Small Wars Journal

Does Design Help or Hurt Military Planning: How NTM-A Designed a Plausible Afghan Security Force in an Uncertain Future, Part I

Mon, 07/09/2012 - 5:44am

Author's Note: Many military professionals and academics ask for tangible examples in a combat environment of what design theory brings to a military organization conducting planning and decision-making.  As an operational-level planner in NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan/Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (NTM-A/CSTC-A) in 2011, I had a unique opportunity to lead a planning team that fused design theory and other non-standard planning techniques into the military decision-making and wargame process. Those results, and our team’s precise recommendations, were eventually briefed and approved at the strategic level for our Coalition to implement a change in direction of long-range planning for Afghan security forces.  This is part I of a two-part series on how design practitioners produced an output that may shape the future form and capacity of the Afghan forces.[1], [2] 

In the summer of 2011, senior leadership asked NTM-A/CSTC-A a series of questions that fit the definition of an ‘unfamiliar problem set’ for our military organization to grapple with. Using limited intelligence estimates for what the threat environment might look like in the next half decade or so, NTM-A was tasked to determine a size, capability, and cost of an Afghan security force that would be sufficient to function best in this uncertain future. In order to provide an answer that would evoke confidence with senior officers and policy makers, the analysis needed to feature the familiar components of traditional military decision making, to include ‘wargaming’ and detailed methodology within an overarching narrative.  As this was an unfamiliar problem cast in the fog and friction of an unstable conflict environment’s emergent state, this became a unique opportunity to apply design theory with military decision making under combat conditions.  Yet, our military institution continues to wrestle with whether design helps military planning, and how to properly incorporate it.  This is the tale of a design theory integration success.

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 [military decision-making process].”[3] In this case, we had a unique opportunity as military planners to explore what security force options would perform best under the highly uncertain future threat environment, and how to evolve the Afghan National Security Forces towards institutions that are sufficient for the security of the Afghan government and Afghan people, while acknowledging the reality of fiscal sustainability.  This article intends to demonstrate that design theory, when integrated carefully into our existing military decision-making process, does produce more useful products when facing confusing situations. In this story, I hope to convey our experience in trying to fuse design theory with traditional rational-analytic decision-making.

The planning team identified that resources would be the major planning constraint from the beginning, in that any future security force would be supported largely by the international community.  Initial senior military guidance to our planning group, however, was clear; do not let cost constrain planning, as those concerns would be addressed later at higher levels. We based all planning on the likely threat, and let budget constraints be factored in later after we determined the best possible security force option, not merely the cheapest option available.

I tell our story in five phases, hoping to convey how we evolved our concepts, language, and understanding toward design theory in practice. The first phase we called ‘DE-TACTICALIZATION’ where the team reflected on how we tend to view problems from a reductionist and often tactical worldview. [4] In order to employ design theory, we agreed to see events as a generalist, to see things from an abstract level and try to link things together in lieu of focusing on the details. In the second phase, ‘CONTEXTUALIZATION’, we attempted to describe the larger environment. In the third phase, ‘PROBLEMITIZATION, our team framed the ‘problem’ to generate Afghan security force options. This led to the fourth phase, ‘IMPROVISATION’, where we shaped an operational approach while continuously cycling back into all earlier phases and sought novel operational approaches. Once we developed an assortment of approaches, we took traditional wargame methodology and fused it with both design and swarm theory. Finally, in our ‘FINAL DESIGN’ phase we found ways to convey our recommendations as well as present the logic behind them.  This article concludes with offering some concerns, criticisms, and remaining questions on how our military institution may continue to evolve novel and more useful infusions between design theory and traditional military planning.  Does design help or hurt the current military institution?

‘De-Tacticization: Going from the Microscope to Macroscope’

Our planning team consisted of military planners educated through the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, career strategic planner specialists, and other personnel with extensive professional and educational experience. [5] Armed with a white-board and the source documents from our superiors to start with, we spent several sessions considering the scope of this wicked problem.  Attempting to frame a plausible future threat environment and subsequently wargaming multiple Afghan security force combinations was a formidable problem set. [6] Our first intellectual hurdle was our own predilection as military planners to consider tactical issues with a reluctance to transition to concepts that were more abstract. [7] Design encourages abstract and holistic reflection over tactical thinking, but the majority of our professional military education, doctrine, and vocabulary steered us towards reductionism and tactical focusing.[8]

In the military, some concepts are often beyond reproach; they are core beliefs and values our institution often associates with tradition and identity- termed ROOT METAPHORS in this article. [9] Beyond root metaphors in our organizational logic, we needed to frame the boundaries of what we knew to be within our doctrine and logic, and what did not. This helps differentiate between what an organization understands as ‘something known’ versus the uncertain ‘unknowns’ that we face. [10] The vast majority of our military doctrine, language, and concepts rely on the ‘interiority’ of our organizational knowledge; anything beyond or outside of that frame is quickly labeled crazy, irregular, anecdotal, or an anomaly. These ideas do not make sense within our bounded interiority of organizational knowledge; therefore, we cast them off and often ignore or marginalize them. [11]  Sometimes, one only needs to help the audience draw the boundary around their organization’s interiority to trigger critical inquiry. [12] Design may help military planning processes by encouraging abstraction over tactical reductionism. In order to help bound information between the “known” and “unknown” for the planning team, we introduced some concepts from post-modern philosophy that helped us challenge our own inherent military institutionalism.

‘Applying Post-Modernism to a Tornado’

Design draws from an eclectic range of fields and concepts, to include post-modern philosophy. Post-modern philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote extensively on the complementary concepts of interior and exterior knowledge.[13] To illustrate this post-modern perspective, we applied elements of subjective ontology by blending French post-modernism within a series of white-board drawings using shared metaphors. Subjective ontology offers that the human worldview (reality) is entirely constructed, and can therefore be deconstructed.[14] For this situation, we re-used a metaphor of a tornado due to previous success in conveying some relatively abstract concepts and encouraging subsequent abstract and critical thought about military institutionalism.[15] The tornado itself is a metaphor for what Deleuze and Guattari call their assemblage, or ‘war machine.’[16] This phenomenon encompasses the entire transformation of the complex system as time progresses, and interior and exterior knowledge interact.[17] Time moves in a linear manner for us, thus as a tornado forms down from the clouds and moves along a straight yet seemingly chaotic path, it leaves a path (history), engages at a finite point (present), and it’s future state is unknown.[18] The tornado metaphor is a useful design improvisation, but would concepts like this help or confuse military planners? In this case, it seemed to help. 

Our military organization is capable of producing volumes of detailed description on what has happened in a conflict so far, or reduce components such as numbers of successful improvised explosive device (IED) attacks and enemy casualties down to highly scientific measurements.[19]  What our organization prefers not to consider are opposite to the poles of reductionism and detailed description; the synthesist views holistically the entire system as it creates and destroys through interaction across time and space. In our current conflict we spend far less time thinking about the waves of belief flowing through the minds of the Afghan population, and too much time on the situation we are trying to create. These were rather introspective and elusive concepts for military planners to tackle, but our group quickly moved away from tactical considerations and instead began considering more abstract considerations about the Afghan future threat environment. [20]

Seeking ‘why’ over ‘what’ became a fixture of our discourse. Figure 1 provides a template of the initial whiteboard drawing that the planning team started with. Again, this is not a procedure on “how to do design- (i.e., step one: draw a tornado…); rather, an example of our particular journey into innovation and discovery. [21] Figure 1 illustrates one approach that worked in this unique situation with our core group.


We began explaining the reflective journey towards meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) and critical/creative consideration using Figure 1 in a very abstract, general perspective before applying Afghan considerations. At first, members of the team found this perplexing. However, given the small size of the group and a process of gradually drawing the group’s perspective towards a meta-cognitive one, the team began to accept the concept and move away from tactical rabbit-holes. [22]  We avoided detailed minutia and categorization of facts and figures. [23] Instead, we strove to think bigger, envision broadly a much larger system holistically. This is a design theory strength, yet often a military planning weakness.

Our white-board sessions were iterative, and with each subsequent graphic exercise, members of our team began to hone in on the right harmony of abstraction and bounding for this unique and uncertain Afghan problem. Figure 2 summarizes how our team began to distinguish between overt description within Coalition interiority knowledge and what existed “outside the box” for planners to consider abstractly.  Each time a planner attempted to identify a core tension, the team would determine if the tension was indeed a core tension with enough abstraction, or merely a tactical and potentially anecdotal observation that related more to institutionalism and group-think. [24]  An easy way to frame this process is to determine if the planner is asking a ‘what’ or a ‘why’ question.

‘Paper Beats Rock; Why Beats What’

Questions dealing with ‘what’ are ones that lead to description, reductionism, compartmentalization, and linear-causality logic. Our military excels at this method of thinking, and our doctrine builds procedures and linear causality reasoning to reinforce the illusion of progress through body counts, jackpots, infrastructure projects, and other ‘hard data.’[25], [26] A few of the typical ‘what’ descriptive questions listed below are examples of what-centric thinking that we attempted to steer away from during this planning:

  • What terrorist groups will threaten Afghanistan in the future?
  • What is the enemy success rate for attacking?
  • What threat from neighboring states will threaten Afghanistan in the future?
  • What will the Afghan economy produce in the future?
  • What will the heroin market and associated criminal activities look like?
  • What will the Afghan literacy rate be? Attrition rate? Recruitment rate?
  • What is the ratio of enemy actions to enemy losses?

While all of those ‘what-centric’ questions are useful in other phases of military planning, they generally do not move design practitioners towards generalized appreciation of a dynamic, complex system. Questions that address the ‘why’ move in the opposite direction away from reductionism and description.[27]  Instead, they focus holistically upon more abstract and therefore uncertain concepts.  These have been described as making many military professionals distinctly uncomfortable because prescriptive doctrine, reductionist procedures, and over-simplification through quantifying metrics fails to get to ‘why’ anything occurs in a complex system.[28] However, in our case, the core planning group was very comfortable tackling our wicked problem by considering ‘why’ Afghanistan is the way it is, and ‘why’ different futures might form. Figure 1 is a facsimile of our NTM-A CJ5 planner whiteboard drawing from an early planning session.  Figure 2 shows the evolution of what the small planning team built upon to iteratively frame some of the core tensions in the Afghan system.  Many of the ‘why’ questions emerge below. [29]


Our planning identified several major tensions that appeared to be primary phenomena that existed within the Afghan security environment in time and space. These phenomena, or tensions, should not be viewed in the reductionist perspective of “good or bad” but from ‘instability to steady-state’ where even an unstable tension influences a complex adaptive system in myriad ways.  These tensions may lead to transformation that eventually accomplishes the objectives of the organization. This is analogous to the Coalition’s standing perceptions on the heroin market, radical Islamic ideology, and a democratic Afghan centralized government- we hesitate to question these root metaphors established in our preferred logic and often alienates those that suggest otherwise.[30] Perhaps our very perceptions of what is “good or bad” are flawed? Or perhaps over time, they have changed?[31] Figures 1 and 2 provide useful examples of how our planning team attempted to overcome these root metaphors and fuse design with the more traditional first step of MISSION ANALYSIS.  It also provides a cognitive exercise to discard the organizational root metaphors that we identify, to begin to appreciate a complex problem beyond the immediate tactical considerations.

Once again, as a military we are brilliant tactical innovators, but we can often be a very resistant organization when it comes to flexibility and adaptation at the operational and strategic level. [32] Despite these obstacles, our team accomplished DE-TACTICALIZATION sufficiently and moved into the CONTEXTUALIZATION phase.

‘Scissors Cuts Paper; Tensions Demonstrate Abstract Appreciation”

Our team identified that at an abstract level, the concepts of national sovereignty, internal Rule of Law, and both the legitimate and illicit economies were the most significant and influential phenomena observable that would contribute to the security of the Islamic Republic and its people. Those four tensions emerged after vigorous debate on the future threat environment for Afghanistan. Originally depicted horizontally, we determined that the four tensions might visualize better in a ‘quad chart’ technique that scenario planning often applies. [33]

Quad charts are not doctrinal, but they are frequently used in military planning processes to aid in explaining conceptual or difficult topics to a wide audience. Design rejects ‘proceduralization’ and embraces persistent innovation across many fields, theories, and schools. The following core tensions graphic is a generic approximation of how the planning team sought to appreciate the future Afghan environment. Tensions are abstract, and therefore the figure below is quite simple; it lacks the intricate and highly detailed composition of most military planning products where PowerPoint slides are crammed with size-8 font text boxes and a kaleidoscope of colorful charts. [34]

The planning team took the four core tensions from Figure 3 and developed a mutually supportive set of ‘quad-charts’ in a hybridization of scenario planning methodology. The graphic application of using quad-charts resonated with the planning team, although it is not a defined aspect within any military decision-making process or doctrine. Once again, the planning team broke from doctrine and prior precedent by considering a dual quad-chart concept that helped explain different elements of an emergent state for Afghan Security forces in a future environment.

As these dual quad-charts were developed, the planning team had to take great care when members outside the core team became exposed to the products. Often, when a senior leader inquired to the group’s progress, we explained the entire improvisational process rather than simply briefing them the latest dual-quad products. In a few instances where outside members reviewed those products out of context, they had concerns and did not fully understand what the team was doing. This provides an excellent example of what distinguishes planning products from design deliverables. The planning products are explorations in learning, but not intended for briefing to an audience beyond the planning team. Design deliverables are more polished, and do not have the “here is how we evolved our understanding of this system” feel to them. The deliverables should stand alone, and make sense without the planning team present to walk you through them.   The quad chart examples in this article may be more challenging to understand because they are not supposed to be used as a design deliverable, but the purpose of this article makes their presentation a necessity. The quad charts also demonstrate our team’s transition from CONTEXTUALIZATION into PROBLEMATIZATION.

The first quad chart (Figure 4) places the Afghan sovereignty threat (Army-centric) in interaction with the Rule-of-Law threat (Police-centric) threat. These tension overlaps helped our planners discover and improvise a variety of scenarios and future threat environments to consider composite Afghan security forces. Once again, none of these processes or graphic depictions subscribed to military doctrine; they were improvisational and drew from a host of other fields such as scenario planning for inspiration. Design theory encourages improvisation, while military decision making alone often prioritizes doctrinal approaches and repetition instead.  Here, fresh perspectives were encouraged and a variety of concepts were incorporated into novel applications, termed ‘bricolage’ in organizational theory.[35] This benefited our planning team as we proceeded along in the process.

Continuing the improvisation, our planning team took the remaining tensions comprising the legitimate and illicit economies and developed a second quad-chart that operated in conjunction with the first. Figure 5 illustrates an example of that product which fostered additional understanding and a more holistic synthesis. Figure 5 does lend itself structurally to a more linear approach for the reflective practitioner, however the earlier ‘tornado abstraction’ demonstrates the blending of post modernism with military applications in the planning team’s overall approach.

Figures 4 and 5 operated together in what the planning team determined were a ‘tension-overlap’ of two scenario planning quad-charts. This improvisation was another example of unconventional and non-doctrinal processes that the planning team used within a small group to continue to make sense of the uncertain future environment. This addresses the ‘why’ of critical thinking, and how our design team recognized an opportunity to improvise away from doctrinal procedures and explore unorthodox approaches. [36]

In Figure 6, the two quad-charts paired in a symbiotic tension overlap to help explain the breadth of possible future Afghan threat environments. This established a framework for creating the unique wargame environment for each potential Afghan security force composition. These dual quad-charts spanned the range of possible threat environments that intelligence assessments considered as possibly feasible, but shaped the consideration of future environments in a way that facilitated our experimental wargame process. The dual quad-charts enabled us to visualize the four most important dimensions of the future threat environment in two dimensions by grouping together those dimensions that we considered would have the greatest interaction.

Figure 6 served as an intermediary step for the tension overlap quad-charts to advance into another emergent process for the planning team. Now that our planning team had a shared understanding and conceptual framework, we could adapt our language and narrative to communicate with each other more efficiently to convey new knowledge production and adaptation. [37] Using Figure 6 as a core pillar of our organizing logic, our planning team replaced the narratives within each quadrant with shared symbols to help us improvise with shaping new variations on possible threat environments within the organizing logic of the original core phenomena observed. Figure 7 features a facsimile of the tailored concept that the planning team developed to quickly share innovations and discoveries while understanding what others meant in relation to the core phenomena. For example, a planner might discuss a future environment where the security force faced an ‘Econ1/Threat2’ model which the planning team could quickly associate with the deeper explanation illustrated in Figures 3, 4 and 5. This allowed planners to quickly navigate conversations across the broad and diverse future threat environment while simultaneously incorporating various fusions of the previous primary phenomena. Again, new concepts and improvisational language reflects the design theory contribution to military planning and how useful it can be when confronted by wicked problems.

The conceptual planning work as illustrated in Figures 1-7 illustrate how our planning team attempted to gain sufficient understanding to develop models of tailored Afghan security forces for the range of uncertain threat scenarios. For instance, planners asked questions such as, “If the future Afghan threat environment features an Econ1/threat3 tension overlap, what composition of Army, Police, and Air Force assets would operate most effectively to accomplish Afghan and Coalition strategic goals?” Figure 8 illustrates the next evolution in the process where planners decided upon five different combinations of the tension overlaps as examples of the future threat environment that would span the breadth of the plausible scenarios. These example futures were then used to envision forces tailored to each of those models. Figure 8 represents an approximation of how this could be done; these sterilized approximations serve as a series of breadcrumbs to mark our intellectual journey. They are but five of many possible approaches in the vast number of possible outcomes, but importantly spanned the breadth of the most plausible given the provided intelligence estimate.

            Here we introduce the terminology ‘Course of Action’ (COA) to describe an approach to a potential threat future. At this stage of the planning we were not developing COAs in the traditional planning sense; rather we conceptually associated that each of the future threat scenarios would evolve towards selection of a force structure most suited to it. Readers may notice that many of the course-of-action combinations clustered along the Econ/Threat 2/3 axis and no combination appeared to utilize the econ/threat 4 quadrant. As our planners explored various tension combinations, we determined that in certain combinations, it became increasingly irrelevant what sort of Afghan security force we developed because any valid security force facing an ‘econ4/threat4’ scenario would do exceedingly well. This was the ‘sunshine and rainbows’ band of the future threat spectrum. Similarly, the extremely volatile ‘econ1/threat1’ scenario was also problematic in that no possible future security force option would function effectively. We termed this band the ‘hell in a hand basket’ scenario.  As a supplemental planning product, Figure 9 was developed to help our planning team realize these interesting phenomena that the tension-overlap appeared to generate. It aided our planning team in strengthening our organizing logic on why we selected these five particular scenarios against which we would develop five COAs instead of any of the other hundreds of possible combinations. We wanted to illustrate the ‘why’ instead of merely the ‘what.’

Figure 9 assisted our core planning team as we moved to the next step of developing COAs for each scenario from a variety of ‘menu options’ of various Army, Police, and Air Force combinations of forces, equipment, and capabilities that were tailored to specific mission requirements. [38] These menu options were another element incorporated into the design process and developed concurrently with the dual-tension quad charts.

‘Ordering A la Carte: Security Force Capabilities and Compositions’

Early in the PROBLEMATIZATION phase, each Army, Police, and Air Force planning cell developed, in parallel with the core planning team consideration of tensions, several force concepts that organized according to general planning logic and initial senior leader guidance. Unlike the dual-tension quad charts and post-modern applications which were conceptual, these force concepts provided clear and tangible concepts as building blocks for a future force. These options created packages of force structures for each service, organized by size and level of sophistication.

For instance, the Army planners had a variety of Army ‘menu’ options where various force structures considered a small, medium, or large Army force with either a basic, balanced, or advanced level of sophistication.[39] By doing this, Army planners could draw from the menu an Afghan Army force package that was a large and basic force, or opt for an intermediate sized one with advanced capabilities, or some other combination that was most suited to a particular future threat scenario. This coincided for Police and Air Force menu options as well, with Figure 10 illustrating a menu concept.[40] In the actual design concept, each menu option below featured explanation of what the force composition would have in terms of numbers, assets, capabilities, and capacity. Planners could discuss the earlier future threat scenarios (from the dual quad-charts) and then make Army, Police, and Air Force capability and capacity considerations using the menu concept. Together these organizing logics led to our five courses of action, selected by our planning team from literally hundreds of possible combinations. 

Figure 10 illustrates the menu concept where the planners could assemble a wide variety of security options.  Together we tailored that force by considering what combination of Police, Army, and Air Force interacted and mutually supported each other menu option for each of our five threat scenarios. A large yet basic Army might operate more effectively in a particular threat environment, yet due to the size of the basic Army force, the Afghan Air Force menu option that best complements it might be restricted to only the largest Air Force menu options. Similarly, an intermediate-sized Police force with a high level of sophistication may require the Army menu option to remain a particular size to support the Police in certain mission requirements or national disaster emergency conditions. We were further guided in our selection of force models by an operating concept for the future Afghan security forces.

Figure 11 illustrates how each of the menu concepts for Army, Police, and Air Force provided literally thousands of combinations of the Afghan security force. To stimulate planner discussion and focus it on our own future threat scenarios, we used the menu concepts and looked at one particular dual quad-chart combination. In figure 11, course of action 1 (COA 1) takes the economic and future threat quad-chart combination ‘ECON1/THREAT1’ and presents the question of what Army-Police-Air Force menu combination would be sufficient to accomplish Afghan and Coalition security goals. [41] To illustrate the process, Figure 11 takes a larger basic Army force and pairs it with an intermediate Police force with advanced capabilities, and the largest and most capable Air Force menu option. Planners anticipated that these menu options constituted a sufficient Afghan security force within that particular future threat scenario.

It is significant to note that size and level of sophistication varied across all of the menu options and COA combinations because planners attempted to assemble the sufficient force- not simply the largest or most advanced force available. The Police, Army, and Air Force face different threats and require different capabilities that interact with each other differently depending on the future threat environment.[42]

Returning to our article’s facsimile examples from the dual-quad chart process, COA 1 describes threat environment that features a blossoming illicit economy with a faltering legitimate Afghan economy (Econ 1). COA 1 also features a higher ‘rule-of-law’ threat with a lower sovereign threat than the current threat environment in Afghanistan 2011 (threat 3). The planning team selected specific Army capabilities with assets, form and function based upon an ‘Econ1/Threat3’ scenario, and then conducted a similar analysis for Police and Air Force. Each course of action thus had uniquely tailored combinations of Army, Police, and Air Force that were best suited for accomplishing strategic goals in a particular future threat environment. This established five courses of action that the planning team could subsequently move to begin analyzing each course of action.

We retained the menu concept throughout the wargame, and continued to adapt and improvise the selected Army, Police and Air Force as the wargame evolved. [43] This methodology, derived from design theory and other fields, fused our group’s scenario-planning inspired quad-chart concepts with the force composition menu-concept, and set the conditions for a hybrid military wargame in the IMPROVISATION phase. 

At this point, our planning team had used design theory to gain a deeper appreciation of a wicked problem where traditional military decision-making was insufficient. Drawing from holistic and abstract perspectives, we developed a dynamic model and planning logic from which we could subsequently communicate ideas and explore critical features of the future threat scenario for Afghanistan.

In parallel to the core planning team’s design theory applications, service planners developed a menu of possible force structures that reflected the tangible resources, numbers, and capabilities of a variety of security force packages. Together, the planning team fused these ideas to choose the five sufficient force structures to continue the wargame process. The challenge now was to identify which force structure was best. We had no way of knowing which future threat scenario was more likely, so we had to apply each force package in a wargame model against each threat scenario. This meant that multiple wargames would occur and each force package would perform against the whole range of future threat scenarios, not just the one it was initially developed against.

In the second part of this two-article series, we explain how our planning team conducted a hybrid wargame session that combined elements of design theory and swarm theory with military wargame doctrine. In particular, swarm theory provided an interesting fusion of non-military considerations where group dynamics and collective decision making relied more on collective intelligence rather than traditional military hierarchical structure and turn-based methodology. After covering the swarm-wargame concept, the second part of this series discusses the design deliverables, and addresses several conclusions on whether design theory helps or hurts military planning overall. 

Scissors Cuts Rock: How Design Enhances Military Decision Making

For this first article’s focus on military planning leading up to the wargame, I offer the following initial conclusions. Our planning team faced a wicked problem that did not nest well with traditional military decision making alone. The long-range projection and dynamic conflict environment of Afghanistan today makes any forecast into the future problematic, as any military or academic inquiry into a conflict environment would be regardless of setting. Furthermore, existing doctrine and supporting products lacked the necessary customization that this particular problem featured; anticipating multiple threat futures and sense-making the composition and application of a wide assortment of possible Afghan security force solutions required something beyond existing ‘on-the-shelf’ planning products.

By starting with a small core team, we set the right conditions to introduce non-traditional planning concepts, and drive critical thinking with abstract reflection to perspectives not usually utilized in the military. Yet some of our approaches involved high levels of uncertainty, and tailoring our approach required a blend of creativity, improvisation, and conscious editing to use what proved useful, and disregard the unnecessary. Introducing abstract and unorthodox concepts requires smaller planning groups with unique vocabulary, concepts, and graphic aids that remain “in-house” for the team to explore together more effectively. As the second part of this article will explain, most of the initial design products should not be mistaken for design deliverables. What makes sense within the planning team should not be forwarded to the larger audience and the decision makers as a final deliverable as it will inevitably cause confusion and doubt.

How our professional military education system approaches design factors in with these conclusions.  Improvisation and adaptation drives change, yet our current system features a high degree of codification into doctrine, and we lack the critical editing component of true peer review.  Lastly, as this particular wicked problem helps illustrate, generic approaches in military planning lack the essential customization and adaptation that these complex problems require.  Part II begins with one such improvisation that led to a more useful wargame output.  Yet does our military institution encourage true improvisation in our professional education, or would bee swarms and ant colonies be disregarded in any discussion on military wargame considerations? In this case, NTM-A planners fused design theory with military decision making, and developed planning results that thus far indicate greater utility and understanding than without design fusion.

[1] The author would like to thank Dr. Christopher Paparone (Colonel, retired, USA), Colonel Ricky Nussio (U.S. Army), Lieutenant Colonel Alistair Dickie (Australian Army), and Major Jason Galui (U.S. Army) for their editing and assistance in preparing this article series.  

[2] The examples provided in this article are devoid of any tactical or operationally sensitive material and only provide the conceptual applications of design theory for academic considerations.  This is an unclassified account of that planning team’s actions, improvisations, and journey to fuse design theory with traditional military decision-making to create a useful output for execution.  This article shows one way of applying design theory- one of an infinite variety that transform as our organizational knowledge continues to expand. 

[3] Army Doctrine Publication 3-0; Unified Land Operations, (Headquarters, Department of the Army, October 2011), 11. As of March 2012, this is the most recent doctrine developed by the US Army and designed to be a ‘capstone document’ for the US Army at a conceptual level.

[4] Shimon Naveh, Jim Schneider,  Timothy Challans, The Structure of Operational Revolution; A Prolegomena (Booz, Allen, Hamilton, 2009) 88. According to Shimon Naveh, Army Design doctrine demonstrates repetitive tacticization where military institutions “are inclined to apply knowledge they have acquired from their tactical experiences to their operational functioning sphere. In such cases, they either reduce the operational inquiry of potential opposition into a mechanical discussion or completely reject the need for a distinct learning operation.” See also: Mats Alvesson, Jorgen Sandberg, Generating Research Questions Through Problematization (Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2011) 261. “Members have (1) beliefs (2) about attributes of the organization and (3) that these attributes are distinctive, central, and enduring.”

[5] Although this might have inhibited group diversity, I found it necessary to share a common language, shared concepts, and a general understanding of the environment to gain some perspective and consider ideas for the initial core planning group.

[6] For ‘wicked problems’ concepts, see:  Jeff Conklin, Wicked Problems and Social Complexity (CogNexus Institute, 2008)   Last accessed 28 January 2012.

[7] Keith Devlin, The Language of Mathematics, (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 2000) 8. “Indeed, the issue is a deep one, having to do with human cognitive abilities. The recognition of abstract concepts and the development of an appropriate language to represent them are really two sides of the same coin.”

[8] James J. Schneider, Theoretical Implications of Operational Art; On Operational Art, (Washington: Center of Military History, 1994) 25-29. “The future of operational art depends on today’s officer corps understanding the historical and theoretical basis of the concept. Only by knowing what has gone before can it hope to build a doctrine for the future which takes full advantage of the fruits of technology;” See also: Mats Alvesson, Jorgen Sandberg, Generating Research Questions Through Problematization (Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2011) 261. “Members have (1) beliefs (2) about attributes of the organization and (3) that these attributes are distinctive, central, and enduring.”

[9] By root metaphor, I mean when an organization or field accepts something as true to the point that it cannot be questioned, it is a root metaphor that helps define that organization. See: Mats Alvesson, Jorgen Sandberg, Generating Research Questions Through Problematization, (Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2011) 254.

[10] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan, (New York: Random House, 2007). Taleb’s thesis on complexity and unknown radical events (black swans) pairs well with Kuhn’s concept of the paradigm shift. See also: Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[11] The Wall Street Journal, Afghan general sounds alarm on US plan to cut local security forces (18 February 2012). "Nobody at this moment, based on any type of analysis, can predict what will be the security situation in 2014. That's unpredictable," [Afghan Minister, Gen. Abdul Rahim] Wardak said. "Going lower [in Afghan troop numbers] has to be based on realities on the ground. Otherwise it will be a disaster, it will be a catastrophe, putting at risk all that we have accomplished together with so much sacrifice in blood and treasure."

[12] Jacques Ranciere, The Ignorant Schoolmaster (translated by Kristin Ross, Stanford University Press, 1991. Ranciere’s thesis centers on intelligence and learning; he argues that all people have equal intelligence, and that once set free to learn on their own, individuals do not need ‘masters’ or those to spoon-feed them controlled lessons and judge their progress. Instead, one could help another learn something that neither person knows. I consider Ranciere’s work highly compatible with the concepts of interiority and exteriority with knowledge.

[13] Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, (translated by Brian Massumi) A Thousand Plateaus; Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 360. “The State-form, as a form of interiority, has a tendency to reproduce itself, remaining identical to itself across its variations and easily recognizable within the limits of its poles…” Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of interiority and exteriority form assemblages which constantly interact. “It is in terms not of independence, but of coexistence and competition in a perpetual field of interaction…” The state-form correlates to the military institution, whereas their assemblage concept termed a ‘war machine’ relates to the meta-themes of human conflict and force of will through violence or obedience/submission.

[14] Post-modernism often is a challenging series of concepts to incorporate into military fields; this article cites a variety of sources that serve as a good starting point for considering philosophies, logics, and worldviews that differ radically from the traditional Clausewitzian military perspective where war is an extension of politics and all human conflict falls within Clausewitz’s trinity.

[15] Ben Zweibelson, Breaking Barriers to Deeper Understanding: How Post-Modern Concepts Are ‘Value-Added’ to Military Conceptual Planning Considerations (Small Wars Journal, 21 September 2011) Last accessed: 25 February 2012). I re-applied the tornado metaphor and graphic for our planning team based on previous unclassified work I did for this article. Although select planners received it well for our team, blogger comments at SWJ indicate that the tornado metaphor is not entirely useful for explaining these highly abstract design concepts.

[16] Deleuze, Guattari, 351. Deleuze and Guattari discuss their concept of ‘the war machine’ and differentiate two rival forces that are “at once antithetical and complementary, necessary to one another…their opposition is only relative; they function as a pair.”

[17] Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, (translated by Brian Massumi) A Thousand Plateaus; Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987) 361.  “The model is a vortical one; it operates in an open space throughout which things-flows are distributed, rather than plotting out a closed space for linear and solid things.”

[18] I used the dark and swirling clouds of a storm system above the ground to represent the uncertain exteriority while the flat terrain represents our interiority. Our institution could use road maps to navigate on the ground within their ‘known’ knowledge, while things not on the map were obscured beyond the ever-changing cloudscape above.

[19] 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.” See also: Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse; Essays in Cultural Criticism, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1978)

[20] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan. (New York: Random House, 2007), 69. “We, members of the human variety of primates, have a hunger for rules because we need to reduce the dimension of matters so they can get into our heads.”

[21] Jeff Conklin, Wicked Problems and Social Complexity (CogNexus Institute, 2008. (accessed 05 January 2011) 4. “Traditional thinking, cognitive studies, and the prevailing Design methods all predicted that the best way to work on a problem like this was to follow an orderly and linear ‘top-down’ process, working from the problem to the solution.” Design does not embrace a particular method, procedure, or theory; design is essentially an ever-changing and adapting bricolage of various theories, with fusion and discovery generating unexpected new directions and perspectives.

[22] Ervin Laszlo, The Systems View of the World; a Holistic Vision for Our Time, (New Jersey, Hampton Press, 1996) 2; See also: Ahl, Allen,1. “In all ages humanity has been confronted by complex problems. The difference between then and now is that contemporary society has ambitions of solving complex problems through technical understanding.”

[23] 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.”

[24] Ervin Laszlo, The Systems View of the World; a Holistic Vision for Our Time. (New Jersey, Hampton Press, 1996) 40. “There is coordination in the behavior of all systems, and an overall pattern sooner or later emerges.”

[25] 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.”

[26] The term ‘jackpot’ is a slang military term used for ‘high value’ capture/kill operations; however there are concerns over the clarity of this term. See: Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, A Knock on the Door: 22 Months of ISAF Press Releases (Afghanistan Analysts Network, October 12, 2011). Last accessed: March 22, 2012.

[27] 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.” See also: 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 phenomena, come from the context. The lower-level mechanics, the “how” of the phenomena, have nothing to say about “why.”

[28] 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.” See also: Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse; Essays in Cultural Criticism, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1978) 6. “Rational or scientific knowledge was little more than the truth yielded by reflection in the prefigurative modes raised to the level of abstract concepts and submitted to criticism for logical consistency, coherency, and so on.”

[29] For critical thinking (problematization), see: Michel Foucault, Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia, (originally covered in six lectures given by Michel Foucault at the University of California, Berkeley in October-November, 1983. Published online at: (accessed 16 December 2010).

[30] Mats Alvesson, Jorgen Sandberg, Generating Research Questions Through Problematization, (Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2011), 257. Alvesson and Sandberg identify ‘field assumptions’ and ‘root metaphors’ as theoretical concepts within an organization’s preferred manner of viewing the world that are “difficult to identify because “everyone” shares them, and, thus, they are rarely thematized in research texts.”

[31] Azeem Ibrahim, Afghanistan’s Way forward Must Include the Taliban, (Los Angeles Times Opinion Online; 09 December 2009; (accessed February 2011)  Ibrahim quotes General McChrystal’s opinion on the past decade in Afghanistan, “looking at the war in simplistic Manichaean terms—save as many good guys as possible while taking out as many bad guys as possible—was a mistake.” McChrystal appears to be identifying a root metaphor within ISAF that shaped a decade of planning as a false one.

[32] John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife; Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002) 9. “Military organizations often demonstrate remarkable resistance to doctrinal change as a result of their organizational cultures. Organizational learning, when it does occur, tends to happen only in the wake of a particularly unpleasant or unproductive event.” See also: Alex Ryan, The Foundation For An Adaptive Approach; Australian Army Journal For the Profession of Arms, Volume VI, Number 3 (Duntroon: Land Warfare Studies Centre, 2009) 70. “With the industrial revolution, the planning and decision-making process gradually built up a well-oiled machine to reduce reliance on individual genius.”

[33] The Economist, Idea: Scenario Planning (The Economist online; 01 September 2008) last accessed: 25 February 2012. The Economist provides an excellent summary article on scenario planning and provides some useful sources. “Scenario planning draws on a wide range of disciplines and interests, including economics, psychology, politics and demographics.”

[34] 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…” Our western military culture, particularly the US Army, seeks to fill slide presentations with massive amounts of detail that are often descriptively overwhelming yet fail to address the ‘why.’

[35] Eva Boxenbaum, Linda Rouleau, New Knowledge Products as Bricolage: Metaphors and Scripts in Organizational Theory, (Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2011) 280-281. Bricolage is “an assembly of readily available elements.”

[36] While combining two quad-charts into a symbiotic application presented a novel approach, our planning team acknowledged that the design deliverable would ultimately not feature many of these concepts and graphics.  These products represented the process, and not the result of the design effort.

[37] Our planning team consisted of several NTM-A staff planners with either an advanced planning school background or strategic planner branch designation, with a wide assortment of military and police professionals, as well as logisticians and intelligence specialists. Our Coalition provided a unique dispersion of personnel hailing from a half-dozen partner nations. With half of the group being law enforcement officers instead of military professionals, our planning group had a very diverse and dynamic composition that proved to be an advantage for improvisation and unique perspectives.

[38] Again, all of the assessments, graphics, and examples in this article series are mock examples and have no relation to actual findings of the planning team due to security considerations.

[39] Small, medium or large when compared to the large 352,000 personnel ANSF force originally planned for and resourced.

[40] Like all graphics in this article series, figure 10 is a simplified facsimile for security reasons.

[41] It is important to note that we deliberately did not consider the ‘best’ combination; rather we considered what combination would be minimally sufficient to achieve the goals of providing for the security of the Afghan government and its people.

[42] Selecting the largest Army menu option across every COA did not work, nor does selecting the most advanced. This also went for each of the many Police and Air Force menu options. In the mock example with Figure 11, 16 options across three security forces equals 4,096 possible combinations. It is entirely unrealistic for any planning team to attempt to evaluate that many courses of action; thus design theory contributed to selecting the most applicable COAs.

[43] In some cases, we collectively changed a COA force construct by switching menu options or tailoring two of them to meet emergent trends. This allowed us to continue progressing without losing valuable COA developments, and helped our team generate emergent COA options that best explained the cognitive synergy our group achieved during the wargame.


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




Mon, 07/16/2012 - 10:59am

In reply to by Outlaw 09


1. Probably not. But I think that goes to all real military functions; but the point you are making is that the trust goes up when the uncertainty increases with complex problems. When something "wicked this way comes," it requires leadership to grant those planners a greater level of trust because they are likely going to explore some questionable and creative approaches that may initially threaten elements of the existing organization.

2. Senior leadership already had it in this case. The SAMS planners and subject matter experts on the core team had gained the trust in previous work. I think this differs depending on your task organization and how your unit works; but with NTM-A there was a fair amount of decentralization in this and other planning efforts; we had great support by senior leadership that did not hover or micro-manage. Perhaps we just got lucky?

3. Not sure where to hit your last question; I feel that these two articles address the MDMP modification as best I can. Perhaps it is clear as mud to readers? One example from the next article (article II just posted)- we fused swarm theory with COA wargaming and modified the entire COA decision process until we made our formal recommendation brief to senior leadership. From the first article, our conceptual planning was outlined in the first three pages; we used different terms for the phases instead of the steps of MDMP, but they do correspond in many ways. Mission analysis occurred first, but what we did with design goes well beyond MA, in my opinion.

Hope that helps...


Outlaw 09

Sun, 07/15/2012 - 1:52am

BZ---two rather direct questions 1) could the team have concluded the project if there had been no trust and 2) how did the senior leadership in the eyes of the team build that trust?

Also you just mentioned you all had modified MDMP---where and how did you modifiy it?


Mon, 08/13/2012 - 11:49am

In reply to by G Martin

Agreed; design theory has much to do about changing our perceptions...but how does one bring this about when most find great comfort and security in how they prefer to consider the world?

Lately, I have used a series of metaphors, new vocabulary (when useful), and conceptual adjustments to gradually nudge a military staff away from strict MDMP and towards hybrid concepts.

At times, it takes great tact, patience, and very gradual movements to inch an organization away from devote neo-postivism. A challenge is our military hierarchy and the constant rotation of personnel. Gain some traction with some folks, and in a matter of months they are gone and replaced; thus one begins again.

Frankly, I have also found that at times, deception and disguising design is also useful; although I prefer open and candid discussions...but sometimes you have to demonstrate the utility of design applications with the proof in the result; despite a leader or fellow professional professing to you along the way how useless design is, or how it does not apply in this case. At some point, you end up showing them the way without them knowing fully what path they are on. And other times, design just does not work (which I also enjoy, as failure is the best teacher despite our military culture's view on "failing")...but critical reflection and creativity are risks that deserve exploration despite the chance of failing.

Does this not go back to a common theme that you, Pap, Outlaw, and others here continue to address? We talk about TRUST; I would add that TRUST and RISK are in various combinations along with TIME. More TIME makes leaders comfortable with RISK and TRUST because if a hybrid planning effort "fails" there is room for course correction. Less TIME and greater RISK results in reduced TRUST...and since we are instructed to almost blindly TRUST doctrine, concepts such as MDMP are enduring and often impossible to dislodge in favor of other "riskier" concepts such as design theory.


G Martin

Fri, 08/10/2012 - 10:23am

In reply to by bz

Good point- and a great description of interiority and exteriority- although I fear that type of thinking runs counter to not only military PME and culture- but our societal culture and education writ large.

So- how does one communicate exterior concepts with those who refuse to use language outside of interior language?

Reading your example brings me back to the idea of using trends to your advantage in a complex environment- vice attempting complex change that actually makes the problem worse from your perspective. It's like using judo- or something that uses an opponent's momentum against them, instead of only using boxing and full, frontal force to affect change.


Thu, 08/09/2012 - 11:32am

In reply to by G Martin


I like to use the post-modern views of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus) when it comes to identifying and appreciating how our organizations consider knowledge and discovery.

D&G use the term (one that I use often) of 'interiority'- this is the bounded plane within which a society or organization retains and applies "known" knowledge that is both accepted and shared. One of our organizational problems that you illustrate above is that we confuse interiority discourse with "innovation" or "thinking out of the box" when it is clearly not. For example- if a new Commander enters an environment where local nationals are illiterate and the existing organization has been applying a line of effort that prioritizes literacy programs as a component of economic revival and security strengthening, that Commander may "create" or "think out of the box" by approaching the literacy challenge from another direction, but is still thinking within the organizational interiority because he is intending to solve the same problem with a new twist.

While Commanders can come up with a myriad of "innovative" solutions to the same problem, where we continue to go wrong is our inability to recognize true "exteriority" thinking- to question fundamentally why our military organization seeks to change literacy levels...and why. This sort of "meta-questioning" drives true introspection, critical thinking, and offers the right conditions for "exteriority" creative and innovative solutions.

For example- could you fathom a Commander entering the same environment, and determining that literacy was actually the wrong "problem" to solve; the Commander re-structures his organization's campaign plan and embraces local national illiteracy as an actual strength. The illiteracy along with other contributing factors (corruption and nepotism) are used in a positive manner while going in the completely opposite direction with regard to doctrinal COIN theory...I would imagine that CDR would be relieved before he could ever implement such a notion. Thus- we get back to your point above; we latch onto "new" ideas that are part of our interiority- these ideas are ones we value because they are part of our self-relevance; we like "new" ideas that promote our own values, concepts, and how we desire to view the world. We trust only those that speak in the same terms, use the same ideas, and view the world in the same manner. We fear and reject "exteriority" thinking because it uses new and emergent language, different concepts, and often completely foriegn perspectives on how the world works.

Trust- it is more than entertaining ideas from the same pot of stew. If we want to consider real trust in an organization, we must be prepared to take a spoonful of something far removed from beef stew; something that may require new taste buds- new words to describe the flavors; where a cook is inspired to break culinary paradigms and challenge the basic human concept of what “tastes good” for the organization- metaphorically speaking.


G Martin

Sat, 07/28/2012 - 11:43am

In reply to by bz

Sorry about the late post- trying to get caught up on older articles. Ben, your comment:

"<em>Telling the senior leadership that the current approach is wrong comes with significant consequences.</em>"

- is interesting, since I also see senior leadership coming in and demanding new approaches without taking the time or interest in getting input from subordinate units. Standing up to the bright idea fairy or the commander's sacred cow comes with a lot of significant consequences as well.

So, we're faced with two problems: that of questioning the ruling paradigms and that of critically questioning new concepts. We seem to latch on to new ideas that play well as bumper stickers but aren't robust enough to outlast one commander since no buy-in from below was developed and no input from the guys that have to execute it was solicited. I think it comes down mainly to a lack of trust along with a conceited attitude towards others.


Mon, 07/16/2012 - 10:51am

In reply to by Bill M.


you nailed the issues at hand clearly; may I try to paraphrase?

1. Our military hierarchical structure is counter-intuitive often when facing complex problems because creativity and critical thinking can be quickly confused with "going rogue" or threatening the status quo.

2. Telling the senior leadership that the current approach is wrong comes with significant consequences. We fear paradigm shifts in planning because it requires "more work" and the implication that those before us "failed."

3. Doctrine, our PME (I added that one), and even our current staff structure and level of specialization/education/experience makes design fusion with MDMP plain hard. Heck- most staffs struggle to just do basic warfighting and MDMP procedures.

There are a few areas where we may or may not agree-

First, I accept (now, after doing a few design applications in combat environments and away from the academic safety of the classroom) that design helps, EVEN if you cannot get your organization to change or let go of all bad processes. This is like planning Thanksgiving despite knowing that your drunk uncle is likely to show up and cause problems. He is family, he is coming, and he often drinks...we then accept that and we move on, but we PLAN for him and design ways to marginalize his impact. Now, you can have a good thanksgiving get-together under many approaches, but it does get harder if it is at his house, and he is the key decision perhaps design applications work in some military organizations under some climates, and fail in others. It depends often on leadership- all the way up from the tactical to the strategic. That is a tall order; but it goes right back to PME and our culture, values, beliefs, and doctrine.

Second, I disagree with folks (not saying you implied this) that want a staff to "do MDMP right, and then worry about design." That is an epic fail, because design helps us do MDMP and staff processes better...and helps us know when we are doing things that hurt us or are moving us in the wrong direction. MDMP and detailed planning alone are not enough anymore. Mastering just them in our PME and "worrying about design later" is bad for our institution- but we seem to continue to do this. Only SAMS and other similar schools spend enough time on design, and even then we are unsure what we want to teach, and why. Perhaps we need a wider net- one that hits all levels from basic up to war college where there is more to the design portion than a few slide shows and a week's worth of reading? I may be over-simplifying this because I have heard of some recent design initiatives at one war college where it sounds rather exciting what they are now doing.

Third- there cannot be one or two design bubbas on a staff. We (the Army) tend to do this anyway; I think it is a bad habit. We need diversification; we need most staff folks familiar with it, with levels of understanding. There cannot be a "go-to guy" like the CPOF or TIGR guy...that works with some technical and specialized procedures, but it fails with design because design overlaps with everything. One design guy on a staff becomes a single point of failure; at a minimum, I would want to see 4-6 design practitioners on a brigade staff... most importantly the Commander.

Just my thoughts on these; great comments as usual from the SWJ readership.


Bill M.

Sat, 07/14/2012 - 1:45pm

In reply to by bz


You, we, all who care have a huge challenge on our hands when it comes to actually using design thinking honestly within a hierarchy where mythology often substitutes for facts in planning (and the closer you get to the policy level, the truer that is). If we can't use design to tell higher that their plan appears sound, or their plan is doomed to fail, or that it may need to be tweeked without fear of retribution then it is bound to fail. In the current command climate, do you think that any ideas that were opposed to the so called principles addressed in the COIN FM would survive contact past the first briefing to a FO/GO?

It seems to me that design thinking is useful for gaining a holistic understanding, a context for making smarter decisions, but beyond that it is also a process that should be continuous to facilitate learning, because complex environments will adapt in ways we don't anticipate, and adjustments to plans will have to be made to address this reality instead of holding true to the original plan. That is a tall order, and not only does doctrine currently fail to address how to integrate design processes (not pointing fingers at the doctrine writers this time because I sure as heck don't have the answer to this), I think another issue is that staffs are not organized (much less trained) to do this. What busy bubba on the staff is going to get designated design guru on the staff? If we're serious there are implications in staff organization at various levels. Otherwise I don't think it will work. Assume someone has thought about this and may have some ideas?


Mon, 07/16/2012 - 9:33am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


I would challenge that position and say perhaps you are not going quite far enough. Once you challenge your senior leadership with design, the next hurdle is to take their guidance and decisions, and once the dust settles, fuse design theory with MDMP to get to their objectives- while ALSO fusing design in a way that results in a superior end-state. Thus, we need to challenge how we think, and how we think about thinking; followed with FUSING design theory with military decision making in a hybrid format. We may begin as design purists, but we cannot maintain an idealistic perspective without accepting the military realities of the current system.

As for PME- how are we going to transform it to make how we do design and MDMP fusion better? We appear to agree that the current process is broken.


Robert C. Jones

Sat, 07/14/2012 - 11:00am

In reply to by bz


Higher guidance constrains what we do, but when we let it constrain how we think we have already lost.

For me, the essence of design is the freedom to think outside the lines.

Like I told my boss a couple days ago as we were reviewing some strategic documents - "Just because we are out in front, doesn't mean we aren't following." Get out in front. Good strategy is all about making your boss a little uncomfortable, otherwise why does he need you in the first place??




Sat, 07/14/2012 - 10:17am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Bob- Perhaps because Einstein was his own "boss" it creates an incomplete metaphor for a military consideration? Unless the senior strategic leadership in Washington embraces design, those efforts at the operational (such as this one) and tactical ones cannot actually go far enough as you suggest. Unfortunately, there were many assumptions and "facts" we were tied to from the beginning; one might say that the fusion of design and MDMP still retains the elements of constraints and restrains within the process.

I have found that at least appreciating the system and our organization through reflection and awareness is the silver lining when your higher organization is not yet ready to move as far as design thinking may want...

But this goes back to the core question of how one truly FUSES design with MDMP? Our latest military capstone doctrine (for the Army, ADP 3.0) specifically directs us to "fuse design with MDMP"- but never really explains how or why...

Would you agree that, given the military hierarchical structure, an operational level staff and leader might be able to move the ball down the field somewhat with a useful design and MDMP fusion effort, but never "score the touchdown" if the next three levels of leadership are unwilling to embrace some core design tenets?

This possibly goes back to two points raised earlier- one by Outlaw 9, the other by me and Grant Martin and Chris Paparone (as well as others) in other SWJ blog posts.

1. (The Outlaw 9 position)- a combination of trust and shared strategic vision is necessary in an organization both vertically and horizontally; this is a bold, but sometimes idealistic position; I fully agree with it- and I think it is telling that Outlaw 9 is a PME instructor within our training centers and has come up with this position. The only way for us to nudge the entire institution towards greater trust in planning is to change the way we learn (and teach) about planning- at all levels. It does no good for a bunch of Field Grades coming out of ILE or SAMs to run around at tactical and operational levels sharing design concepts if those at senior leadership levels (and tactical basic course levels) are unaware or reject such ideas entirely.

2. The second position- how does one "fuse" design? Does design trump MDMP- shatter it entirely? Does design come first, and then we select sections of MDMP that we find appropriate for a tailored planning approach? Or do we start with step 1 of MDMP, apply a slice of design with it, proceed to step 2, add a dash more of design, and continue? This is a fundamentally challenging question- and it impacts how "designy" your planning output (or deliverable) ends up being.

In this real-world effort that my articles describe, we took the middle course. We started with design, moved into a modified MDMP, and continued to apply design and elements of MDMP and operational design as we saw fit; our leadership up to the strategic level generally demanded outputs (deliverables) that looked like traditional outputs; thus our objectives had to be captured in traditional formats. We had constraints and restraints that had to be used regardless of whether our design thinking recognized the vulnerabilities; we had to press on and factor those variables in. For instance, I can tell you that Afghan corruption and nepotism were featured throughout the planning as it is a real and compelling issue that will not go away. Ultimately, I consider this effort an overall design application success because we executed the process with a fusion of design and MDMP, and our deliverable was accepted and implemented by the highest strategic levels.

Now, future planning efforts will refine this conceptual planning further; and in 2017 or 2018 we may indeed have a significantly different Afghan force than the planned 228,000 from this initial plan; but detailed planning will stem from this initial effort; and this effort indeed used a fusion of design thinking with traditional MDMP.

The next article addresses how swarm theory was used in fusion with COA wargaming in a hybrid approach; that may further support my position or expose even bigger holes in my argument?

As always, thanks for reading-


Robert C. Jones

Sat, 07/14/2012 - 9:13am


The more I think about these types of complex problems, the more I appreciate the thinking of Einstein on how to think about thinking.

As I got down toward the synthesis of your team's work and it started to simply produce recommendations on how much and what type of security force would be necessary in certain situations, rather than getting to how to actually go about addressing those situations, the Einstein quote that came to mind was: "If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts."

The operational design for Afghanistan and our strategic understanding of the problems there are so trapped by a set of "facts" that frankly don't stand up to hard scrutiny. These are assumptions born of the lessons of western colonial operations. These are assumptions born of "expert" assertions on the role of religion or ideology in general. These are assumptions born of the current ideology woven into our own national security strategy and the many nested products beneath it on the inherent goodness of modern US democracy and values for everyone.

Embrace bold theory, and then change the "facts." Until we do so we will remain trapped by our own inability to see things for what they really are, as we refuse to look at them any other way than how we want them to be.




Fri, 07/13/2012 - 8:49pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09


we briefed the CJ3 after each phase; essentially each section as outlined above in the article. We ended up briefing Commander NTM-A later in the process, after briefing some 2 star equivalents in the war game and post-war-game process. The second article SWJ will publish on this topic addresses the wargame and the conclusions.

In retrospect, we had a large amount of trust; mostly because the CDR and his CAG had a great trust level built up by that point- but these things are hard to replicate or reproduce.


Outlaw 09

Fri, 07/13/2012 - 3:30pm

In reply to by bz

BZ----I am when teaching Design I inject the design phase as cyclic in multiple points inside MDMP---first during the mission analysis, then during both the COA phases and then again at the running estimate phases.

Design in the COA phases or in the running estimates does not have to be as deep as say the MA/Assessment WG phases, but should be at least thorough enough to answer WHY something is not working or WHY something is in fact working. Design is inherently the critical element we have been not seeing when Cmdrs and Staffs attempt to "understand" their OE.

Then during the Assessment WG the critical discussions can in fact go deeper again as this is the point in a Staff process where everything should be challenged as it feeds back into the Cmdrs guidance/intent especially as the unit progresses towards an end state.

Outside of lack of trust (that seems to prevail in most BCT/Div Staffs) we are seeing a strong drift towards micromanagement by Cmdrs simply because they feel the Staff is not providing the necessary critical feedback.

Just as Design is important to the Staff processes a Cmdr shouId in fact be actively participating as much as possible in those discussions as it is a chance for him/her to improve his own understanding and visualization that is so critical if he/she is to describe and direct.

Just a quick question---once your team reached the understanding of the framed problem---at what stage did you brief the Cmdr and did in fact the Cmdr accept the teams work?

Maybe what I am saying is that in Mission Command Design in some form is critical both to the Art of Command as well as to the Science of Control.



thanks for reading it. I agree fully that our military hierarchy often works against our better interests in planning; particularly conceptual planning. Socio-political considerations should be considered by leadership at all levels prior to issuing Commander's include the necessary instructions to create the right conditions for valid discourse despite how painful it often is to reflect critically at ourselves.

PowerPoint is a necessary evil, but often misused. This article (and the second one) do use slides; primarily because original work was done on white board and these are merely reproductions for the reader's benefit. I have not yet figured out the right way to conduct a fusion of design and MDMP, record it, and compose an article with proper illustration for universal appeal. Suggestions are welcome!

Many deep thinkers and SWJ avid readers ask for a real world design fusion example- but producing one remains an illusive target. Making too many illustrations gains some loyal fans, yet it turns off other readers entirely. Too many footnotes gets some design enthusiasts contacting me for even more sources, with others turned off at an article that becomes "too academic." Writing the right balance is an interesting challenge; write an article at less than 3k gains some benefits that are lost at a 5k article... I will take a few more cracks at it and look forward to others as they continue to post some great articles here at SWJ.


Outlaw 09

Fri, 07/13/2012 - 1:44am

In reply to by bz

BZ---while initially difficult to understand-it is nevertheless a great article--maybe my aversion to Powerpoint but here is an interesting side comment.

If we equate Design with team concensus building the following was an interesting event to watch---while recently working with a MN Army Staff during a simulation being run after a number of MC briefings they divided into two groups---one being run using their standard cultural top down approach and one with a young number of officers who openly discussed all aspects of the simulation in a concensus fashion (bottom up-fashion)---Quess who achieved a higher simulation result?

Design can and does work, but it demands a team effort built on trust and concensus neither of which is working right now in our Staffs.


Thu, 07/12/2012 - 7:02am

In reply to by RyanB

Awesome. Enjoy Mana Gulch as it does act as a good primer; makes you think about it later on. As for Dead Carl- if you can find the Penguin Classics 1968 paperback version with the editing and intro by Anatol Rapaport, try that one as he offers a very interesting intro and "non-Clauswitzian conflict theories" that I think sometimes our military PME (to include SAMS) sometimes avoids. It is always neater to capture everything within Dead Carl and call it a day; it gets messy when we consider Divine Messianic Eschatalogical theories or Global Cataclysmic War theories...but then again I discovered those things in SAMs thanks to some great instructors so the system does work apparently!



Wed, 07/11/2012 - 4:22pm

In reply to by bz


Thanks much. Your assessment about calculating costs up front makes sense and I understand ISAF "shielding" you from that consideration intially. I can see how it would have pushed you away from "what do we need" vs "what can we afford." Looking forward to seeing how you war-gamed this out and transitioned from the design of it into the detailed planning. I'm not deployed right now, just started SAMS last month so I'm battling forest fires and dead Carl. Reading your articles and experiences have been invaluable to me and many of my classmates, so keep up the great work.


Wed, 07/11/2012 - 10:05am

In reply to by RyanB


Both are excellent questions, but for the first one I don't think I can answer that right now in this forum. If you are still over in ISAF/IJC you can get the official stuff on the SIPR side.

For your second question, you are correct that the cost issue is an interesting one. While the original Washington strategic level querry did ask for a cost consideration, ISAF senior leadership directed NTM-A to plan and develop an answer without cost factored (initially). I think this was a rather brilliant decision from ISAF because they prevented cost from consuming the process and corrupting everything. They seemed to understand that the political machines at the strategic level would make cost a factor later, therefore it was unnecessary to work into the initial conceptual work. Besides- what happens when we are asked a question that might yield an answer that requires us to spend just as much, or even MORE than we are spending now? At a minimum, ISAF wanted to know that. I think that was, in retrospect, a brilliant call.

So, when we ran the first five COAs and wargamed them, cost was not factored. It was a combination of the various threat environments and the composition of the menu options only; and when Washington and ISAF came up with a few more COA versions for us to revisit the wargame later on, they were probably doing cost considerations on their end, but we wargamed them purely on content and form- not cost. Once we made the recommendation (228k force), we then did cost analysis that was included in all final deliverables...but had we used cost up front, I think the entire process might have been corrupted into a "how much can we get for our dollar" sort of reasoning instead of "what type of security force will provide the Afghans with a valid and sustainable security in the widest spectrum of valid future threat environments?" The second querry has much greater application than the first.

My second article in this two-part series will address the wargame and conclusions, which may answer some additional questions that this first article generates.


Ben: Another good article, and like Grant I still have to go through it a couple more times. What was the Afghan involvement in the planning process? In my previous experiences with this, we (ISAF/IJC/etc) create a plan that is feasible and acceptable (from our perspective) and in the end was unachievable or unsupported by the host nation. I'm hoping that this was nested with the Afghans from day one. Also, I thought your comment about cost not being a consideration was interesting. Do you think that it would have been beneficial to include that in your analysis? It seems that without accounting for cost that your recommendations could end up being null and void once they made it to the "cutting room."

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 07/14/2012 - 8:32am

In reply to by bz

Ben, Grant - We're hosting an interagency course on Strategic Systemic Design this fall. Contact me. - Bob


Tue, 07/10/2012 - 7:56am

In reply to by G Martin

Grant- thanks. I also enjoy reading the footnotes first on these sorts of articles; gives you the background of what the author worked with for how they structured their thoughts. The second part of this series features a heavy dose of Swarm Theory that may interest you; particularly how we fused swarm with MDMP's Wargame process and modified the turn-based procedure into a swarming hybrid decision making process.


G Martin

Mon, 07/09/2012 - 8:12pm

Ben- thanks for this. Am still digesting and, as usual, started with the end notes- from which I got, among others, this nugget:

“In all ages humanity has been confronted by complex problems. The difference between then and now is that contemporary society has ambitions of solving complex problems through technical understanding.”

I really liked Laszlo's book: <em>Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything</em> and thought it broadened for me a few concepts I had been introduced to in Beinhocker's <em>Origin of Wealth</em>.


Mon, 07/09/2012 - 7:34pm

In reply to by tomkinton

Our military doctrine (most recently, ADP 3-0) instructs us at all levels of leadership that when confronted by "wicked" or ill-structured problems, we must fuse design and MDMP (or JOPP, MCPP, etc) to develop the best solutions.

Yet our doctrine provides no roadmaps, guides, or terrain features for us to navigate this difficult challenge.

Design reflects a rather holistic, adaptive, and often perplexing way to think about problems (and ourselves, our values, our mannerisms and constructs)- so design is not something we can pump into a 30 slide PowerPoint brief at Basic Training and the Officer Basic Course and expect our young soldiers and leaders to simply "do it" afterward. Design revels in the chaos- the complexity; design does not attempt to control or tame the beast, but perhaps to better understand why the beast acts as it does.

On the other hand, MDMP is a linear, structured process that is also rather tough to teach to our military. It also cannot be crammed into a 30 slide brief (although we still try to do it) and taught to young staff members with the expectation they can "do it" afterward. Good MDMP takes time, experience, creativity, and discipline. The blade must continuously be sharpened and re-sharpened. MDMP does attempt in many ways to control, or at least predict the same chaos and complexity that design approaches in a fundamentally different way.

So- we are asking Brigade, Division, and Corps CDRs this: when you are facing the worst possible environment (an ill-structured one), the leader needs to "fuse" two completely opposite processes (linear MDMP and holistic design) in some unknown and unique combination...and do it with existing doctrine dropping almost no breadcrumbs.

So, does our professional military education system really set us up for success in this fusion endeavor that ADP 3-0 simply request us all to do in a few sentences?

What can we do to change, or influence our PME to get closer to what we ought to be doing?



Mon, 07/09/2012 - 10:41am


I think that the question of ethics is the one we should all be asking ourselves. I don't know the answer, so I default to telling our students that they should 1) know themselves and 2) have a moral compass and 3) follow it.

I remember in Feb of 2003 commenting re. Iraq (we were at Old Division area in Bragg prepping) that the rotations and force pro would neuter our efforts and that Baghdad had a lot of doors to kick in looking for AKs. My unit laughed at me. I hate being right.

Can it really be this simple? Are Nicchomacean ethics our answer? And if they are, can the subsequent rotations' commanders all sign up for their correct application over time/RIP/TOAs? I wish.

All this is NOT to denigrate design theory or your efforts; on the contrary, we need more iconoclasts like you. And...........we need to take a longer view towards all our operations so as to engender continuity of effort, keeping up continuous pressure. And then? Mattis kills EBO. If he saw your paper on design theory he would probably ride up in his humvee and relieve your entire group. And that would be a shame.

Rumsfeld might have been right: we go to war with the army we've got. But I'd like to reduce it to: we go to life with the ethics that have been instilled in us.

Perhaps we can bumper-sticker this: form follows function? Is it the pottery wheel, the potter, or the quality of the clay that determines the end result of square plate or round bowl? (see Malcolm Gladwell on re. Norden bombsight).



Mon, 07/09/2012 - 10:09am

In reply to by tomkinton


Thanks for reading it. Your question on ethical decision making raises a good point. Which ethics do we apply? Western ones, or Afghan ones? From my experience with the ANSF, they are entirely different, and in many ways, incompatible.

Were we to decide upon which values to then use for the professionalization of said security force, it triggers yet another question- if the Coalition decided to use true Afghan values and ethics for security force development, could our military professionals then "train" them in this non-western format? Are we able to reflect upon how we think (and why), and create decision-making processes that can deviate from how we prefer to think (western values) and operate within another value model?

Or do we see more success in denying the Afghans any existing value and instead treat their security forces as basic clay, waiting on the pottery wheel for our military to spin and shape into the bowls that we seek to make, regardless of whether the more appropriate security solution is a hand-molded square plate instead of a spun round bowl...



Mon, 07/09/2012 - 9:57am

First, excellent work. I've only read through it once but can certainly relate to the challenges you and your team faced wrt not revealing the process to prying/critical sharpshooters (army is full of them).

Second, re. sharpshooting: I am a late-comer to design theory so don't claim to understand its proper implementation, but my observation here wrt the challenges of COA selection for such a large and 'wicked' problem set is this: isn't there a lot of money to be made through instilling basic ethics/morals in the ANSF? I agree that moving away from the 'what' towards the 'why' is critical, and it seems to me that one way to elicit answers to the 'why' questions is to shape individual decision making vis a vis ethical behaviors.