16 July 2018

Design thinking in the Royal Netherlands Army

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Design thinking in the Royal Netherlands Army

By Major Jeffrey van der Veer*



The character of contemporary conflict has been evolving. Adversaries, both state and non-state are adapting fast to counter our military strengths and preferred way of operating.[1] Nowadays one can see an increased blurring of the distinctions between adversaries and the way they use force to achieve their goals. So conflicts blend ‘the lethality which is traditionally associated with state conflict and the fanatical and protracted fervour of irregular warfare’.[2]

Many modern day opponents do not subscribe to traditional views of victory and defeat. Our military context is no longer one of absolutes; ‘losing’ and especially ‘winning’ have become less relevant notions.[3] From this point of view, traditional military decision making processes fall short in providing the much needed answers.

The path towards awakening

Recent and current missions of the Netherlands army such as in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali take place among the people, in foreign countries with very diverse cultures, while we had no clear understanding of the physical, cultural, and social environments that constitute the human environment.[4] The United States RAND Corporation study “Decade of War” identified trends during the 2001-2013 era of war on operating in this human environment, which ask for a fundamental change of doctrine, to address the root cause.[5]

After all, the operational environment in which conflicts take place is a competitive learning environment, where the greatest challenges are intellectual. Design has proven to represent an approach to reasoning and critical thinking which enables commanders to understand complex situations, lead adaptive work in order to facilitate planning and execution. Design enhance force agility and versatility up to the execution of full spectrum operations by helping leaders and soldiers recognize the relationship between the character of conflict and the approach one takes to affect changes in the operational environment in time.

Design is fully compatible with our doctrinal key concepts such as; mission command, manoeuverist approach (also known as the “Indirect Approach”) and the comprehensive approach. Design achieves unity of effort toward shared understanding and shared goals. This contribution focuses on the cognitive tools that will help in an era of persistent conflict.

Persistent thinking

The Netherlands armed forces has identified that today’s complexity of the operational environment requires a different approach to problem solving.  However, our current ‘industrial (era) thinking’ makes it so that our current planning methods break down a problem (mechanically) into small pieces that subsequently are thoroughly analysed, in a sequential and linear way. After having these smaller parts analysed they will be put together again. This is how we try to build understanding. Based on this acquired understanding we plan our operations. Starting from our assigned end state working it all the way back to the present. Subsequently we start executing our activities towards the assigned end state.[6] This classical approach is based on experiences of Clausewitz and Jomini, still dating back to the Napoleonic era and perfected by ‘Graf von Moltke’ (the elder). This all culminated into the first industrialized war of destruction in 1914-1918. Since then our military thinking has barely changed, but the non-military world has evolved to an amorphous society in a transitional era of (easy)creation and information sharing[7]. Our military has emulated Multi-Domain Battle[8] as fix for the ‘hybrid’ threat on NATO’s eastern border; but Multi-Domain battle is still largely based on the same military thinking, while the world gradually proceeds in the development and use of technologies like big-data, hyper computing, 3d-printing, nanotechnology, robotics, biotechnology and molecular genetics.

When we focus on future violent conflicts they are likely to reflect what British General Rupert Smith has called “war amongst the people”.[9]  These are conflicts in which some or all of the participants are irregulars and military operations cannot deliver a conclusive political result. Rather, political and military activities intermingle throughout these conflicts, requiring cohesive unified action. Fighting is frequently conducted among the people in villages and cities. In some cases, the people themselves are the adversary or the objective – or both.

Our current planning processes implicitly assume that plans and orders from higher headquarters have framed the problem[10] for their subordinates. Although orders flow from higher to lower, understanding often flows from lower to higher, especially when operational problems are complex as proven during missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and to lesser degree Mali. In these cases, a commander is often in a better position than his superiors to understand the full scope of a complex operational problem. Thus, it is more likely that commanders at all levels will frame the problem themselves and then share their understanding with their superiors and subordinates. However, this does not mean that understanding will only flow upwards. Superiors usually have a wider perspective, which any understanding of an operational problem must take into account: where does this campaign or operation fit within the larger strategy? A significant goal is a shared understanding of complex problems. This requires battlefield circulation by higher commanders; of the discourse with superiors, subordinates, peers, and staff; and strategic thinking at all levels.[11]

Thinking about thinking in Netherlands Land Operations doctrine

The 2014 NLD doctrine publication DP 3.2 Land Operations states that contemporary operations require a flexible and adaptive planning approach. Depending on the complexity of the situation commanders can use or combine various planning methods in order to gain understand of the situation and enable decision-making. The publication states the following three methods which can be differentiated:

– Tactical design[12];

– Tactical decision making[13];

– Troop leading procedure[14];

These methods help to improve understanding and development of solutions to problems. They can also help in anticipating events and adaptation to new developments.[15] The doctrine publication Land Operations state that “tactical design” isn´t a NATO term, but is in line with developments in the United Kingdom (Tactical Planning Concepts) and the USA (Design).[16] On the subject of Tactical design the doctrine publication Land Operations provided no further elaboration. Nevertheless this publication identified the need for thinking about thinking. The mentioned publication was the first in shifting from “what to think” towards “how to think”.

Contextual Military Design

In the end this was an inducement for the development of NLD Contextual Military Design, based on emulation of concepts from the USA, Israel and Australia. The design development has been a typical bottom up process and in the end of 2014 it slowly materialized into a working concept. The Army Majors career course provided a platform for the first Contextual Military Design education curriculum. After three courses the curriculum was evaluated and become a permanent part of the Majors career course. The working concept used was further developed into a doctrine bulletin and the latter was eventually embedded in the Army doctrine publication “Tactical Operations”.

Henceforth, design has been well embedded within military education. With lectures and workshops  held at the Army Training Command, Army Doctrine Command, Military Academy and General Command and Staff college. The large amount of workshops and lectures had not caused immediate change, but did create a new discourse, facilitating change and thinking about thinking; because even when people did not share the vision on design, they did agree on the necessity of change, in order to be effective in the modern and future environment.

Since design had rooted within professional military education it resulted in the adoption of design thinking into our special forces. Design was brought there by former students and after a mission focused workshop in 2014, it has become part of their approach in dealing with the unforeseen operations.

Initially design was a bottom up innovation which usually doesn’t spread quickly. In our case it was secured within professional military education and the students slowly exported design within the rest of our army. Our Army Doctrine Command took design as conceptual knowledge and published it in their doctrine but also emulated the thinking into conceptual future force models. Slowly one could see a movement where design had been absorbed and became part of a top down innovation.

The Future of Contextual Military Design

The added value of design thinking has proven itself within the army but it would be foolish to say that Contextual Military Design is the ultimate answer. I would argue that it is just the first step towards a new ‘flight level’. This is because Contextual Military Design can be considered as a poor man’s solution, since the methodology is about non-linear thinking and in the end we convey it into the linear military decision making process. The next step to take should involve the teaching at our military academy, where we can change our corporate thinking as well our ideas and paradigms on education. During educating design to our young and bright officers I have found that these young colleagues adapt to design thinking very easy. In what I think has to do with their generation, these millennials just think differently.

Furthermore I have the opinion that forces in the near future should let go the entire traditional divisional structured army[17] as we know it today and develop from a linear towards a non-linear organisation. Recent developed future force structures already support such an approach in which design thinking can merge. A prerequisite for such development is that our youngest soldiers (at the grass roots level) should adapt to design thinking and therefore we should not hold off on educating design until they have reached the rank of captain.


* Royal Netherlands Army Major Jeffrey van der Veer holds a Master’s degree in Military Strategic Studies with specialization War Studies. Currently Major van der Veer attends the German General Command and Staff College at the Führungsakademie in Hamburg. This article does not reflect the position from neither the Netherlands nor the German Armed Forces, the article is written on personal account.



[1] UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), JDP 3-40 Security and Stabilisation: The Military Contribution, Schrivenham, 2009, p. XIII.

[2] Frank G. Hoffman, Conflict in the 21st century: the rise of hybrid wars. Arlington, VA: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, 2007, p. 51.

[3] UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) Development, JDP 3-40 Security and Stabilisation: The Military Contribution, p. XIV.

[4] Major A.J.C. Selhorst, Operating In The Human environment Lessons Of A Decade Of War For The Dutch Army, 2014, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

[5] Improving Strategic Competence, Lessons from 13 Years of War, RAND, 2014. See

[6] Antoine Bousquet, “Chaoplexic Warfare or the Future of Military Organization”, International Affairs (Vol. 84, Issue 5, 2008). See also Christopher Paparone and James Crupi. “The Principles of War as Paradox”, Proceedings (Volume 131, Issue 10, 2005), p. 39-45.  This article was the first place winner in the Proceedings’ “Principles of War Essay Contest” for 2005 or  Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare; Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

[7] Martijn Aslander et al, Nooit Af (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Business Contact, 2016), pp. 9-10.

[8] See Multi Domain Battle at

[9] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2005), pp. 17-18.

[10] The singular form of problem is used throughout this document for simplicity. However, achieving strategic aims may require solving several interrelated problems. Actions taken with regard to one problem will affect the nature or scope of others.

[11] Gary Luck, “Insights on Joint Operations: The Art and Science,” The Joint Warfighting Center, U.S. Joint Forces Command (September 2006), pp. 3, 12, and 22.

[12] Further to be addressed as Contextual Military Design Methodology

[13] See (NLD) DP .3.2.2. Commandovoering, TBM procedure

[14] See (NLD) IK 2-17 Troepenaanvoering

[15] See (NLD) DP 3.2 section 6301

[16] See (NLD) DP3.2 section 6306

[17] Militaries are large bureaucracies designed to produce routine, repetitive and orderly action in: Henry Mintzberg, Mintzberg on management: Inside our strange world of organizations. Simon and Schuster, 1989, p. 139


Royal Netherlands Army Major Jeffrey van der Veer holds a Master’s degree in Military Strategic Studies with specialization War Studies. Currently Major van der Veer attends the German General Command and Staff College at the Führungsakademie in Hamburg. This article does not reflect the position from neither the Netherlands nor the German Armed Forces, the article is written on personal account.

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