progress is almost constrained to engage in micromanagement.

I'm trying to think in terms of organizational 'first principles,' rather than misdiagnosing symptoms as the disease itself.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 06/20/2012 - 5:50pm

Micro-management is the result of the lack of trust of a Cmdr in his Staff plain and simple. In the last several years one has seen a marked increase in BCT/BN Cmdrs micro-managing everything---why?--they simply believe that they are not getting the right Staff inputs based on their personal/military/education/experiences which provides them a specific frame of reference. That is the core emphasis when Mission Command focuses on the Cmdr. The second part of MC is the Staff action taken when the Cmdrs intent has been given them.

It is that frame of reference of what they think they should be seeing but are not getting fedback to them via the Staff occurs then they shift into being a micro-manager on the various LOEs/LOOs.

Again everything hinges on trust/open communications/critical thinking-lack thereof equals micro-managment.


Wed, 06/20/2012 - 2:26pm

I think it does come down to demanding the right results and holding people accountable. Micromanagement is a result of the lack of those two things.

Micromanagement is about placing greater value on avoiding a mistake rather than on making a significant or profound contribution. My guess would be that organizations challenged with both high goals and even higher measures of accountability are far less likely to adopt micromanagement policies.

One of the challenges, however, is that often micromanagement techniques give the appearance of reducing operational risk. This is only a mirage though. Successful military operations must be imbued with organizational audacity and decisiveness. Attempts to reduce operational risk will often restrict audacity and decisiveness. So in an attempt to reduce risk, we instead degrade mission accomplishment.

Just as an example, we still identify decisive operations and main efforts, but how often are those terms used in name only, with no real meaning behind them? Establishing true, authentic DOs and MEs is risky.

Instead the organizational leader falls into the trap of wondering..."What if I'm wrong about my DO? Perhaps it's better then to try and do more things than to truly focus on a single DO." Also, concerns for operational risk will often compel us to divide our resources and enablers evenly, despite having DOs and MEs designated.

How many of the organizational leaders CCIRs are linked to operational decisions versus risk mitigation or consequence management? This is another indicator.

Hubba Bubba

Wed, 06/20/2012 - 12:52pm

In reply to by andy_attar

Is it accountability, or the nature of the military organizational structure?

Consider that we prefer the military hierarchy; a pyramid with the decision makers at the top, with a vertical flow for information (data, description, details) up, with decisions made at the top and then reversed down to disseminate for action. The flow is like a river; or perhaps like a man-made dam. Dams work under optimum conditions; but in times of extreme flooding or drought, they do not. They are inefficient.

What are other options to explore? This is where 'swarm theory' and decentralized organizational structure has some interesting aspects to consider. Now, I am not suggesting we eliminate our military hierarchy; but we could look at transforming the roles and how the information and decisions function instead of the limited vertical process.

PowerPoint feeds the vertical information beast entirely; and actually prevents other forms of information and decision making. Slides feed the description and detail process, but their construction prevents subordinates from critically and creatively providing the explanation the senior leadership meant to ask for but did not. Instead, we are enslaved to filling the slide with precisely the info asked for, and we do the song and dance at our briefings along with other unit leadership to provide this information...much ado about nothing at times.

Swarming provides many interesting alternatives that would eliminate PowerPoint from the briefings, but to do this requires some significant changes for how senior leadership operate in our institution.

- Senior Leaders would need to stop micro-managing; and focus more on the organization itself instead of the outputs and tactical objectives (which is what 99% of our slides focus torward). Focusing on the organization means looking at how we create, disseminate, and retain information, skills, language, concepts, etc. Generals would need to focus on the WHY of how we perform meetings and share info, instead of the WHAT (the content).

- Decision making, according to MC, is supposed to be disseminated; but is it?

Just a few thoughts to stir the pot-

Hubba Bubba


Wed, 06/20/2012 - 11:13am

I think much of these issues (lack of MC, lack of trust, lack of Design, too much PPT, etc.) are ultimately a product of lack of accountability. One problem I had with the article you cited was the statement having to do with delegating responsibility. I don't think that's what MC calls for. And I think it also leads to a misconception that the organizational leader has less of a responsibility to understand, visualize, describe, and direct (to include synchronizing fires) at his level.

In my personal opinion, we've experienced widespread failures in holding people accountable for producing results (at all levels); and of course related to that, a failure to ensure that we are asking for the right results in the first place. It seems to me that those two things pretty much sum up the 'sine qua non' of organizational leadership. "Am I asking for the right results and am I holding people accountable." This is the bare minimum expectation of an organizational leader.

Furthermore, although an organizational leader should do both, it's probably more important to get the accountability piece right than to get the results piece absolutely right. Systems of accountability have an almost magical ability to inspire adaptive solutions.

Reliefs of command are reserved for only the most egregious cases of moral turpitude. Whereas from reading history reliefs were much more common and accordingly had less of a career sting. "Hey you gave it your best shot, but unfortunately it wasn't good enough. Time to move on. Better luck next time,,, ." Of course most cases of accountability shouldn't result in reliefs -- honest and frank language in OERs would work too.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Light a fire of urgency, and Mission Command, thoughtful Design, thorough and maximized utilization of resources and enablers, and all the rest, will receive a shot in the arm.

This is not to say that coaching, teaching, mentoring at the organizational level should cease and we instead should establish a zero-defect and cut-throat environment. Rather, we should have a balanced, mature, and frank leadership system.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 06/20/2012 - 2:46am

Hubba---would argue that some of us old grey beards are in fact already seeing failures and some of the writers here in SWJ are in a way describing the failures they are seeing on a day to day basis.

The problem is if we continue to stagger forward the failures are never seen until the gaint falls-all the writers here at SWJ simply do not want to see the gaint fall, but are staring at the staggering and are concerned enough to voice their opinions/thoughts---even think the JCoS is as concerned.

It is again all about trust---as I indicated recently I was facilitating an mixed US/MN event where just about every officer in that event from both sides openly admitted to being shut down in discussions driven by ppt and voiced their frustrations in the lack of Cmdrs allowing open discussions ie critical thinking. Even the two BN cmdrs agreed with their comments.

So if it is apparent that it is occurring in just about the same manner in two completely different armies--what does it take to get a staggering gaint to wake up?

Think that was the tenor of the article---are we willing to take the pain to transition to a truly open Staff/Cmdr communications platform as it means hard personal work by everyone-both sides have to give up an equal amount of ego in order to be successful. That is sometimes hard with type As.

Hubba Bubba

Tue, 06/19/2012 - 7:16pm


I would not agree as much on the trust issue, because I am unsure if previous generations of military organizations had less or more of the slippery concept we call "trust" in the organization. Furthermore, it becomes a dangerous game to compare a military staff from one era to another in a completely different conflict. This is akin to comparing apples and pinapple grenades. Not saying that you suggested that...

PowerPoint is a digital age product; and is a tool that will fade with time as another emergent tool replaces it. What that tool will be has more to do with the core issue we are discussing here- this is about culture, values, language, and preferred concepts tied to continous striving for self-relevance and institutional preservation. PowerPoint makes the Army feel good; thus we use it often.

- When our institution gains enough self-awareness and looks critically at what PowerPoint does to us, and how it may merely create bad habits and the illusion of reducing complexity...what will we do then? Banishing PowerPoint is not necessarily the answer; for we are wedged into the digital age and are not going back to butcher block.

- As emergent tech offers us new avenues and options (consider using Twitter or Facebook in a secured SIPR-esque method) where social media fusion provides us a new degree of collaboration and information sharing, will PowerPoint maintain the same hold?

- You mentioned the aspect of trust. I think it has more to do with what this article addressed; the nature of DESCRIPTION versus EXPLANATION. PowerPoint slides full of mind-numbing details are descriptive, but usually hardly explanitory. But non-PowerPoint presentations that emphasize explanation (using white papers, butcher block, a white board, and perhaps the CPOF system or TIGRnet up on the screen for a map and graphic reference) could be a better alternative. But what will be that catylist for change? I do not think it will be will be mission FAILURE. Not in the strictest sense, but in a cumulative perspective. Over time, as more individual military professionals taste the bitter flavor of failure and make the linkage to how PowerPoint over-emphasizes those inherently destructive patterns in our military (such as how it appears to reduce trust in the organization), we may not lash out at PowerPoint (the tool), but look to change the institution so that we do not reach for the same over-used tool.

-Alternatives to PowerPoint will not become desireable based on basic economic patterns such as in business enterprise; they may abandon PowerPoint or use it further for reasons indifferent to military concerns; we are not a business- we are different.

-So, if economics (the invisible hands or whatever theory you prefer) do not nudge us, I argue that FAILURE in our military missions will. These failures over time will become louder and louder, despite the counter-productive efforts of PAO and CA as they try to mimic news media (and utterly fail in every measure) to spin failure into success. We, as military professionals, may look to blame PowerPoint; but that will not fix anything. Until we get to the core issues, PowerPoint is just the bent spoon for the crack addict. Until we address the nature of chemical addiction and the human disposition itself, we are wasting our time. Military failure will help purge us of those negative aspects that embrace PowerPoint for all the wrong reasons- and if we can, PowerPoint will once again become a tool. A tool that we reach for when we have a need for it, but we will not have the urge to see every problem as solvable by a PowerPoint slide deck.

-I may just be dreaming...


Outlaw 09

Tue, 06/19/2012 - 2:25pm

Hubba Bubba----this article was just released and goes to the heart of my several comments in the last week or so----it is all about Trust and ppt kills trust pure plain and simple and surprisingly everyone agrees to that.

This article just came out during the start of the Mission Command conference in Kansas City---and the COL nails it---it is all about trust---I am not so sure senior leadership gets it and I am sure not alot of COLs/LTCs get it either.

"Mission Command: Do We Have the Stomach For What Is Really Required?"
By COL Tom Guthrie

Just wish we had more COLs of this thinking range---for I see MC as being doomed before it gets off the ground if senior leadership does not fully understand the current trend being voiced by junior leaders up to MAJs especially when it comes to open communication, Trust, and the total dislike of ppt.

A second comment---without Trust between Cmdrs and Staff-- Design will also never function as well as Design demands in order to be successful the ability of Staffs to conduct open/frank, critical thinking/discourse without fear of being shut down---and not to many Staffs today at any level are at that level of communication.

Hubba Bubba

Mon, 06/18/2012 - 1:48pm

Outlaw- is that the NYT article that came out a few years back on the NASA failures linked to sloppy powerpoint work?

On alternatives to PowerPoint- once we accept that it is merely a tool for illustrating concepts to an audience, I would recommend the following considerations.

1. As G. Martin and others appropriately explained below- briefing from a map (or even a CPOF system with some overlays turned on when needed) is an option; to link it to a campaign plan (when properly done) there could be DPs briefed and perhaps one white board or hand-out with the unit's Lines of Effort for that phase they are discussing. Whether we are discussing more tangible objectives (terrain based; linear) or the messy intangibles (as we continue to try to "fix" the Afghan legitimate economy, legimize their corrupt security force, improve literacy and women rights...etc) those actions are still tied to geographic objectives in direct and indirect ways. Yet all I usually see are crappy PowerPoint slides with bar graphs trending green from amber/red in the past.

2. Aside from maps, how about multiple white boards with a serious change in how an organization conducts a targeting or weekly meeting? Instead of the briefer (and his slide beotch) running the entire show, a group of staff members armed with white board markers and erasers could change how a meeting runs. Now, personalities can "Mad Men" your meeting so doing this requires some basic ground rules and a strong leader to steer folks in a productive direction. This requires actual work from military leadership instead of the passive but popular technique of entering a room, plopping down in the center chair, getting spoon-fed slides, and waving your hand like an Emperor and making superfical observations like "this slide needs more cowbell" or "is that Times New Roman? The rest of the presentation is in Zaffat Ding-Dot"...this requires the leader to actively lead his group, understand the material before he enters the room, and masterfully guide his staff towards an end-state that he may not fully realize until well into the meeting. This is hard- and full of uncetainty; so our military leaders tend to avoid this (but there are a few stars out there).

3. Ridding your organization of "PowerPoint-isms"- stopping the madness requires a purge of our organizational vocabulary. Things I cringe to hear:

"Next slide please"
"Sir, what this slide is trying to tell you is..."
"Can we go foward a few slides?"
"If you refer to the notes page of this slide..."
"Although this slide is busy, what we are saying here is..."
"I know the excel table I pasted into this slide is in size 6 font with 400 cells in the table on a slide, but this shows I did good."
"If you refer to bullet 25 at the very bottom of the slides..."
"Sorry, this slide is an old one- we must have mixed it up in one of our 15 time-wasting rehearsals for this ridiculously unproductive weekly meeting"
"Um- my slides are not in this brief. I sent them to the staff officer (bus incoming) but for some reason they did not make it. I will now stumble over my words as I fail to brief my material ad-hoc because I fully rely on slides to contain all of my information and not on my head."

I am a bit jaded and sarcastic about this- but it is completely ruining the art of military staff functions. Once again- it is not PowerPoint's fault; it is only a tool. We just happen to mis-use the tool, the way a crack addict cannot blame spoons or lighters for his plight.


Outlaw 09

Mon, 06/18/2012 - 10:18am

Well worth the read----

How PowerPoint Makes You Stupid: The Faulty Causality, Sloppy Logic, Decontextualized Data, and Seductive Showmanship That Have Taken Over Our Thinking


Sun, 06/17/2012 - 4:07pm

I guess it comes down to leadership. Great leaders will not tolerate PPT abuses. The answer is great leaders.

The essential danger of PPT is the appearance that the organization truly understands a complex problem. It lends itself to creating an environment obssessed with self delusion and "vertical IO."

Outlaw 09

Sun, 06/17/2012 - 3:10pm

Bill---it then begs the question---if nothing can be changed then in fact the Staff is the single point of failure or really the COG not the enmey in the coming years---for if we cannot drag the powerpoint ship around in the habor then in fact how does one build trust and have open communications?

For without trust and open communication Mission Command is doomed as well as Design.

My SF days were different from yours as we did not have ppt---we had to hand jam the operational plan and then verbally present the plan and that after any number of dry runs---and believe me there was an intensive map phase---no computers ie no ppt creates an open environment for discussion and creative thinking.

Think this is what G Martin is saying.

Bill M.

Sun, 06/17/2012 - 2:25pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Yes and no, like many of you, I was preparing brief backs prior to Harvard Graphics and Power Point, and even during those so called golden times Special Forces largely focused on eye candy. I remember when I was the junior on the team, and I spent a lot of time in isolation developing "pretty" charts on boucher block, and then we all rehearsed a dog and pony show much longer than we should have. All of this distracted from "real" planning and getting mission ready. I recall one Bn Cdr tell us that the only thing we really evaluate is your briefback, because we know you'll do good in the field. WTF over?

PowerPoint is a tool, it is not evil, the evil aspect is cultural, our focus on show not go, and it started long before we had PowerPoint. Every now and then I recall an exceptional officer that focused on terrain models, refused to allow dog and pony shows, and he really listened and thought hard about the concept of operation we presented, and then shot holes in it (better for the commander to do so than the enemy), but these leaders were few and far apart. This is a cultural issue where too many in the services value presentation over content, and to my knowledge they always have.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 06/17/2012 - 1:47pm

Hubba Bubba----I tend to agree with G Martin about the use of maps and alternative products.We are AFRAID to ditch ppt as we are afraid to let go out of fear that we will be ridiculed for a bad presentation---long ago before 9/11 there were Staffs who could brief their portion of an named operation orally just with a map---what happen to that Army?

Many of the MN armies we work with today also do extensive map work and yes even the Russian Ground Forces are probably the world masters at map use---never roll into a scenario exercise with them UNLESS your thoroughly and I mean thoroughly understand your terrain including human terrain!

Before all of the IT tools, ppt and slide templates we the Army were actually very good at map work---using the map forces one to understand the terrain, thus leading to a better understanding of the transportation/commerce networks, smuggling routes, population centers and on and on.

The ability of good map work which I also agree with Martin on drives the mental thought processes and critical thinking deeper as one is forced to look at alternative concepts--- again this goes back to Design.

Would like to see your thoughts on this more--no need to hold them back.

G Martin

Sun, 06/17/2012 - 12:27pm

In reply to by Hubba Bubba

Depending on what you're doing- I say tailor it to the task at hand. So, for instance, many units could simply brief off of a map- the same map one uses to craft the operation. If you're doing a relatively simple and constrained-in-time-and-space operation- a sand table would do. I would at most times avoid a pre-formatted ppt slideshow to drive planning/thinking, instead- if one had to- use ppt to capture so-whats and/or spur more discussion. We're so quick to talk about the need to spend lots of time (90%?) on the problem and the rest on the solution- but rarely do planners that I've seen sit around and discuss/debate the problem.

I would rather hear vignettes describing issues than see a bunch of ppt with lots of data on them. I see things like that all the time and rarely get the feeling that the commanders know what they are looking at.

Hubba Bubba

Sun, 06/17/2012 - 10:06am

In reply to by Outlaw 09


We all may agree on the evils of PowerPoint; but the military is like a drug addict; seeking pleasure over pain- what can we turn to instead? PowerPoint has taken over what chalk boards, butcher block, and telephone calls were in the era before digital compliance.

Were you to become "King for a Day"- and banned PP, what would we replace it with?

I have my own ideas- but before I throw them out there, I would like to hear others.

Funny how the design articles on SWJ illicit both the biggest whines from some, but feature some of the best blog discussions on SWJ.


Outlaw 09

Sun, 06/17/2012 - 1:52am

To those that gave previous comments about powerpoint--dropped a number of these comments concerning ppt on a multinational audience made up of US MN staff officers.

GUESS WHAT---even the staff of the MN was complaoining bitterly about the problems of ppt.

SO if it seems that the problem spanns MN armies--just why in the heck has not seniorleadership stepped forward and put their collective foots down---it is literally killing staff operations, inhibits team building, inhibits the creation of trust.

SO where is the senior leadership on this issue?

Outlaw 09

Sat, 06/16/2012 - 1:22am

Sswy---all though young in the Army your comments are telling---when I mentioned the ppt problem the subtle underlying thoughts were the lack of trust in command staffs---we use ppt in order to convince people that we the person talking know what the heck we are talking about.

The core current staff problems are of a nature that is interesting---namely we simply do not trust the person giving the ppt to know anything thus he must use slides to reinforce his or her message to the group.

I had a recent class which had a complete staff (officers and ncos)---I asked a single question ---have you been at any time during any form of meeting been shut down by the meeting leader especially in the last few years---all raised their hands and this was from Spec 4s thru CSM to COL levels.

There is where the COG lays in the future ---Design is the way forward but in order for it to thrive it can only work in an environment of trust and open communication at all levels of command and across the force.

G Martin

Fri, 06/15/2012 - 11:07am

In reply to by Hubba Bubba

I'll never forget briefing General McChrystal in Afghanistan and him asking- look, I've been here before and gotten lots of great briefings- what are we doing differently now than we've done in the past? To which I replied that in the past we weren't really sure why Afghan units were unable to meet our goals for them- but that we were attempting to fix that through the use of a new assessment tool/methodology that would wrest control of the process away from the ORSAs and put it into the lap of the commanders on the ground. But, I admitted, we really weren't sure if that would be a panacea either.

The general officers in the room quickly took over the conversation and steered it towards convincing the CG that we were doing things differently and went through all of their MoPs to convince him of that. Later I was told never to tell a general that we don't know something...

So- you're right (of course I was doing the brief with ppt)- the ppt slides and my briefing were supposed to convey to him that we were all over the problem- just go away and fill out our OER blocks that we "done good"- instead of actually having a useful discussion about the way forward.

Hubba Bubba

Fri, 06/15/2012 - 10:46am

In reply to by SswY

PowerPoint is misused by the military because of a couple of reasons; but they all tend to revolve around our paradigm shift away from decentralized and creative problem-solving and even closer towards hierarchical control and micro-management.

Our own institutionalisms reinforce this because the hierarchical structure requires control from top to bottom, and the more detailed and tangible that control can appear to be, the stronger the reinforcing link becomes between upper management and tactical (on the ground) units. From what I see, military leadership going back centuries had greater and greater emphasis on local (isolated) military genius and improvisation by tactical leaders. Keagan's "The Mask of Command" helps explain this with his discussion on the distances between the leader and the front expanding as time and conflict evolved. To expand on Keagan’s concept a bit further- consider how early military leaders such as Alexander the Great not only lost their ability to directly lead when the battle began (as Keagan argues), but leaders like Alexander had greater TRUST and CONFIDENCE in subordinate leaders and the entire military element to perform effectively IN THE ABSENCE of his leadership. That is- when the leader cannot reach a flank element to communicate, or a scouting element cannot reach back to the main element to inform the Commander of critical information, the backdrop to this vaccum of information is something intangible- it is a combination of UNCERTAINTY and PROFESSIONAL TRUST. We expect our elements to make the right decisions in the absence of a leader’s command and control because that leader has influenced and professionalized his force to do this. PowerPoint is a technological extension that essentially has us taking one giant step backwards.

In this modern era where technology affords a leader the ability to reduce the appearance of uncertainty and the appearance that command and control can be strengthened to an almost unprecedented level- it actually shatters and dismantles the centuries of PROFESSIONAL TRUST that previous military units relied upon in the absence of command and control. With modern technology, there are few excuses (although there are plenty of times when this does not occur) where a tactical unit cannot be in direct contact with leadership. As video and audio technology improves, we are getting to the fearful point where a General can view through the telescope and see what his front line soldiers can see- and he can now micro-manage them. By doing this, he is eliminating the PROFESSIONAL TRUST that subordinate leadership used to enjoy when there was a greater absence of command and control. The uncertainty remains as fog and friction in conflict, yet we think we can eliminate it with technology.

PowerPoint is a direct extension of micro-management. Follow all slides as conceptual elements that stem from higher guidance, and one might map every presentation back to the military hierarchy where senior leadership directs action and demands volumes of information, packaged neatly in these awful slides that silence creativity and improvisation. Instead- make the text the right FONT and SIZE; line up your bullets, and make sure your arrows are the right color codes. Follow the rules exactly- and fill out all the slides and brief them to create the massive illusion that the command and control is reducing uncertainty. Do not ever brief something without PowerPoint- do not make a different brief that does not follow the cookie-cutter plan, and do not ever suggest we are making entirely worthless slides that fail to really address the significant problems we are facing. PowerPoint places command and control into neat manageable and reducable chunks of information that feeds into the post-positivist mentality that our military thrives upon. Like a cancer, it is up to the current and next generation of military leaders to learn from their PowerPoint sufferings and purge this plague from our military. But purging it requires a more effective replacement- something that is better than PowerPoint, but not a clone.

I wonder what it might become?



Thu, 06/14/2012 - 4:18am

In reply to by G Martin

Martin, that's one reason why I think our headquarters ( really BCT and higher) have failed us. Way too many people making too little substantial contributions to the effort. This is why I think it's hard to honestly judge the success of traditional problem solving techniques..... We haven't truly used them. The few people who are working hard are often stuck making endless PPT slides rather than conducting authentic staff work to solve problems.

Regarding PPT.. How often have you sadly heard an Army leader say "I'm a visual person".. Explaining why every detail of every concept needs to be graphically displayed for him. It's a sad self indictment on ones intellectual capacity. We've totally lost the ability to think abstractly.

G Martin

Wed, 06/13/2012 - 11:15pm

In reply to by SswY

I really wonder if an independent auditor wouldn't send most of our HQs home tomorrow from Afghanistan due to doubtful value-addition.

In a training environment I have recently instructed students that I didn't want to see any ppt slides during their final briefing- instead I wanted a map and overlays. The feedback has blown me away- they are so thankful to be able to spend their planning time thinking about the problem and discussing ideas around the map during the prep as opposed to operating in small groups perfecting ppt slides. I honestly think visualizing an upcoming/ongoing mission is hampered by filling out ppt slides- and agree we shouldn't use them as much as we do. I think- based on what I'm hearing from your generation- that their use will be curtailed severely over the next decade.

I am a CPT in the US Army (YG 06) and have been reading the SWJ articles on Design over the last year with much enthusiasm. Like many previous commenters, I struggle with some of Design’s lexicon, but I am learning. I am very impressed with the SWJ community’s intellectual firepower, which is continuously displayed not only by the volume of informative articles but also by the cogent, articulate discussions in the comment sections. So while I do feel a little out of my element here, reading the discussion inspired by MAJ Zweibelson’s article compelled me to offer my input on the matter of PowerPoint in military organizations.

Based on my limited experience with Design, I gather that the Design movement within the Army was inspired largely by the fact that traditional approaches to problem solving were sometimes proving inadequate in today’s increasingly complex and ambiguous environment. To me, the prospects of Design are exciting and interesting because Design seems to fully embrace that solutions to certain situations are elusive and aims to draw inspiration from across the spectrum of “hard” and “soft” sciences as well as philosophy.

So if the world is increasingly complex, why do units continue to rely on a presentation medium that can only limit the complex thinking required to begin tackling complex problems? While I think that Design is cool and has the potential to garner innovative, comprehensive solutions to the problems we will face in the future, I fear that our institution’s PowerPoint-centric culture has fostered a largely reductive mindset that will severely limit Design’s appeal to a larger military audience and ultimately its hinder its influence on future operations. After all, if you can’t sum something up in a few slides with some seven to eight word bullet points or Red/Amber/Green charts and maybe even a slide with some arrows, its probably too hard and not worth understanding.

My Army experience thus far includes time as an intelligence officer at the BCT and BN levels. Though it is a running joke amongst staff officers that all we are good for are making slides, there is an element of truth to the cliché; in fact, regardless of rank, in today’s Army there is simply no escaping PowerPoint. It is everywhere there is a scheduled gathering of 2 or more people: training meetings, Command and Staff meetings, IPRs, targeting meetings, decision briefs, staff huddles, routine classes, and of course Mission Analysis and OPORD briefs. It is the default medium of presentation, and its prominence makes one wonder how in the world units ever got anything done without slides. Want to see someone’s brain explode? Tell an officer to prepare a briefing, and then tell him/her that you don’t want slides and would rather read a document that he/she will prepare and discuss pertinent points. During my career course (I graduated in April 2012), students were repeatedly subjected to PowerPoint slides featuring either giant blocks of text or meaningless bullets and the gratuitous use of color and logos that instructors simply read through. Furthermore, I observed very little feedback from instructors to students on the overall effectiveness of students’ presentation products; comments that I did hear were generally characterized by limited suggestions such as "make that text bigger", "you spelled this wrong," or "that looks really nice."

But one of my most memorable Army experiences thus far occurred during a brief stint as a BCT LNO in a Corps JOC, where I watched senior field grades spend more time stressing out over issues pertaining to slide format than the content of the information they were expected to present to the Commanding General. There are few things more depressing to watch as a young CPT than a seasoned, clearly competent LTC hustling from workstation to workstation berating/coaching MAJs on the art of slide making (“God Damnit, I told you to make that AMBER, not Red!!!”) as a deadline for slide submission approaches. It was one moment in what has been a great time for me so far, but it was a moment that I will certainly consider as I contemplate whether or not the Army is going to be my long term career-do I want to be that guy in my late 30s, a supposedly established professional freaking out over slides or someone who is trying to solve problems? Furthermore, consider the number of man-hours spent on things like font uniformity, slide master uniformity, and making things fit to a particular format. Then consider how much better served the Commander and Soldiers would have been had those hours been spent elsewhere, like developing real solutions to problems.

The PowerPoint influence is particularly germane to the intelligence field, as many S2s are expected to generate slides describing, but not always explaining, all aspects of the environment. I was incredibly fortunate to have a BC who understood PowerPoint’s limitations and demanded that my team and I spend our cognitive energies on producing well-written, comprehensive Microsoft Word documents instead of slides. But many of my peers were not so lucky, instead becoming officers whose lasting lessons from deployments were PowerPoint TTPs. These were otherwise ambitious and smart people whose value to their respective organizations was in their ability to discern differences in font size with a glance, and masterfully nudge, group, or ungroup objects while adjusting color and transparency with just a handful of clicks. Perhaps most tragically, the focus on PowerPoint promotes the illusion, particularly amongst inexperienced or misguided intelligence personnel, that the diligent churning out of slides is the moral equivalent to intellectual rigor.

I am not sure if there is a realistic solution to the PowerPoint issue. I suspect that a move away from PowerPoint would take a significant cultural shift, one that at this point looks increasingly unlikely. I find it confusing that there is no shortage of leaders who seem to despise PowerPoint, but there is a significant shortage of those leaders who are willing to stray from it. Perhaps we need more Commanders and senior leaders to put their collective foots down and explicitly define the forums for which PowerPoint is an acceptable medium and which ones demand a less simplistic, more methodical approach.

Hope this is a worthwhile contribution-I wrote it in lieu of preparing the slides for my unit’s next important meeting.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 06/13/2012 - 1:48am

Liked the subtle comment on the text introing the clip---"a murky term Design".

Again concerning my previous comments---even in the MBA world Design will only work if Trust is inherent in the teams (both military/civilian) that use Design.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 06/10/2012 - 1:42am

Due to the previous comments on PowerPoint they lead me to the following comment.

We do indeed need to look at the effect of PPT over the last ten years on the ability of unit Staffs (any level)to conduct the simple but complex concept of mission analysis (from a Staff perspective) and from the Commanders perspective Cmdr Guidance if in fact the transition back to what is "right" called Mission Command is ever going to be successful.

Inherent in MC is in fact a comphensive ability by the Staff to conduct what BZ and G Martin refer to in elegantly explained (actually in a clear academic English)way---Design.

Design is the key going forward regardless of whether it is a FID, COIN, PK,Humanitian operations, or even force on force---Design is that element that allows creative thinking to occur among peers on an equal footing---the core issue is that current Staff/Commander relationships are not built on Trust---Trust is the single key element that a Commander can develop in order to drive Design---if the Trust is there then the Staff realizes they can speak their opinions freely and present those free thinking comments during their assessment phases with the Commander who in turn can mull over their suggestions as he formulates initial or further guidance.

Now to PPT---it in fact is killing the Staff process and to a larger degree is inhibiting Design---free white boarding cannot be captured on a slide deck as the WB is really the expression of a collective critical thinking session---that is if the Commander has built and mentored a feeling of trust.

If we go back to the time of say 1999 in the Army eductional process how many times have we sat in on a class that the instructor used no PPT---it came all from his knowledge of the subject matter ie insititutional knowledge---our current educational system especially on the officer side has not allowed for any insitutional knowledge to be built--yes everyone has X number of deployments, but has all of that experience been ever focused in a critical thinking group session tied to a specific white boarding of a commander's intent?

We have simply substituted PPT for insitutional knowledge without ever challenging the PPT and/or the presenter.

How many times have we sat in on a WG session listened to 50 slides being presented and have all nodded north and south, gotten up and gone onto the next WG PPT slide session---I call this decision making via PPT nothing more nothing less---it is not critical thinking.

I recently watched a 2 star take a CUB---the unit was an hour deep into the briefing and one felt like the CUB would go on forever until the two star stopped the PPT slide deck and addressed the entire TOC, Battle Staff and Staff elements---he made one single clear statement---when you present slides to me answer the question "So what" in the slide---from that moment on the collective staff drove on that premise and actually the CUBs dropped to exactly 30 minutes and the information being presented was concise and well thought through---in effect the two star had signalled to his Staff---think through your slide deck as if you were me and provide answers to the information you are providing to me. In fact critical thinking was being asked for using PPT.

In was in effect an elegant learning/empowering moment for the Staff and from that moment on they were actually at least within their own sections in a critical thinking mode. The art is then to translate the individual Staff sections into a structured total staff effort on the critical thinking side---that answer is Design-- but again without Trust Design will never succeed.

We really do need a far more thorough understanding of the impact of PPT on Staff operations as well as a frank and open discussion on why our Staffs are not being trusted by Commanders and vice versa.

G Martin

Sat, 06/09/2012 - 4:58pm

The points made about post modernism, etc. are pertinent. I would argue that the "industrial" approach to war: rational, linear and logical- worked when countries (read: populations) either didn't care about other populations (for whatever reason- think World War II, Roman Conquests, Mongolian expansion, American Indian Wars) or the conflict was one of relatively limited means/ways/ends (Desert Storm, American Civil War, The Great Northern War- or any of the 18th-19th Century Wars in Europe-?- following the Westphalian construct that has been in existence for some time now). What that doesn't cover are those conflicts wherein one country views the conflict as challenging a way of life- but the other limits itself by "caring" about the populace (whether the other side recognizes that or not).

So, for instance, in Afghanistan we see one side fighting for a certain social structure/way of life and the other simply aiming for domestic internal security- but all under the influence of their own populace's values (we preach that we treat the populace as we would our own, even while that populace does not afford us the same treatment). It should be no wonder that one side goes to any lengths imaginable while the other struggles with ways that will allow means supportable by its domestic constituency while at the same time aiming for a strategic end that everyone struggles to understand.

In these cases- I would argue that things are more complex (and maybe the world is more complex as these sorts of instances seem to be increasing or more the norm than in the past). In the past if 3,000 Roman citizens had been massacred by Barbarians- surely the Roman response would have been swift and ugly when viewed by current standards. Today 3,000 people are killed on American soil and we are still arguing over what the response should have been.

In these cases a post-modern look- post-positivist (what I prefer)- or whatever- frame may help us much more than the preferred hard science approach. We're not attempting to take a hill or defeat a certain percentage of troops in order to affect the capitulation of a society or secure a treaty that will give us some economic advantage. We're attempting to avoid a repeat of 9/11 while the other side fights for a myriad of reasons- arguably few- if any- related to 9/11, but surely some related to defending a certain way of life. That sort of "end" requires tools that belong more in the realm of the psychological, philosophical, social, economic, and marketing realms- I'd argue- the "softer" sciences in an arguably already soft side of study. We have to understand people and populations- not to win their hearts or transform them- but to help us get to our ends- an avoidance of future 9/11's. Using the same tools and way of thinking as we did when we bombed Dresden and "Hail married" our way around Saddam's army seems to me to be the wrong way.

If we can't recognize that many of our current efforts exist in a wholly different environment than past conflicts- then I think we are doomed to continue to try to drive the square peg of our positivist culture and its associated tools into the round hole of many of our current conflicts- where our efforts are many times divorced from U.S. policy objectives and the bureaucracy of our institutions make it even worse. Why do our military commands keep driving on with operations that seem wholly divorced from the politics- or even the specific orders- of our political masters? I'd argue it is an adherence to ill-fitting rational decision making processes and confidence in procedure- as opposed to a more fluid approach. Design- I argue- would not just result in a change to our planning- but also a change to our actions and structures- more fitting the environments we find ourselves in.

Just to clarify- I'm not saying our entire Army should always use post-positivist philosophy and approaches. But, depending on the conflict we are in- some units might prefer (need?) to. So, for instance- we shouldn't build airplanes designed by philosophers. Likewise, we shouldn't conduct operational art in a place like Afghanistan in the same way we would prior to a Desert Storm...


Fri, 06/08/2012 - 4:57pm

In reply to by bz



Fri, 06/08/2012 - 4:49pm

In reply to by andy_attar

You caught it before I did. You were 97, right?



Fri, 06/08/2012 - 4:39pm

Holy cow. I just realized you're the Zweibelson from UConn. Although the name sounded familiar I wasn't sure where I'd heard it before! -Andy


Fri, 06/08/2012 - 4:22pm

In reply to by andy_attar

Andy- we seem to disagree on a couple of things, but you hit a nerve with PowerPoint. I personnally hate it...I hope to have a design article published soon where I rant a bit about how PowerPoint is ruining MDMP and staff processes to a point where creative and critical thinking is taking a back seat to institutionalism and mimicry.

The problem with PowerPoint is not the software, as it is merely a collaboration tool run amuck. It is how our military organziations use PowerPoint. Note that with this article, I explain that all graphics were done originally on white boards in design sessions- I even took photos of them, but honestly they do not translate well for a finished article. Thus, as a matter for purely asthetic purposes, I converted the drawings into either PowerPoint or Visio for publication. I prefer to use Visio, but it's similarities with PowerPoint do not make for a fetching argument. There is nothing, in my opinion, wrong with using white boards (or chalk boards, or sand and a stick) for helping illustrate discourse. The pictures are, as I try to explain in this article, a reflection of the iterative process- the sculpture generates shards of marble under it as the artist works. We can share these shards (graphics) and discuss sculpting techniques, but the deliverable still needs to be a statue (military plan, OPORD, deliverable). PowerPoint is NOT a deliverable- but our military tends to want to make it one. The term "PowerPoint Deep" is a very sad but true phenomenon in Afghanistan.

- I cited a few articles in my article that discuss the relationship between drawings and creativity; there is some decent organizational theory out there that supports this- but I prefer white board sessions to PowerPoint for a couple of key reasons.

1. White boards are dynamic- anyone can pick up the marker and act. Powerpoint is not- only one person gets to steer a slide, and usually most slides are made at one work station, by one person, and added to a larger presentation later.

2. White boards are temporary; thus more uninhibited. Not many folks brief from a white board; at least, nothing outside an immediate group or staff section. This opens creativity up; people can experiement, improvise. But once a PowerPoint slide is created, it becomes this static item, and especially when a General Officer blesses off on it, it becomes increasingly harder for anyone to change it.

3. PowerPoint slides, when arranged in a presentation, have a sort of hypnotic effect on an organization. We follow a certain process- a drum beat; and no deviation is allowed. We shift from slide to slide- and the briefer becomes the briefing aid as the slide deck takes over. In this article, I used PowerPoint slides to depict the actual whiteboard sessions we did- and these figures are supposed to iteratively demonstrate how we moved from conceptual to detailed planning. The article carries the story, the graphics aid the telling. Unfortunately, one generally has to use PowerPoint to clean up the whiteboard drawings for publication; but there is a difference in my opinion between making slides that reproduce whiteboard work, and making slides as part of a presentation that has an entirely different agenda.

As for complexity and positivism (more of a Dr. Paparone term, but like Grant Martin I have come to embrace it); if you think that the scientific approach which reduces and isolates complexity into manageable chunks is superior to holistic approaches, then that is another discussion we can certainly have. May I suggest checking out some General System Theory readings if you have time? There are many compelling arguments on why reductionism fails to appreciate complexity, whereas holistic approaches may do better in some cases.



Fri, 06/08/2012 - 2:14pm

In reply to by bz

BZ, I guess I don't see it as so complicated. I agree we've fallen short. But the solution I don't think lies in Post-Modern "bricolage". My central problem with post-modernism is philosophical. To me, it seems to assume a world which is irrational, or if not irrational, then at the very least almost infinitely complex. I wouldn't classify myself as a rationalist, but at least rationalism and empiricism gave us logical systems and methods to apply to our organizational efforts. We harnessed the power of the atom, walked on the moon, and pacified and rebuilt entire continents under these philosophies. I think it's folly to suggest that we are attempting to solve more complex problems now than we did two or more generations ago. I think the problem is we have far fewer people capable of using industrial or scientific solutions to solve problems. I saw too many headquarters (from brigade to corps) over these last ten years with masses of folks not in the fight. Sure the problem sets were complex, but part of the reason we couldn't use industrial solutions to break down complex problems into manageable sections is our failure to employ effectively our staffs. I'm not saying either that the blame lies with commanders and chiefs of staff either. It could be that we simply, as a nation, have stopped producing large numbers of men and woman capable of complex problem solving. Like I said earlier - I'd be interest to see the comparison of undergrad academic training and focus among Regular Army officers over the last 70 years. (Another compounding problem I'd say is simply a lack of accountability within our organizations. Necessity is the mother of invention. But how well have we done holding leaders accountable for achieving results? Have we made operational invention necessary or have leaders (especially senior leaders) been able to retain positions, and even advance, without producing major results? Sometimes I don't think so.)

You referenced the dangers of an institution which prizes historical lessons learned and vignettes (some form of Traditionalism) as the sine qua non of organizational planning. I see, however, the military adaptation of Post-Modernism as equally, if not more, dangerous. The Post-Modernists seem to buy into a form of "grand narrative" world view, where Man is on a glide path of intellectual growth and capacity. "The world is evolving and we must evolve with it!" This hubris is certainly as dangerous as some form of Traditionalism where every truth must be found somewhere in history or it's of no validity.

I also find it interesting that despite the claim of embracing complexity and multidimensional thought, Design still heavily uses PowerPoint. If the products of Design must be reducible to a two-dimensional chart with no smaller than 16 Arial Font Size and with corresponding Arrows and Blocks, what level of complexity are we really achieving? There's just a limit to what can be visualized through PowerPoint. Far from embracing complexity, it easily lends itself to oversimplification -- where everyone walks away believing that the sum total of both the problem and solution have been holistically presented on a chart.


Fri, 06/08/2012 - 1:13pm

In reply to by andy_attar


I am not sure if COIN is a defining factor over whether a conflict is complex or not. And design applications are not tied to whether a conflict is COIN-centric or not.

Design challenges the institutionalisms that hinder how an organization makes sense of a conflict. That conflict can be humanitarian relief in Hati, conventional conflict against a rival nation's fielded forces, or UW within a limited war context. I don't think it matters- provided that design applications deliver a detailed plan that is measurably better than if detailed planning was conducted alone.

There are a lot of anti-'post-modernism' comments below that made me think that the entire post-modern perspective is likely an unpopular one for military professionals (in general). We tend to prefer historical vingettes with linear associations; as in- this conflict is alot like another, so things that worked in a prior conflict might continue to work in the current one. Some downplay this as a one-note arguement; but I cannot tell you how many times I encounter this reasoning in current senior military leadership in combat. Hierarchical structure along with historical vingette reasoning and an emphasis on experience trumping novel approaches tends to drive many decisions. Post-modern approaches are quickly tossed to the side as excentric, or irrelevant, or "too academic." Reflection on why our institution tends to do this might be enlightening- perhaps post-modernism does not belong in military thought? Or perhaps it does, but in a different way? Either way- does our professional military education system (one that values sending War College-level students to Harvard on an advanced Business degree as the "brass ring" on the educational merry-go-round) work to challenge how we think; or does it do more to preserve those areas considered "vital" to self-interests? How can we adjust course?



Fri, 06/08/2012 - 6:05am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

When COIN goes away so doesn't the so-called wicked or illstructured problems? If so, staff outputs may improve but this will be relative since the problem sets will decrease in complexity. Am I missing something?

Outlaw 09

Fri, 06/08/2012 - 3:59am

Just a side comment on the previous comments---Design is not driven by a single individual working in a dark closet---it is a staff driven process and I am not sure that staffs at any level currently even grasp the concept of design other than it is a buzz word.

When Design appeared in FM 5.0 it was given about ten pages---but nothing was provided in the FM as to how it is to look ie products, processes, the "nuts and bolts" of how to do design.

Ben in his series and I do mean series on Design has attempted to layout the design concept yes in sometimes difficult to understand English, but he has done something else---he has at least attempted to give two different wicked problem sets as examples.

I noticed in my previous comments on the subject that no one took me up on the "running estimates" comments---in some aspects Design is a further step in "nodal analysis" as a way to verbalize and visualize a "wicked problem set".

It fits nicely as a stepping stone in Mission Command which uses over asnd over the terms visualize and describe when defining commanders intent.

So my previous comment stands-- get off the words and onto a solid discussion of how to we get Staffs to better understand both Mission Command and Design.

I will go a step further than Ben and argue that COIN has killed Staff operations as we the Army knew it in 2000 and as we now slow down the ops tempo and get back to what "right" is---COIN is standing in the way of Staffs trying to make the transition back to "right".



Sat, 06/09/2012 - 4:11am

In reply to by andy_attar


True design uses a dynamic and adaptive "house"- one that is in perpetual flux and through a variety of building materials, it constantly innovating and changing. That sounds rather uncertain for those that prefer a more stable and certain 'positivist' approach where the house is firmly rooted in the scientific approach and western concepts such as Clausewitz, Jomini's Principles of War, and the perpetual need for historic metaphors (Afghanistan is like Vietnam- therefore...) which makes a firm house, but usually in the wrong neighborhood.

Bricolage is a unique term because it is hard to substitute another word for it. It does not come from post-modernism (they would likely prefer something associated with 'assemblage') but 'bricolage' is used in Organizational Theory (social science, aka soft science- but grounded in science with holistic approaches versus deconstructionism)...bricolage makes use of those things available that bring value in novel and useful ways, often in an unorthodox but necessary manner. Some great examples of bricolage would be:

1. Apollo 13: the combination of NASA scientists and astronauts on the ground used improvisation (short time suspense while drawing from experience-based memory and procedural memory) while the damaged capsule offered them only a bricolage of items to work with to repair the life support. The bricolage in this case is tangible- the things available in the capsule; MacGuyver and the A-Team also did tangible bricolage frequently (Murdock that crazy fool...)

2. Bricolage at an intangible yet often tactical level occurs frequently in small teams of SOF or Infantry forces when they approach a tactical problem and draw from a variety of assets, concepts, and tools to come up with an unorthodox yet necessary solution. This may involve folks doing things they were never "trained to do" but they still do a remarkable job with what is available. The British COIN approach in Malaya in the 1950s (as Nagal illustrates clearly) and Linn's depiction of the joint Army-Navy COIN operations in the Philippines from 1899-1901 come to mind here.

3. Bricolage at the operational level of war: this is where I think design can contribute to conceptual planning, which in my opinion is a necessary precursor to detailed planning with messy problems. This is also hard to do,and even harder to explain effectively- mostly because the operational level deals with far more intangibles than tangibles. The A-Team can clearly illustrate tactical tangible bricolage; they did it every episode. But place that team at the operational level, and tell them to fuse strategic guidance with tactical applications within a wicked problem frame, and tell them to conceptually plan out an approach using a bricolage of concepts and theories avalable (and not limited to just Dead Carl and Jomini, or planning doctrine, or the crappy plan that higher headquarters wrote two years ago and is still sticking with)...even when they deliver something through planning bricolage, it is hard to see it; hard to define the success, and hard to explain how they went from soup to nuts. Take in consideration the challenging language and concepts necessary to recognize and employ various elements/fields/disciplinss during the planning bricolage- and now try to fuse that and explain it; that is the hard part I think. How can you jump from post-modernism to general systems theory over to eastern philosophy, then apply some military planning doctrine, modify some accepted terms, tweak some centers of gravity concepts, go back over to organizational theory for some associated concepts, and then fuse it all together from conceptual to detailed planning while also playing the socio-political games that our military organizations is exhausting for me at least.

I may be rambling; did that make any sense?



Fri, 06/08/2012 - 4:24pm

In reply to by bz


If we are throwing open the door to philosophy, I'd recommend building our house on Teleology and Natural Law. Theyd do more good for us, but don't think it would get much traction.


Fri, 06/08/2012 - 1:27pm

In reply to by Scott Kinner


I see some value in your hurbis-arguement; but how do you approach the fact that most post-modernism in design originates from 18th through 20th century philosophy? The General Systems stuff aside (which is all 20th century work that would tie into your hubris-theory), I found that some tremendous thinking done in 18th century France (take "The Ignorant Schoolmaster" for instance- a 19th century work) represent a counter-culture approach to education- which can tie into how we understand SFA, FID, and in some aspects, COIN. Post-modernists fuse 19th century post-modernist musings into current 21st century conflicts, and ask questions. Is this a bad thing?

I think the issue is less about time-perpective (I am a current generation military professional, therefore I think only in terms of my experience, and will re-invent things because I never walked the great plains with Custer, nor did I storm the beaches at Normandy) and more about genre-perspective. If you make sense of the world through a genre (I would use the term 'logic system'- but that requires more explanation than this comment has time for), a genre where Clausewitz explains all politics and conflict, and history (western history generally) explains where we are on the timeline, and 'realist' frames how you prefer to look at the world. Realists do not like post-modernism because it relies on a completely different "genre"- it switches out too many core tenets and structures for many.

If one builds a house and the foundation is concrete (Dead Carl), steel (western realism) and wood (military language and hierarchical values), we would naturally be resistant to building another house with completely different building materials. We build what we are comfortable with- but what happens when the environment demands that we do not errect another wood and concrete house? Well, we usually build one anyway, and warp our world-view to say "this conflict needed exactly this sort of house" and we stick with it regardless.



Thu, 06/07/2012 - 5:55pm

In reply to by Scott Kinner

Scott, I agree with you. I hope my sarcasm above came through as such.

Anyway, I think our present situation (confronting the apparent failure of industrial/scientific solutions to operational problems in war) may be even more serious than just a generational shift of attitudes, values, and perspectives. If we are moving to embrace Post-Modernism (as I understand Post-Modernism), then we may be turning away from three hundred years of what was previously understood to be Modernity (rationalism, scientism, empiricism, etc.). It seems like a potentially massive philosophical shift - do we understand the potential consequences? Even as the West further embraces Post-Modernism, does the military necessarily have to follow? I don't think other sectors will ever truly embrace it. For instance, I can't see the energy industry or aerospace industry buying into Post-Modernist approaches to confronting their central problems and challenges. If they can survive without adopting it, then why cannot the military?

I'm not a Design expert, but when I initially read about it, I liked it. I saw it as advocating a "thinking about our thinking" approach to problem-solving. Rather than the commander and staff jumping right into problem-solving, I saw Design as advocating a retooling of the headquarters (organization, procedures, and systems) to ensure we are employing the right tool for the job. I didn't see this as post-modern, however.

If Post-Modernism has some things of value then of course we should understand them and perhaps make some adaptations to our own doctrine. I'm not advocating a "head in the sand" approach to the world. But honestly unless we are getting ready to conduct COIN operations in Sweden or Holland, I really don't think we need to invest too much in understanding and appreciating Post-Modernism.

Scott Kinner

Thu, 06/07/2012 - 4:41pm

In reply to by andy_attar

Andy - I get what you're saying. But I think it is a tad simpler - much of this is just about generational hubris - regardless of when you lived, and what the prevailing philosophical thoughts were at the time, your parents were idiots, previous generations were mired in ignorance, and you were blessed with foresight and "new" and "revolutionary" ideas.

To pretend that today's world is any more or less complex than at any other time in Mankind's history is absurd, and frankly, a bit of self-licking ice cream cone hubris. If this world is the most complex ever, than how much better must we be than our predecessors?

Attack the Network is an example - were you aware that the world is full of friendly, neutral, and threat networks? Apparently we've just discovered this - though I bet the English soldiers fighting Welsh insurgents also figured out who was on their side, who was uncommitted, and who knew who on the enemy side - probably had some fair ideas on "influencing" them as well. They just didn't have PowerPoint or a whiteboard.

Which comes back to the discussion in this thread - because there is truth to the fact that each generation does have a different perspective based on where it is and what's around it. We just need to be using plain language in discussing "new" solutions to "old" problems...


Thu, 06/07/2012 - 4:23pm

Had Post-Modernist Design approaches been employed by MacArthur and his staff would Japan have undergone the transformation and reconstruction that it did? Or are we to suggest that postwar Japan wasn't wicked enough a problem to warrant freethinking solutions. Those WW2 simpletons and their industrial solutions wouldn't cut it in today's complex OEs.

Postmodernism may produce good jazz and beat ppoetry, but I don't want to ride in an airplane built with a postmodernist approach. And frankly I wouldn't want a postmodernist leader or governor running my government.

Isn't it generally considered good practice not to boast about something new until youve proven it's worth. What then are the proven fruits of this type of Design? In the charts provided I see a lot of systems which coordinate the activities of the commander and the other very key personnel, but what about the hundreds of other staff personnel within the various operational headquarters? How are they being synchronized to effectively assess and target across all LOEs.

Industrial or scientific or traditional (whatever term you want to use) solutions did not fail these past 10 years. We failed to employ them. What percentage of our officers have some sort of hard science degree as compared with the WW2 regular army officers? Don't you think this makes a difference when you try to assess the ability of an operational headquarters to apply industrial/scientific solutions to tough problems?

Scott Kinner

Thu, 06/07/2012 - 10:12am

Agree on the language. I earnestly read every design article that I come across because we are working to close a 30 year gap Marine Corps basic ground combat element and infantry doctrine (a gap which both supports the "who needs doctrine" and "good doctrine lasts a long time" arguments). As we talk about C2 and planning, we seek to talk in terms of design and problem framing.

Which brings me up against the lowest common denominator. Any new concept or idea needs to undergo the messy process of academic birth. This is conducted in the language of the audience - other academics. Words always mean things - and as academics struggle and debate amongst themselves, they generally choose their words with their peers in mind...

But at some point - as the idea and concept becomes worthy of walking on its own in the real world - we meet the lowest common denominator. This is the person who will implement and use the idea. This is the person who must understand the idea. This is the staff officer of today and tomorrow who possesses a bachelor's degree and perhaps a masters earned at one of the service school houses.

My grandfather ended up as the head of transmission design for Ford Motor Company. And he used to go round and round with my cousin who forever lamented the choices engineers like my grandfather made. The car would be faster if the gear ratios were different, or there would be more torque from the engine if the gearing was changed in this way. Finally, in exasperation, my grandfather one day said "I'm not selling cars to you Jim, I'm selling them to families."

As I try to ensure that our doctrine enables our companies, battalions, regiments and ground combat elements to work successfully in the messy and wicked world (good, plain, understandable words), I'm selling cars to families. I need the engineers to move their language from Autocad to glossy brochure, from their design studio to the showroom floor.



Hubba Bubba

Wed, 06/06/2012 - 5:25pm

Perhaps some of the concern over designt theory in the string of comments below has to do less with the vocab in this article, and more about the concepts associated with the vocab. I shall explain-

This article uses some terms that are familiar in other fields, but have little to do with common military langauge and the sister field of history- many successful military articles often use many terms and concepts closely associated with history, and/or histiography. For instance, when David Petraeus was a Major (like Zweibelson), he wrote a well-received article for Parameters called 'Lessons of History and Lessons of Vietnam" in 1986. An extremely dense work with over 61 footnoted references for a mere ten page article, Petraeus also uses a very challenging vocabulary to convey his theory. For instance, in just two sentences in his opening paragraph, Petraeus uses the words ‘obfuscate’, ‘policy-relevant analogies’, ‘ambiguities’, and ‘paradoxes.’
Some may chortle at these words and boast that they know them well, but my public-school education had to look some of them up to be sure I could follow him along. Petraeus wrote the piece in a strong association with historical vignettes, which tends to be the best way for military articles to go over well with a broad audience. We like history- and although Petraeus even warns in his article about the dangers of poorly understanding history and making even worse decisions with the false confidence that “we know what we are doing now- because we know our history so well”- I think the relationship between difficult vocab and the CONCEPTs associated with them are what the challenge is here. Petraus' work was full of references and challenging vocab, but it resonates well with the military audience because it is historic-centric. Design does not do this, which is why design articles, also dense in terms and references, resonate poorly. As for the Einstein example offered earlier- I just have to scratch my head at that one. I have read several of Einstein's and Hawking's works- they are not easy to read. But, they do not rely on historical-centric themes either- they use hard science. Hard science is perhaps a bit easier than design's emphasis on soft-science and philosophies; that is yet another strike against design.

- Most design articles do not use historical analysis; in fact they distance themselves from that line of thinking, and prefer to blur many foreign disciplines together. I think that puts a sour taste in many readers’ mouths right when they start. I chuckle when folks like Gentile use ‘designista’ because that is an effort to categorize design folks into a group, of which one’s stereotypes and assumptions can run freely. It is the first warning sign that one has closed their mind in preparation for the reading. Others like to use “drink the Koolaid” or “Naveh disciple” which are similar close-minded positions.
- - So, design vocab works from non-historical positions. It forces a reader to dig into some challenging fields to follow along. There is no security blanket; that probably turns some folks off. I would simply reply with, if you want to read about design, but have no interest in learning any new vocab, or new concepts, and demand it in a particular familiar language of history and military friendly jargon- are you being open or close minded?
- New terms and concepts are used when they bring value to society. Does design thinking being value to the military? I think it does. But I think the whole point of this article is missed on some that quibble about the pain of learning new words. Design requires a balance, a fusion from a small group that expands and changes until the final product is something simple yet retains that design utility. Learning is more than just reading more of the same thing, as I know plenty of co-workers that have vast libraries on particular topics (mostly military history- and almost always western conflicts); learning in fields and areas that you have little or no experience is hard. If it was easy, you would probably see far more design articles out there. But we do not- because I think it is much easier to write using history than write with design. Maybe someone else can write the ‘everyone will get this’ design article? That would be nice to see. To do it, you would have to write in simple terms, without losing the soft-science and philosophical structures. If social scientists and philosophers cannot do it, how do we expect design writers to do so? Otherwise every philosophy book would read as "Chicken Soup for the Soul" which is akin to "Cliff Notes for the Battle of the Bulge" from a military perspective.

Seems like a bit of a double standard; or intellectual resistance to break out of the "you can have any color car you want, as long as it is black" sort of thinking.



Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:35pm

Reading this I got the sense at first that it was some sort of self-parody.

I have to agree with the comments regarding the use of obtuse language.

I wholeheartedly agree, however, that Design is needed at the Operational level of war. In my opinion we have a host of operational commanders and headquarters staffs who are out of touch and bring little to no value to the fight. Here's a good litmus test of your operational headquarters: check out the CCIR. Are they real CCIR linked to operational decisions or resources? Or are they friendly force SIRs or STRATCOM consequence management criteria masquerading as CCIR?

That all said, the type of verbiage as demonstrated above does little to bring the operational level back into the fight as a productive, synergizing force.

If the operational level must connect strategic ends with tactical execution how does obscure usages of specialized jargon by operational planners help achieve this? If you use language that the tactical executors find mystifying, what good are you doing?

To suggest that we don't need to understand or appreciate the sausage making, and that the end product of such specialized jargon is actually good operational planning, is weak. This article did nothing to demonstrate that. It was 99% about the sausage making and nothing about the quality of the sausage produced. What are the MEPs and MOEs we attach to the operational headquarters to test and validate the quality of the Design sausage?

I have been reading several papers and articles like this about design & planners. In the end, the design methodology came to make the work more complicated to staff officers. The same group who design must be the planning group, so use all the crticial & creative thinking to open minds and THEN go back to the well known MDMP 5 paragraphs order. We are converting the Design in the END, yet it is only a MEAN.


Tue, 06/05/2012 - 6:11am


I have now read the article twice and wonder if it is 'fit for purpose' given your sentence: 'Intended not only for military professionals and academics, the author aims to bridge conceptual planning discussions between military and civilian leaders with the mutually beneficial applications of design theory, doctrine, and politics'.

There maybe a few civilian leaders who can follow the article, although I have my doubts, if only due to the time required to read and understand.

My biggest reservation is whether any Afghan leader can gain from this.


Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:07pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

If Design is critical and urgent, there is a critical and urgent need for Design proponents to refine their theories to the point where they can be used by the people who need to use them.

Imagine that someone developed a military vehicle that had marvelous capabilities, but could only be operated by .02% of the people who needed to use it. That's a design (small "d") failure. If it can't be applied, it's pointless.

Refinement does not mean "dumbing it down": clarity is not dumb.

In terms of contributions (as referenced in a different post), I've actually considered "translating" a Design piece into standard English, just to show that it can be done. Haven't gotten around to it, though, I do that sort of work for a living and at any given moment it always seems too large a project to take on for entertainment.

I will, however, offer a few suggestions to Design proponents, based not only on this piece.

Do not start your piece with a discourse on how abstract and rarefied Design is and how only a few are intelligent enough to use it. This accomplishes nothing and is easily interpreted as arrogant and insulting.

Do not describe a problem as "wicked", "messy", or "ill-structuresd";, that's leading the audience. Describe the problem and the obstacles to its solution; let the reader decide how wicked it is.

Don't overdo the theory, especially early in the piece. Your readers want to know, first and foremost, what you were trying to do, how you chose to do it, and whether or not it worked. Once you review the process and demonstrate its efficacy, go back and review the theoretical basis for each step. Even here, avoid excess, especially in an introductory or review piece. You want to give them a taste and get them curious enough to come back voluntarily for more, not force-feed them the entire package in one sitting.

Avoid digression into the philosophical antecedents of any given theory or action. The reader does not need to know that your method derived from the postmodern ponderings of Vasco de la Mierda... if they're curious, they'll ask. They need to know what you were trying to accomplish, how you chose to accomplish it, the extent to which you succeeded, what worked, what disn't, and why.

Clarity. Repeat <i>ad nauseam</i>. Make it a mantra. There is very little that cannot be clearly communicated clearly in standard English. This is not anti-intellectualism, it is intellectualism. Clarity of expression is the first responsibility of the intellectual who would introduce an idea to use outside the community of theorists. The audience is not stupid or inept, far from it. If you can't communicate your ideas to them efficiently, it's not their fault, it's yours. If people seem reluctant to adopt your ideas, it's not because they're dumb: either the idea isn't as useful as you think or you're not explaining it clearly.

I could rant on, but that's beyond sufficient. Apologies to those doubtless offended: I think the idea is worth consideration, but I soemtimes express them... a little too clearly ;).