Small Wars Journal

To Design, or not to Design

Fri, 03/04/2011 - 11:11am

To Design, or not to Design:

An Introduction to a Six Article Series

by Ben Zweibelson

Download The Full Article: To Design, or not to Design

Are the Joint Operational Planning Process (JOPP) and the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) unable to address the growing complexities of modern, ill-structured conflict? Does the U.S. Army's design methodology provide the military institution a more effective structure, format, vocabulary, and process that are understandable to the force and applicable? Many military professionals charge that design is 'just MDMP's mission analysis on steroids,' while others claim design is merely 'Effects Based Operations (EBO) by another name.'

By publishing the recent March 2010 edition of Field Manual FM5-0; The Operations Process with Chapter 3 entitled Design, the U.S. Army answers the former question with an affirmative. As to the latter, this six article series on 'Army Design' proposes that by making too many compromises on design content, structure, and theoretical underpinnings, the military confuses the majority of the force on what design actually is, and how it works. Critics in both the pro-MDMP and pro-EBO factions continue to resist design methodology for precisely what the Army fails to deliver in the brief fifteen pages of design doctrine.

Design theory reflects a paradigm shift in military theory that directly challenges previously guarded concepts regarding doctrine, tactical fixation, heroic leadership, and institutional anti-intellectualism. Yet Army design doctrine does not clearly identify which academic or scientific field it originates. Is it a military adaptation of General Systems Theory, or descendent from sociological Game Theory? Did mathematical Chaos Theory provide the genesis for Army design doctrine, or did postmodern philosophy pull French and Greek concepts into the paternal form for design? Did postmodern economic theory, modern architectural design, or socio-educational theory inspire military concepts? Which military adapted design first? Some argue the Soviets during the Interwar Period, whereas others credit the Israeli Defense Force in the 1990s. FM 5-0 is unsurprisingly silent on whether design is the conceptual offspring of another nation's military institution. As to answering the origin question, this six article series on Army Design responses 'all of the above' and holds that due to U.S. Army attempting to satisfy all rival factions within the military institution, it pleased no one and published an orphaned design doctrine that suffers from multiple personality disorder of methodologies.

Download The Full Article: To Design, or not to Design

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

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



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Ben Zweibelson (not verified)

Tue, 03/08/2011 - 10:16am

For Grant-
I used a similar football analogy in class a few months back- that western military forces take the field and expect their enemy to show up in uniform and play the same game, same rules; we expect that since we spend the most money and have the very best and strongest football team, that the other weaker football clubs will foolishly continue to challenge us to standard games (Saddam leaps to mind). Instead, hybrid (or unconventional, or any of the other buzzwords today) enemies are not playing football. They show up playing soccer, and they are changing the game rules as the game carries out; they are discarding their uniforms and the stadium of fans are getting involved. As the western football team charges into the bleachers attempting to tackle whomever has the football, the enemy lateral tosses that ball into random fans. Now, fans (the population) are entering and exiting the game rapidly, and the western football team is burning itself out despite all the firepower and wealth. Design looks at processes and emphasizes learning and adaptation; changing the "rules" and realizing that the game is not static. Detailed planning looks for procedures- not processes. They want a playbook that the coach can use to relay instructions from, and the quarterback maintain the heirarchy of command and control; the refs (media, public opinion, global community of nations) are monitoring to throw out a flag for rule violations (ROE). A fun metaphor indeed that works on many levels.

Bill M.

Mon, 03/07/2011 - 11:51pm

Posted by Ken,

"To return to the thought and practice of Design, it probably would be beneficial if someone were to determine why Design is required when design should be and generally is applied by most of us in determining what we might do and how we might do it. One could almost deduce it is an attempt to unfetter minds that have somehow been fettered -- or are possibly merely presumed to be so."

The concept of design doesn't need to be complex, you just need to recognize complexity to understand design, and man is more than capable enough of doing this. As a matter of fact our foes are quite good at this type of thinking, while we on the other hand have developing mental process models that have in dumbed us down. I have never been an advocate for MDMP, logical lines of operation, etc. for the very fact that it restricts your frame of reference and significantly reduces your creativity. Our limited success in GWOT is largely due to a poorly executed MDMP process that we can't break away from, and from that process came a few lame lines of operation that are lines to nowhere.

Starting the early 90s the system started feeding MDMP down SF's throats in the school house and at the training centers. 90% of the focus was on your ability to "conform" to the steps of MDMP, and no really cared if your solution actually worked. They even built software that automatically builds your MDMP slides! You just can't go wrong if you follow these steps to enlightenment.

Quite a shock from the previously more unconventional approach of being given an area of operation and a mission to accomplish. You didn't have to get a CONOP to leave the wire approved by three levels of command disassociated from the fight, instead you acted based on your understanding of the situation based on ground truth and your tactical to strategic assessments and appreciation garnered by your study prior to entering the AO and then constantly updated while on the ground.

While design may be able to take this process to another level using the right technology to crunch data and visualize it in a meaningful way (not discussed in design doctrine, this is my two cents on top of it) to enhance understanding, we can actually do considerably better than we are now by just practicing common sense.

It's funny that many of those who broke the rules throughout history were generally successful tactically and strategically, but in the process of doing good they made a lot of enemies within the system they challenged. Being successful in combat isn't as highly valued as being a conformist and that is just sad.

My understanding of Ben's thesis is that in an attempt to make Design palatable to the institution, compromises made have diluted the Design concept to the point where it is neither useful nor palatable.

It is worth noting that Design started as its own FM, and even then the theoretical underpinning of the concepts extend well beyond what was contained in that FM. The intellectual energy needed to understand such a concept seems to run counter to our institutional, checklist oriented culture. The unstructured nature of Design stands in stark contrast to the highly structured MDMP.

American culture is working against Design as well. Dan Meyer, in his address to the March 2010 conference in New York, said:

<i>[W]hen people fill their mind with four hours a day of, for example, "Two and a Half Men," no disrespect, it shapes the neural such a way that they expect simple problems. He called it, "an impatience with irresolution." You're impatient with things that don't resolve quickly. You expect sitcom-sized problems that wrap up in 22 minutes, three commercial breaks and a laugh track. And I'll put it to all of you, what you already know, that no problem worth solving is that simple.</i>

I'll be interested to see where Ben goes with this.

Ken White (not verified)

Mon, 03/07/2011 - 8:09pm

<b>Grant Martin:</b>

Interesting and I believe valid comments all round. Two items struck me.<blockquote>"There seems to be a very negative view in the upper tiers of our military's leadership towards military officers' ability to grasp complex topics."</blockquote>That is interesting primarily due to the fact that I sensed the beginning of that attitude developing about the time I retired my war suit in 19-ought-77 (laughter is declasse...) and saw an increase in the phenomenon during the couple of decades I worked as a DAC from then until my second retirement.

Admittedly there were exceptions but the majority of three and four star folks I ran across in the 80s and 90s definitely seemed to believe that simple was required. They routinely insisted on 'dumbing down' far too many things.


During the same period, I noted a change from a strong desire for -- and the common use of -- mission orders or parameters, minimal guidance anyway one couches it, to an expressed desire by those in high places for quite explicit guidance from their Boss. That effect increased as the 'dumbing down' efforts took hold so those efforts were I believe causative.

This:<blockquote>"we need to shorten it and insert concepts we use now like lines of effort, end-states, and centers of gravity."</blockquote>gave me a big grin. I wondered how I fought successfully in two wars without the use of any of those buzzwords or even the application of their intent. That latter with the possible exception of missions, winning and hitting them where they weren't sort of translating into those words.

The fact that those wars, overall, did not end well is IMO in part due to the first item quoted above. The Army has a lot more talent than it all too often seems to realize.

To return to the thought and practice of Design, it probably would be beneficial if someone were to determine why Design is required when design should be and generally is applied by most of us in determining what we might do and how we might do it. One could almost deduce it is an attempt to unfetter minds that have somehow been fettered -- <i>or are possibly merely presumed to be so</i>.

There may be benefit in ascertaining if an attitude that says "...insert concepts we now use..." might adversely hamper both the introduction and the practice of Design...

All of which may raise a question about whose minds are in fetters.

G Martin

Mon, 03/07/2011 - 6:55pm

I agree with much of what Ben says, so I'll just comment on a few key points:

Z: "Essentially, U.S. Army adaptation of design methodology is currently unable to provide the military novel and understandable approaches to complexity."

The most frequent criticism of Design I have heard has been, "sounds interesting, but how can I use it?" I think that question points to a general misunderstanding of Design. Design isn't supposed to provide you with THE answer- like some doctrinal chapter on MDMP- perhaps the greatest "answers" are those that would be developed if staffers were forced/allowed to come up with novel approaches every time their commander/staff/unit identified a complex environment they had to deal with.

Z: "... Brigadier General L.D. Holder felt that "doctrine was traditional, not revolutionary. Doctrine was by nature incomplete, yet internally consistent... operations were dependent on tactical success."... "

This reminds me of a quote from a NATO officer who was even more negative towards his own army: "The U.S. Army is tactically deft, operationally dim, and strategically dull." (his own country: "Our Army is tactically backwards, operationally bereft, and strategically bombastic.") I wondered if he'd describe the Taliban as: "Tactically prudent, operationally poor, and strategically patient."

Z: "Unfortunately, the detailed processes that functioned effectively during man¸s transition from the agrarian (tactics fixated) into the post-Industrial (rise of operational art) now prevent military organizations from adapting these polemical conceptual devices that make design theory the next military paradigm."

Thought: Army senior leaders seem to think that if they went to Design it would be like they were in a football game wherein the other team has a playbook and a scripted set of plays for the first quarter, and our team would be sitting in a circle asking questions like, "why are we playing football?", "what is the essence of football?", and, "who are we, really?". Unfortunately, a counterinsurgency is more like a football game wherein the referees have gone home, the opposing players have put on civilian clothes and melted into the crowd, and the popcorn vendors are throwing nerf footballs onto the field with bombs inside of them. But "our" team is still on the field in jerseys looking to the sidelines for the coach to tell them what the 3rd scripted play is in the playbook...

Z: "... For design to function as a bridge between strategic aims and tactical action... "

Not sure if this is what "Design" is supposed to do. In my mind, the "Design" literature leads me to believe that Design would get one to a better description of complex environments and possible ways with which to approach these environments- regardless of the "level" (Design would have us question the framework of "strategic, operational, and tactical", etc.). However, I would agree that is what SAMS/CGSC's focus would be.

Z: "The current practice of using military terms and phrases interchangeably and without discipline inhibits institutional understanding of design. ¾To Design or not to Design¸ recommends that heavily-used words such as ¾problem¸ and ¾end state,¸ traditionally associated with detailed military planning, should not continue their dual-use roles in design theory."

100% agree! But, I was told by the doctrine writers that they were pressured to fit vocabulary into the Design literature in order for it to be understandable and usable to military practitioners. There seems to be a very negative view in the upper tiers of our military's leadership towards military officers' ability to grasp complex topics.

Z: "The West, with its own kind of theoretical equipment, which is of a formalizing and technical nature, has proven itself to be singularly inept at thinking about the conduct of warfare, taking account only of secondary matters (preparations and material data) and failing to consider the phenomenon itself"

This doesn't just apply to how we view warfare- but across the board on every subject. The "preparations and material data" (or how we prioritize actions and allocate resources) are based on assumptions we refuse to question and theories that are paradigmatic in nature. The majority of our time- perhaps as much as 99.9%- is spent on prioritization and allocation analysis- and reporting on the information of that analysis (and a constant shifting of those resources based on short-term pressures) and very little, if any, time spent on questioning underlying assumptions in my experience.

Z: "Granted, organizational conservatism does perform an important role preventing radical and ill-conceived change. However, critical thinking and complex system synthesis are not fads."

Agree. Whether we call it something else in 10 years or not- eventually we will have to deal with these issues- or cede capability to a peer competitor.

Z: "Design doctrine¸s reliance upon linear processes demonstrates the powerful institutional forces that codify detailed planning and attempt to ¾tacticalize¸ operational art. "In the military sphere, we train almost exclusively to the tactical level of abstraction;"

I think this is what COL Gentile has also been arguing: that we are allowing tactics to run strategy in COIN (I'd argue we do that because of our painful realization that our strategy and operational art are lacking in this complex environment).

Z: "At the tactical level, detailed planning should continue linear processes because they work; however, operational art when using design theory should avoid the prescriptive and sequential nature of linear processes."

To me this is the hardest thing to answer wrt Design, "well then how do we plan in complex environments?" Many people have commented that in terms of identifying the requirements to attack conventional armor divisions, buying the equipment needed, training to a standard, deploying in a small amount of time, arraying ourselves, and then defeating that conventional force- we are indeed impressive. We use that same force structure, however, to attempt to apply the same linear/engineering tools (MDMP, JOPP, TPFDD, etc.) to do complex operations such as COIN.

Design's literature would recommend (possibly) changing one's structure, tools, principles, etc.- when confronted with any complex environment (with the thought that no one environment- whether it is COIN or not) is the same. Outside of assigning priorities and collating all of the tactical levels' "micro" efforts (and interpreting what is going on, re-interpreting and adjusting resources as they go), I'm not sure what else the higher levels would do (what we now call the operational level). If you believe strongly in "emergent" solutions and emergence in general, then top-down-inspired efforts are probably bad anyway...

Z: "FM5-0 Chapter 3 Design follows military doctrinal etiquette and is devoid of any allegorical content due to codifying principles that functioned for previous military requirements. The traditional military profession holds that the military audience might misinterpret metaphors and analogies, if placed into doctrine, in a prescriptive or pedantic manner."

I have heard numerous times that there was much pressure to "dumb down" the Design doctrine. Specifically the words I have heard numerous times were, "we need to shorten it and insert concepts we use now like lines of effort, end-states, and centers of gravity." That these concepts at the least were problematic when merged with Design concepts (at the most- contradicting of them) seems to have been ignored in favor of a greater chance of buy-in from the rank and file.

Grant Martin
MAJ, US Army

I have tried to portray "systems thinking" --with concepts such as interiority and exteriority and, as Bousquet extends the concepts into the "chaoplexic" framing of war -- as a valuable heuristic (and not the "answer" as would a positivist).

In other words, borrowing the logic of biological (complex adaptive) systems as a framework for explaining warfare is just one way of framing (and, in a postpositivist way, multiple frames are better than just one "settled" on). There will more heuristics (as you indicate as "allegorical constructs") available as the natural sciences continue to reframe and extend/displace old frames.

The competition of frames presents the fallacy of doctrine -- fueled by the assumption that the institution has to settle on one. This indicates doctrine as a political process, not a "scientific" one. We "elect" dominant frameworks (such as AirLand Battle, EBO, full spectrum/ROMO, and so on) through a kind of oligarchical system of governance (where the "powers that be" curtail debate, decide, and publish the next iteration of "3.0s").

I look forward to reading your series (and I'll be patient now in that you will attempt to answer these speculations through them)!

Ben Zweibelson (not verified)

Sat, 03/05/2011 - 4:01pm

Chris- thanks, you can find me on AKO as I am probably the only 'Zweibelson' in the directory; I enjoyed Treatise on Efficacy as well- I am currently really enjoying 'A Thousand Plataeus' -specifically 'War Machine and Nomadology' sections in there- lots of great stuff on interiority and exteriority of a system. Hit me up on AKO when you have time! I am reading your article next as well-


As Thomas Kuhn indicated(and I paraphrase as I do not have the book in front of me) that new paradigms cannot communicate with the existing ones. Ben is boldly trying to prove him wrong.

I think it interesting that Ben has a masters degree in the liberal arts -- perhaps that should indicate interpretive (appreciative, hermeneutic, aesthetic, etc.) skills and such that would not be stressed in the "sciences." This may give Ben a leg up.

In my view:

oo Design is a metaphor in and of itself (and Ben speaks to the importance of metaphoric thinking).

oo Design is an unstructured process (that when we try and place structure on it, it loses its "creative mystique."

oo Design is interdisciplinary (it does not reject multiple views on the same phenomenon, but wants to "see" through as many as possible).

oo Design, then, would include Eastern/Confucian logic that is so remarkably different than Greco-Western thought (while not rejecting the latter). An interesting book I am reading right now relates well: Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking by Francois Jullien.

Ben--we should someday seek to partner on a writing project!!

DoorBundle 61 (not verified)

Sat, 03/05/2011 - 3:01am

This is an ambitious but challenging read. I am looking forward to this series, and it is a good thing this site is sponsoring work like this. This design concept is a tough nut to crack for the majority of folks in the communities that deal with 'design on the lips' while it is lacking in the brain-housing group. I count myself in the latter and look forward to the next article. The major has some detailed footnotes that point to many sources on this topic I was not tracking on.... I may be in the minority, but design seems to use a bunch of fancy phrases and books to run with. My mind is open, but I am a bit jaded thus far with what I have seen on staffs with this new design concept thus far. It is good to see some explanation on this thing, hope it continues in a layman language so it continues to make sense.