13 January 2019

Challenge-Driven: Canadian Forces College’s Agnostic Approach to Design Thinking Education

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By Philippe Beaulieu-B. & Paul T. Mitchell

Disclaimer: This blog post represents the perspective of its authors and not their organizations.


Since 2013, Canadian Forces College (CFC) has sought to expose its students in both its graduate programmes – the National Security Programme (NSP) and the Joint Command & Staff Programme (JCSP) —to Design Thinking.  Exploring alternatives to traditional planning processes was self-evident in the midst of a challenging campaign in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014. The urgency to continue this exploration may have waned nowadays. Yet, recent events such as the disastrous regional aftermath of Operation Unified Protector in Libya in 2011, the emergence of ISIS in 2014 and Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 may suggest, again, that there are limits to the way operations and strategy are traditionally conceived. Design thinking is a means to compensate for these limits. In this blog, we summarize our understanding of design thinking (the What?), we offer a reminder as to why exploring design thinking is necessary based on four narratives (the Why?) and we share the approach to design thinking education at CFC (the How?) for students and observers of the design movement. In forthcoming blogs, we will detail how we translate these into education strategies, provide concrete examples of application at the operational, strategic and institutional levels and delve more into how design and planning communicate to one another in theory and practice.


  1. What is Design Thinking?

In complex, “messy” situations, a variety of interlinked problems present themselves to operational analysts, none of which can be addressed individually without leading them to metastasize into other predicaments.  Worse, no single organization has the resources to address all the issues within a complex situation.  Last, leaving them unaddressed will not prevent them evolving in other pernicious ways.  Complex scenarios are aptly defined as “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” issues.

Design thinking is an approach to problem framing, not problem solving, for such scenarios. For designers, framing a problem is intrinsically connected with generating solutions. One cannot be separated from the other. A frame is a particular way of seeing an issue as well as prescribing a solution. For instance, analysts usually understand terrorism from the perspective of their preferred frame. They can see it under the frame of a military issue, a criminal issue, a socio-economical issue, an ideological issue or even an epidemiological issue, to name just a few. Whether an analyst frames terrorism in one or more of these frames will make all the difference in the solutions to be found. If an analyst frames terrorism as a criminal issue, solutions would more likely focus on improving the judiciary system, law enforcement policies, penalties and consider rehabilitation. If an analyst frames terrorism as an ideological issue, solutions would more likely focus on the conditions sustaining an ideology perceiving terrorism as a means to an end in education, media or in a culture. Most individuals adopt the frame they find themselves most comfortable with, often without being aware of it. Design compels its users to become aware of their preferred frame, to become aware of alternative frames and to generate new frames that may be more effective in addressing a problem. Design is changing our way of thinking about a problem in order to be in a better position to address it.

Ultimately, design thinking orients these efforts to transforming the status quo into a more desirable one. Designers seek to “create that which is needed but does not yet exist” in the words of Harold Nelson. In the context of business, the creation of modern smart phones by Apple in 2007 generated not just a transformation in the digital ecosystem, but revolutionized society in unprecedented fashions.  In the context of strategy and operations, military designers seek to create similar types of effects to the environment in which they exist. 


  1. Why is Design Necessary in the Defence enterprise? 4 Narratives
  • Design is Necessary to Adapt to VUCA Environments

Design became a flexible way of thinking that proved more adapted to address challenges in VUCA environments, a phenomenon increasingly apparent in the 21stcentury. VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Adaptive – is a four letter acronym that first appeared in business literature to describe the rapidly changing commercial environment of the late twentieth century.  VUCA migrated to the military sphere at the turn of the century to describe similar unpredictable effects manifesting themselves as the post Cold War environment became more globally violent after 2001.

VUCA conditions challenge the notion of predictability that is inherent in modern military planning. VUCA scenarios are unpredictable because of their penchant to both “learn” and evolve.  Volatile situations are continuously becoming something else; the massive number of loosely interacting variables gives them an Unpredictable quality, making each moment unique in time; this same characteristic generates Complexity, which requires a synthetic understanding of the whole, rather than an analytical understanding of the individual parts; last all these combine in ways that create multiple, incommensurate, and competitive attempts to make sense of what is inherently Ambiguous.  These effects are made more problematic given they emerge from innumerable individuals all making independent decisions, pursuing disconnected aims, based on their own autonomous assessments of the situation.  These highly dynamic characteristics challenge the basic mechanical notions underlying modern military planning, such as End States, Centres of Gravity, and Lines of Operation. Design’s emphasis on moving from one way of thinking a problem (frame) to the next provide an alternative means to approach VUCA scenarios.

  • Design is Necessary to Prevent Tactical Successes from Turning into Strategic Failures

“The tragedy of Israel’s public security debate is that we don’t realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle, but we lose the war.” MGen. (ret.) Ami Ayalon, 2012

BGen. (ret.) Shimon Naveh, Dr. Ofra Graicer, BGen. (ret.) Dovik Tamari and Dr. Zvi Lavir, pioneers in design education in Israel Defense Forces (IDF), understand design as a remedy to the increasing disconnect between the tactical and strategic levels they observed from the Yom Kippur war of 1973 onwards. Elsewhere, US armed forces, their allies and partners experienced the same disconnect in the Vietnam war and later in the war in Afghanistan of 2001 onwards, the Iraq war of 2003 onwards and more recently in the Operation Unified Protector of 2011 to name a few. All these operational experiences expressed the features of VUCA environments above. And, in all these instances, tactical successes on the ground provided fewer and fewer guarantees of strategic successes in the long run. For IDF design education pioneers, success could be possible, again, by updating how officers think about the environment. On the one hand, they do so by moving away from older ways of thinking about the environment before a black swan event forces them to do so. On the other hand, they do so by translating newer ways of thinking about the environment across levels of war.

  • Design is Necessary to Gain a Competitive Edge

Design became highly popular in the Business world as it allowed some organizations to be resilient to the economic crisis of 2007 & 2008 and to become competitive again, especially by developing game-changing products. Beyond start-ups, design methodologies also proved successful in large-scale organizations giving hope to defence designers that the same could be achieved in the military. Design impact surveys are becoming more and more available in the business world confirming the effectiveness of the approach and consolidating its popularity.

For instance, Mackenzie created the Design Value Index to monitor the growth of a basket of large-scale businesses building on design principles such as Apple, IBM and Disney in comparison to the Standard and Poor (S&P) 500 Index.  They noted an overall growth of 211% between 2005 and 2015 in comparison to firms listed in the S&P 500. This success in the business world contributed in making design a key methodology to generate innovation in public policy-making, health services and defence to name a few. For this reason, design thinking literature found in the field of management is thriving and is often the most accessible entry point to learning design for defence professionals.

  • Design is Necessary to Leverage a New Generation of Learners

Col. (ret.) James Greer claims that the growing popularity of design in armed forces also results from an emerging generation of officers that are native to information technologies. Information technologies are fundamentally changing how individuals acquire knowledge in ways that are more aligned with design principles. Greer argues that while previous generations scaled deduction over induction and abduction to generate knowledge, the emerging generation reversed this hierarchy by scaling abduction over induction and deduction. If deduction seeks to apply a general pattern to specific instances and induction seeks to generate patterns out of specific instances, abduction works by leveraging a best guess and by testing it in a specific environment. For example, Greer notes that our behaviour with search engines relies on abduction as users test the most promising results based on limited data. Users, then, go back and forth until they are sufficiently satisfied with a webpage. This way of learning is more effective in VUCA environments, to anticipate and to develop game-changing frames instead of relying on principles or data echoing a more or less distant past.


  1. How Should We Think About Design Thinking?
  • A Challenge Driven Approach to Design Education

Since CFC stumbled on design, it has never attempted to create or adopt a specific approach to design for defence purposes, unlike other design instruction institutions.  At CFC, we claim that design must be challenge-driven and not model-driven. From this perspective, what matters is not the process being used in itself, but the cognitive effects of using it those addressing a challenge. Concretely, this means that defence professionals should build on design principles found across most design approaches and leverage the design methodologies and methods they feel are the most promising in generating insights and developing novel frames to address their challenges. Designers must leverage their judgment to select what they consider to be the most relevant methodologies and methods to address a specific challenge (be it strategic, operational or institutional) instead of applying the same methodology and set of methods to address any challenge over and over again. Better, we invite advanced students of design to create their own methodologies and methods tailor-made to the challenges they are facing. We claim that this “agnostic” approach to design education is not only more effective, but also more pragmatic and consistent with design philosophy, especially in the context of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

Agnosticism is aligned with Design philosophy. As Paul T. Mitchell claimed elsewhere: “Design is not, strictly speaking, a defined methodology, but rather a collection of approaches and loosely connected ideas. Design is more of an art form rather than a process: it cannot be ‘taught,’ but learners can be ‘coached’ through design problems, just as artists, sportsmen, and trades are developed in terms of their practice. Placing it within the confines of a doctrinal definition effectively mechanizes that which is more properly described as a ‘gestalt’ and would strip away all the value it lends to appreciating and managing environmental complexity”. The phenomenon of war makes this conclusion an even more robust one. There is simply no equal phenomenon that may disrupt all conventions leading to swift radical changes. If one thing is for sure, the next war will not be like the previous one, thus making any repeatable design approach a dangerous proposition.

Since the turn of the century, a proliferation of design models has appeared in both the business and military environments.  The IDF, US Army, US Special Forces, US Marine Corps, Australian Defence Forces, NATO, and the Dutch military, among many others, have all moved to develop their own specific approaches to design.  While most design models have a similar meta-structure of developing empathic understanding of the current environment, ideation about desirable solutions, and prototyping means to create new outcomes, all differ in subtle fashions. Organizationally, the adoption of a specific approach can displace the original objective of seeking better ways to understand VUCA scenarios.  The prestige associated with developing an approach that often becomes the trademark of a service or school makes it hard for leading design organizations to consider the benefits of other design approaches. In other words, if the primary purpose of experimenting with design thinking in defence organizations was to acquire greater conceptual capabilities to address complex challenges of the 21stcentury, this purpose can became secondary to that of preserving the consistency of,  and advocacy for specific design thinking approaches.


  • The Relationship between Design and Planning

While many debated the relationship between design and planning and whether the former can replace the latter, our understanding is that they are not mutually exclusive. Design often contributes to generating self-awareness, a deeper understanding of the environment, and novel visions around which future plans can be structured. The focus on agnostic design should be on how it and planning contribute differently in addressing a challenge, and not on whether one is more effective than the other in doing so.

Beaulieu-B.’s extensive ethnographic research on military design thinking in the IDF, US Army, US Special Operations forces and Canadian Armed Forces showed that organizations either leverage design capabilities informally or formally. In defence organizations unfamiliar with design thinking, design is applied informally. This may take the form of add-on activities during steps of the planning process such as ‘orientation’ in the Operational planning process (OPP). Alternatively, design educated officers may translate outputs generated from thinking like a designer during deliberation included in the planning process. Several officers revealed thinking in design terms but translating insights into planning terms for communication purposes with colleagues unfamiliar with design thinking. In other words, officers leverage design thinking informally to reach their objectives. As BGen. Jennie Carignan commanding CAF’s 2nddivision recommended during IMDC 2018, design educated officers should not wait for direction to leverage their design background.

In defence organizations currently experimenting with design thinking, design is practiced more formally in teams. That said, formal design teams are usually found in large-scale organizations when staff is available to fill them. In some organizations, the planner and designer are often the same individual due to staff shortage! So far, the J5 branch focused on Strategy, Plans and Policy and Commander Action Groups (CAG) represent the organizations most relying on design. Design, however, may be leveraged in most defence organizations specially to address complex challenges in any trade and at any level of war.

Philosophically, we are fully aware that design and planning are grounded on two different, if not opposed traditions which may lead to an awkward tango as Zweibelson put it elsewhere. Yet, communication is possible between two seemingly opposed traditions, both philosophically and in practice, as hundreds of officers graduating from Command, Staff & War colleges show every year. A forthcoming blog will detail the relationship between design and planning in both theory and practice.

In this blog, we sought to answer frequently asked questions about the what, why and how of CFC’s agnostic approach to design thinking education. In a follow-on blog, we will address how we translate this vision into education strategies and provide concrete examples of how design can be applied to address challenges at the operational, strategic and institutional levels.

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