Trojan Horse
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21 March 2022

Design Facilitation 101: Using Trojan Horses to Sneak Past the Institutional Barriers for Complex Security Affairs

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Original blog post can be found here:

In multiple strategic planning sessions, design working groups, and other situations where my organization confronted some complex, adaptive problems, I gained some valuable insight on organizational change. In this article, I present one approach on how to inject major reform and change without suffering the “Cassandra Syndrome” of Greek lore. My approach over time has also acquired another metaphoric nickname taken from ancient times- the Trojan Horse. As a design facilitator for security organizations in particular, one needs to ‘Trojan Horse’ past the institutional defenses most design methods, models and theories in order to nudge the designers beyond the self-imposed limits that often prevent breaking out of set ways and convergent mindsets. These design metaphors are useful in that they help establish new connections between disciplines of thought, and cast light upon things that we tend to not even realize are operating behind the scenes.

For those unfamiliar, the Cassandra Syndrome (or Effect) is when you or someone else gains critical or creative insight into a complex situation, but cannot warn the organization how best to solve the problem or gain the advantage. Regardless of how often you try to communicate this information, your organization ignores you. The metaphor comes from ancient Greek lore: Cassandra was a Greek beauty granted prophetic powers by an admiring Deity, but when that same Deity attempted to enter romantic relations, Cassandra snubbed him. His revenge was to modify her future telling gift by not letting anyone believe or understand her. Cassandra subsequently lived in a horribly world where she saw all sorts of solutions to wickedly complex problems, but no one would ever listen to her solutions (French Postmodernist Michel Foucault also explored this concept with his own term, the “problematizer”- a concept incorporated into military design theory by Dr. Shimon Naveh and Dr. Ofra Graicer in their extensive work educating the Israeli Defense Forces as well as American and other militaries over the last two decades). When a designer or other sort of innovator does stumble upon something novel and transformative, they will next run into institutional resistance as well as the need for the new design language to bridge over to the legacy system (institutional, indoctrinated belief system). Here, in this fog of transformative design, they might become the metaphoric Cassandra and risk being ostracized, marginalized, or even eliminated (figuratively and literally!). How can we avoid this and get our organization to become more innovative, creative, and flexible in shedding some outdated or irrelevant institutional practices?

The Trojan Horse, as a metaphoric vehicle, operates in similar processes organizationally as the premodern military legend did. Placing soldiers within the wooden horse, it is accepted inside of the fortified protective walls, only to later surprise the defenders and unleash destruction. However, in this application our “Trojan Horse” approach to organizational change and design is dissimilar. There is no antagonistic (or mean-spirited) deception associated with the process, and the designers are not seeking to overthrow or defeat the organization in ways commonly associated with sabotage, treachery, or swindling. Instead, using a Trojan Horse design approach seeks to bypass organizational barriers in terms of concepts, language, and paradigmatic aspects of institutional self-relevance to generate iterative change and critical reflection. The Trojan Horse prevents good ideas from being left to rot at the front gate, and given a chance from within to render organizational transformation. Here is how the Trojan Horse design approach operates as a concept.

Design approaches have myriad concepts and an ever-changing toolbox of changing cognitive tools for designers to apply in tailored, customized fashion. Military design in particular deals with highly centralized organizational forms/functions, complete with ideologically inspired doctrinal knowledge (premodern and Feudal Age war frames) enhanced with mimicry and canibalization of natural science disciplines. The modern military institution cobbles together a ‘military scientific profession’ of sorts employed today broadly by drawing upon these constructs, making for a difficult design terrain to navigate for even the most knowledgeable facilitators.

However, to ‘Trojan Horse’ a design approach means that the initial framing of the environment has demonstrated strong institutional resistance to the very solutions that the design approach offers. The designer realizes that they are heading for the Cassandra Syndrome unless they can find another way to introduce the design concept to the organization so they try it. For instance, in 2012 a small design team in Kabul, Afghanistan had a complex problem on what a future 2017 era Afghan Security Force might need to look like, and how that new security organization should operate in a wide range of possible environments five years out (to read more on this, see: and and

For 2012 in Kabul, keep in mind that the Afghan environment at that point was a war zone in perhaps one of the most unstable and poverty-stricken places on the planet; arguably since the fall of Kabul in 2021, things are now worse. The organizations comprising NATO forces were traditional military hierarchies associated with similar governmental organizations, where practices, doctrine, and decisions follow traditional and largely rigid paths. Conditions were not entirely favorable for design innovation, critical reflection, or novel creativity in 2012 when the author was deployed and tasked to conduct strategic design toward a five-year future glide path for all Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

As that design team leader, I recognized while framing the environment (during the initial stages of the design approach) that our own organizational decision-making practices and doctrine were going to prevent us from making the best decisions while evaluating our various choices in strategic solutions. Essentially, NATO was going to suffer what most every organization that operates within a centralized decision-making and hierarchical structure tends to do. Those design members from the element that oversaw the Afghan Army would fight for the future design solution where their interests and self-relevance would remain strong. The planners from the Police element would fight for the same interests of the Police, as would the Afghan Air Force element, and the Afghan Special Operations, and so on. The entire design team, if left to conducting the traditional war-game approach within NATO and service doctrine and practice would “game the system” to produce flawed results. It would result in some 2017 solution that crammed all of the 2012 present desires and territorial posturing of subordinate organizations into a pointless design output. For real innovation and change to occur, we had to get past these organizational barriers that lay just beyond our normal view.

Thus, any attempt as the design leader to prevent this while also strictly obeying our organizational rules, principles, and the justification behind why we do what we do in decision-making would fail unless our design challenged and modified the very justifications at play. We hardly realize those justifications because they are implicit, operating behind the scenes when our organizations act out our problem-solving before our very eyes. Thus, we are really thinking about our thinking. We are jumping up into the philosophical, sociological, and organizational processes that quickly scurry from view unless we really know what to look for. To think about why we think is difficult, dangerous, and often dismissed as institutional navel-gazing by those that often have more to risk if change were to come. Ever hear of the term, “shut up and color?” How about “stay in your lane”, or “mind your place”? These are institutional defensive processes hard at work, within our socially constructed realities.

In previous work and research, I studied alternative organizational processes that did not work the way the familiar centralized organizational hierarchy did. I researched this to learn more about why we do the things we do, and how we might learn from alternatives that decide in complex environments in entirely dissimilar ways. When we consider bees, ants, flocks of birds, or even humans driving cars on a darkened highway, we are talking about decentralized systems as well as swarm theory. Swarm theory appreciates how a bee colony confronts complex challenges in the same world our centralized hierarchies operate, but the bees do everything quite differently. After comparing how a bee colony selects a new hive location in a decentralized manner, I had inspiration for a new design approach that might solve our war-game bias problem.

While NATO and all Anglo-Saxon military war-game processes follow the same organizing principles and methods of running the planning team through each proposed solution (called a course of action), swarm theory did not. All planners doing a traditional war-game approach would, by the point they had to decide which plan to select as the best, would have thoroughly viewed and considered every proposed solution. While this appeals to our analytical and functionalist preferences on how we prefer to understand reality, it ignores the blatant and often overwhelming social pressures also within our military to wrap our biased decision-making with an illusionary cocoon of analytical camouflage. In swarm theory, the bees that travel out to consider one possible new hive location never do go to any other location. Every bee in the decision-making process has either gone to a single site and returned, or has only witnessed bee information within the hive about a single location as conveyed by those that visited. Thus, in the colony decision-making process, no one ever does what our centralized decision-making prefers; decisions become localized and group recommendations do not contain information about other sites. This is both fascinating, and useful for change management.

Granted, NATO is not a bee colony, and these metaphors are just metaphors for conveying new ideas from old knowledge. One must not take this concept too literally. With the NATO design team, the larger war-game planning group of fifty different international soldiers, policemen, and government professionals understood a shared traditional planning process across familiar doctrine, language, and methodologies. Terms such as “end state”, “adversary”, and values such as “better, worse, faster, slower, more expensive, less flexible, higher technology, larger” and so forth were understood across the planning group. The group did not understand swarm methodologies, nor did their language or cognitive methods have swarm concepts embedded. Further, our design deliverable had a short suspense and our timeline was too aggressive for us to even consider hosting classes and workshops with the team on what swarm theory was. This is where the design Trojan horse comes into play.

A Trojan Horse approach masks the new information and concepts with a persuasive exterior of shared traditional language, concepts, doctrine, practices, and approved organizational structure. This metaphorically becomes your horse vehicle so that the institution allows you into the defensive walls. In this example, my smaller design team crafted the entire war-game process to use familiar terms from military doctrine and imitate the original sequenced war-game approach. We employed familiar products such as the decision-support matrix, and used groups in turn-based methods where planners felt that they were doing traditional war-game evaluation. But they were not. They were doing something quite different.

Each evaluation team would only work with a combination of different future Afghan Security Force proposals within a variety of select future environments. Our group previously organized quadrant charts in two different sets that worked upon prior scenario planning methods popularized by the Shell Oil Company in the 1970s. While the combination of multiple scenarios and Afghan Security Force modules appeared to be a traditional military war-game using centralized decision-making, it was not. The Trojan Horse was working. Each war-game evaluation team actually was a bee scout attending to a single site for the future bee colony. As each evaluation team went through the war-game process, the teams each were never evaluating other solution frames, although they may have thought they were.

The double-quadrant chart approach (four future force variants paired with four diverse future environment variants equaling 4x4x4 possibilities- see the linked design articles over at the Small Wars Journal mentioned earlier), coupled with swarm theory as a different organizing logic, resulted in the group doing decentralized decision-making. Just as a scout bee might evaluate one location and return to the hive, each evaluation group did not evaluate other future force variants beyond those assigned to them. The war-game appeared traditional and turn-based, but it was a hybrid capitalizing on swarm theory for partial decentralized decision-making. I specify this as “partial” because all metaphors, including swarm applications to military war-gaming are incomplete. The progress of the war-game session did eventually require a return to the collective; the bees all were in the hive together for the final agreed solution.

Eventually we brought the entire planning team back together for the final selection process, thus dismantling the swarm component. Yet, the Trojan Horse had by that point done the job. Planners that had entered the planning project with overt or covert ambitions on what the future Afghan force ought to look like had embraced what their evaluation team had developed. They had “done their bee dance” and argued for that solution, even if that solution was not in the best interests of their parent organization within NATO. Potentially, even today many of those planners may have no idea that their work in this planning session was of modified swarm theory. If the Trojan Horse exterior is strong enough, participants might insist that the entire event was traditional and approved centralized decision-making.

Trojan Horse design efforts therefore have several organizing qualities. First, they represent an appreciation of the organizational culture at deep, philosophical levels. Secondly, they assume certain language, methods, concepts, and metaphors that come from the formal institutional norm. These act as the exterior camouflage for the design interior deliverables. Once inside the institution (or, once we might test the design change within how the organization “normally does business”), the Trojan Horse must perform and continue to persuade. Next, the Trojan Horse must be revealed for what it is; this is a vehicle of transformation. For design applications, this often takes the form of an academic proposal, research paper, white paper, debate, or other process where the new design is evaluated and the traditional process has a new challenge.

In this example of the Afghan hybrid decision-making, there are few if any other applications of decentralized decision-making blended into traditional strategic military war-games or traditional decision-making. As this effort occurred in a combat environment, and the war-game results were approved not just at the NATO level, but eventually at the senior US governmental and international level, this Trojan Horse introduced design applications outside the safety of military academia. Any subsequent debate on centralized and decentralized decision-making must acknowledge that swarm applications can be applied to centralized traditional constructs in novel ways. Whether future problem-sets warrant similar design is up to future planners and design theorists.

This last component of a Trojan Horse becomes the most critical in my experience- if the organization does not critically reflect and appreciate design applications once they occur in practice, the design effort fails. If things continue to lumber on as usual, there is no organizational change. A Trojan Horse must not just break through traditional barriers, it also must deliver a superior result and consequently stimulate discussion on why the organization does not diversify the previously rigid and self-limiting cognitive processes based on the results. Or, the institution ought to let in that design change into the organization and drop the defensive gate while internally further transformation occurs. This does not happen quickly; in the military’s case it may take a generation.

When does the Trojan Horse terminate? In this case, it hasn’t. By reading this, you may be participating in yet another iteration of this particular “Trojan Horse”, depending upon your involvement in defense industry thinking and practices. The Trojan Horse, as a metaphor for novel knowledge construction and change management, requires organizational discourse and critical reflection to finalize the results. In the Afghan Future 2017 Security Force concept, regardless of whether that plan is irrelevant in 2016 or still in some sort of evolution is beside the point. That design concept blended centralized and decentralized processes within a hybrid way of defense war-game approaches. Was that useful? That answer is still unknown, but a continued discourse on it provides further organizational reflection and possible adaptation. Radical theories and bold innovations, if left to mere theoretical levels or within the safe confines of academia are quickly waved off by organizations comprised largely of practitioners. Design, for the military, often suffers in this light. Yet by using the Trojan Horse approach, design can and will enter into actual military practice where it can compete against traditional, linear, and functionalist constructs. Once this occurs, we again should research, discuss, publish, instruct, and educate on the outcomes.

In your organization, you may not have the same challenges of the military or governmental centralized hierarchies. However, as a metaphor, the Trojan Horse may remain useful. All organizations have defensive walls up to prevent change, critical inquiry, and innovation- it seems to be in our nature as part of our social fabric. One cannot easily introduce novel concepts or powerful innovation without institutional resistance. Often, the stronger the traditions and rituals within, the more steep the defensive walls are to outside threats of change and critical inquiry. Air Force strategist and philosopher Colonel John Boyd became extremely popular in the 1980s and 1990s where American forces adapted some of his cognitive models on how we think and act. His “Orient, Observe, Decide, Act” or OODA Loop became a prominent fixture in Joint and Service doctrine, schooling, and thought. Yet some of Boyd’s deeper messages were left out, perhaps intentionally by those very defense institutions cherishing his OODA Loop. Boyd spoke of cycles of powerful creation and destruction, where new ideas and innovation would destroy the tired and outdated constructs of the old. Boyd, metaphorically, was addressing those same steep defensive walls and why they seek to prevent Trojan Horses from entering.

Two final parting points: All metaphors are flawed, yet it is in metaphoric application that humans convey creativity and construct new knowledge. We cannot escape them, even in places such as mathematics where we are under the illusion that metaphors do not exist. Metaphors are not just essential to human expression, they can become useful cognitive vehicles for new combinations and developments. This Trojan Horse approach may work for some, but others might discover another way. The Trojan Horse is an idea, not a rule. The final point is this- all models are flawed, but some are useful. No decision-making approach is perfect, and even a design approach that generates success in one context should not be mindlessly applied to every future approach. Design is about appreciating complexity, emergence, and constant novel change. The Trojan Horse offers one way to help stimulate change within your organization.

Have you experienced your own Trojan Horse in security (or commercial) design facilitation, strategic development, or organizational change? Or, have you tried to bring innovation to the defensive gates only to be turned away? How might you employ your own Trojan Horse to usher in the seeds of innovation, organizational transformation, and the destruction of interior organizational structures that have outlived their usefulness?

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