4 September 2018

Creating the Design-Planning Bridge: Designing a NATO that Thinks Differently for 21st Century Complex Challenges

by :

by BGen. Imre Porkolab, Mr. Ben Zweibelson


In the 21st Century, the international defense community has largely struggled with how to organize, strategize, and act effectively in increasingly complex and emergent contexts where the previous distinctions between war and peace have blurred beyond comprehension. Governments and their militaries continue to experience ‘black swan events,’ which continue to shatter any illusion of stability or extension of normalcy in foreign affairs.

Western Armed Forces as well as intergovernmental military alliances such as NATO appear increasingly unable to deal with these problems using traditional planning and organizing methodologies alone. What had worked well previously no longer appears to possess the same precision and control. The formal operational-level military planning process, initially developed to cope with Cold War Era large-scale military activities in “a conventional, industrialised state vs industrialised state setting” now is seemingly incapable of providing sufficient means of getting the organization unstuck.

Complex contexts require different ways of thinking and decision-making and require a different awareness and appreciation. For NATO, an organization with so much success in the past, these experiences can be an obstacle to change in today’s VUCA world, where organizations continue to experience things they have never seen before that marginalize or defeat all established practices and favored tools.

When an organization encounters things they have experienced previously in some format or context, they can reapply common terms and approved processes to solve these problems, often in an analytic and optimization-fixated approach to reducing risk and increasing stability. Yet what does an organization do when they experience something they have never seen before and lack the language, processes, and history to make sense of?

In their presentation Colonel Imre Porkolab and Mr. Ben Zweibelson suggested that as part of the response to the changes in a complex environment NATO should introduce ‘defense applied design thinking’ and use this approach to look for solutions of wicked problems.

Their speech has covered a ‘history lesson’ on NATO adaptation, and they also presented a brief history of the evolution of defense applied thinking and answered the question where NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT) should move concerning design application and education.

Their conclusion is that NATO currently possesses a collection of maverick leaders and innovators that have previously been able to create and direct the organization through largely unstructured means. NATO also possesses substantial populations of effective military planners that work in the structured-convergent context and draw upon formal military schooling and practice to solve problems and manage decision-making for campaigns and operations.

What NATO must focus on to deal with wicked problems better and in a more institutionalized manner is to establish and nourish a link between formal designers and military planners. The design-planning bridge is where NATO can apply Defense Applied Design in formal education and practice. By doing this, maverick leaders and innovators can continue to influence NATO in unstructured ways, yet within the organization a formal and school-educated group of designers can build and maintain an essential bridge for design deliverables to transfer to planning teams. This bridge also draws planning observations and feedback from the field back to the designers to enable design re-frames and new iterations.

In the contemporary security environment those, who can get the latest technology to the war fighter faster tend to enjoy comparative advantage, unless that technology in turn blinds the organization to alternatives. There is a need to increase operational agility, the ability to sense, and to build a network, but it must be supported by a new design.

A technological fix is only one side of the coin. There is a need for an organizational one as well which connects the different components together, hence the need for design application and education, which is aimed at speeding up organizational learning while identifying and contemplating organizational rituals, patterns and socially constructed processes that have become harmful.

ACT has the opportunity and the capacity to enable design development within selected individuals, who (upon returning to their nations) can be the backbone of the national design thinking cadre, thus NATO as an organization gains additional design depth. Further, if NATO were to develop internal design education programs for the organization, such an enterprise could be used both within NATO as well as for collaboration and development activities across the various partnered and Allied nations. As multiple NATO member and partner nations are already implementing and running design programs at national defense universities, COEs, service schools and other military programs, NATO already has some design networking and collaboration abilities within the Alliance to leverage.

Were NATO ACT to establish a formal design education program, it would likely require the ability to conduct courses at NATO ACT, as well as at the NATO School in Oberammergau as well as project design modules (through Mobile Education Teams) to overseas and even remote locations. For design to be inculcated formally across the NATO organization, leaders will need to invest in the future. The upfront costs of establishing a design program are minimal when compared to the more costly programs involving new hardware, technology and other deep skillsets.

So NATO will need to make key design educational decisions on when to begin and advance design education within their organization. Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, General Mercier in a recent speech to the NATO Transformation Seminar challenged NATO by stating: “The greatest challenge to NATO is that we need to operate and adapt at the same time and it requires innovative approaches.” 

This reflects SACT’s understanding that NATO must act now, and incorporate formal design education as well as subsequent design practices for the highly complex challenges awaiting the organization today, tomorrow, and just beyond the horizon.

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