Design Facilitation
31 March 2022

Designing Within Danger: How Military Design Contributes to Security Forces Differently

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Original blog post can be found here:

This is an excerpt from an upcoming military design book chapter for an international educational textbook addressing various forms and functions of design practice. Once that project is published (digitally and in print), an announcement will be made through Medium and other social media. Follow Ben Zweibelson, PhD to get the latest news, articles, excerpts from various writing projects and more.

Although the modern military design movement is but a few decades old, their collective efforts to produce a new community of practice toward disrupting and transforming how defence organizations think, act and organize is already making significant inroads internationally. A growing body of professional design theorists, researchers, practitioners and educators are generating what is becoming a distinct sub discipline within Security Studies as well as a new area of andragogic consideration across international professional military education (PME) programs. The military design movement recently had its first formal literature review completed (Wrigley et al., 2021), and a growing network of theorists and practitioners from Ottawa to Fort Leavenworth (Anderson, 2012; Beaulieu-Brossard, 2015; Kelly & Brennan, 2010; Mitchell, 2017), from Stockholm to Sydney and elsewhere are bringing into clarity these new frameworks for complex security challenges (Graicer, 2017a; Jackson, 2020; Porkolab & Zweibelson, 2018; Zweibelson et al., 2017). Below is a broad list expressing the primary considerations with additional source suggestions included. While there are a multitude of different ways military design is practiced, they collectively tend to generate the following impacts:

· Disruption of institutional norms and standards: security design is done when traditional planning and strategy making fails. Design deconstructs legacy frames in order to open up opportunities to ideate differently (See: Graicer, 2017a).

· Shifting focus from description (what, how) to explanatory (why…what else): Designing in complex security contexts demands innovation and imagination that cannot be extended from descriptive analysis and historic patterns (See: Zweibelson, 2015a).

· Divergence toward novel convergence (doing something different differently but repeatable): Design prevents the ritualization of what worked yesterday into today’s illusion that tomorrow’s challenge is like previous ones (See: Chia, 2013; Chia & Holt, 2009).

· Multiple futures and complex emergence instead of reverse-engineered, single-ends oversimplifications: Design breaks from systematic logic where preconceived ‘end states’ correspond to already understood ‘problems’ (See: Wilkinson & Kupers, 2013; Zweibelson, 2012).

· Conceptual and tangible prototypes with a ‘fail differently and learn’ approach fostered: This is in opposition to a traditional military fear of failure through overdependence upon established processes, check lists, and best practices logic (See: Martin, 2011; Paparone, 2017).

· Preparing an organization to become comfortable with uncertaintyThis is accomplished through elevating improvisation, experimentation, and critical reflection (why do we do things as such) to offset institutionalization, ritualization and group-think (See: Graicer, 2017b; Naveh et al., 2009).

· Extending war frame systemically (upwards into ever-larger interrelated systems such as politics, culture, ethics, commerce, ideologies, sciences) instead of systematically (breaking things down to immutable laws and principles to solve and reassemble) (See: Ackoff, 1971; Davison, 2006; Zweibelson, 2013).

· Dismantling the tropes of ‘military’ in mainstream society: Designers challenge narratives in order to generate deeper, meaningful and empathetic frames of what war and warfighters are (and are not) (See: Bousquet & Curtis, 2011; Hatch & Yanow, 2008; Paparone, 2008).

· Designing within complexity instead of marginalizing it in favor of rote techniques and ritualized heuristic aids: Enabling deeper appreciation of what some term a ‘second order of complexity’ generated conceptually and socially by Homo sapiens upon an already complex natural order of reality so that political leadership and a nation’s populous consider beyond linear-causal ‘ends-ways-means’ (See: Tsoukas, 2005; Tsoukas & Hatch, 2001).

· Purging indoctrinated and routinized behaviors: Forced retirement of outdated, obsolete and irrelevant methods, models, language, theories, artifacts and belief systems that militaries often institutionalize into lore, belief and fantasy so that novel challenges are misidentified as familiar problems that already have known solutions (See: Meiser, 2016; Paparone & Crupi, 2005; Zweibelson, 2015a, 2015b).

The above list is just the highlights of what military design praxis (blending theory, practice and reflection in becoming) brings to what is already a dynamic, ever-changing and confusing security context in which political leaders, key stakeholders, societies and their national instruments of power (IOPs) such as military forces seek to think and act within. The aforementioned observations are what distinguish military design from other more traditional modes of security force decision-making toward a wide spectrum of military tasks, missions and roles. Ultimately, one might notice that ‘change’ is a common and underlying theme that weaves through all of these different design considerations.


Ackoff, R. (1971). Towards a System of Systems Concepts. Management Science17(11), 661–671.

Anderson, J. (2012). From Systemic Operational Design (SOD) to a Systemic Approach to Design and Planning: A Canadian Experience. Canadian Military Journal12(3).

Beaulieu-Brossard, P. (2015). Systemic Operational Design or How I Began to Worry about the Dual Use of Critical Concepts [Outline written in the course of fieldwork].

Bousquet, A., & Curtis, S. (2011). Beyond models and metaphors: Complexity theory, systems thinking and international relations. Cambridge Review of International Affairs24(1), 43–62.

Chia, R. (2013). Reflections: In Praise of Silent Transformation- Allowing Change Through “Letting Happen.” Journal of Change Management14(1), 8–27.

Chia, R., & Holt, R. (2009). Strategy without Design: The Silent Efficacy of Indirect Action. Cambridge University Press.

Davison, K. (2006). Systemic Operational Design (SOD): Gaining and Maintaining the Cognitive Initiative[Monograph].

Graicer, O. (2017a). Self Disruption: Seizing the High Ground of Systemic Operational Design (SOD). Journal of Military and Strategic Studies17(4), 21–37.

Graicer, O. (2017b). Between Teaching and Learning: What Lessons Could the Israeli Doctrine Learn from the 2006 Lebanon War? Experticia Militar, 22–29.

Hatch, M. J., & Yanow, D. (2008). Methodology by Metaphor: Ways of Seeing in Painting and Research. Organization Studies29(1), 23–44.

Jackson, A. (2020). Design Thinking in Commerce and War: Contrasting Civilian and Military Innovation Methodologies. Air University Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and EducationLeMay Paper №7, 1–78.

Kelly, J., & Brennan, M. (2010). The Leavenworth Heresy and the Perversion of Operational Art. Joint Forces Quarterly56, 109–116.

Martin, G. (2011). A Tale of Two Design Efforts [And Why They Both Failed In Afghanistan]. Small Wars Journal, 16.

Meiser, J. (2016). Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy. Parameters46(4), 81–91.

Mitchell, P. (2017). Stumbling into Design: Action Experiments in Professional Military Education at Canadian Forces College. Journal of Military and Strategic Studies17(4), 84–102.

Naveh, S., Schneider, J., & Challans, T. (2009). The Structure of Operational Revolution: A Prolegomena. Booz Allen Hamilton.

Paparone, C. (2008). On Metaphors We are Led By. Military Review88(6), 55–64.

Paparone, C. (2017). How we fight: A critical exploration of US military doctrine. Organization24(4), 516–533.

Paparone, C., & Crupi, J. (2005). The Principles of War as Paradox. Proceedings131(10), 39–44.

Porkolab, I., & Zweibelson, B. (2018). Designing a NATO that thinks differently for 21st Century complex challenges. Defence Review; The Central Journal of the Hungarian Defence Forces146(1), 196–212.

Tsoukas, H. (2005). Complex Knowledge: Studies in Organizational Epistemology. Oxford University Press.

Tsoukas, H., & Hatch, M. J. (2001). Complex thinking, complex practice: The case for a narrative approach to organizational complexity. Human Relations54(8), 979–1013.

Wilkinson, A., & Kupers, R. (2013). Living in the Futures: How Scenario Planning Changed Corporate Strategy. Harvard Business Review, 119–127.

Wrigley, C., Mosely, G., & Mosely, M. (2021). Defining Military Design Thinking: An Extensive, Critical Literature Review. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation7(1), 104–143.

Zweibelson, B. (2012). Does Design Help or Hurt Military Planning: How NTM-A Designed a Plausible Afghan Security Force in an Uncertain Future, Part I. Small Wars Journal

Zweibelson, B. (2013). Three Design Concepts Introduced for Strategic and Operational Applications. National Defense University PRISM4(2), 87–104.

Zweibelson, B. (2015a). An Awkward Tango: Pairing Traditional Military Planning to Design and Why it Currently Fails to Work. The Journal of Military and Strategic Studies16(1), 11–41.

Zweibelson, B. (2015b). One Piece at a Time: Why Linear Planning and Institutionalisms Promote Military Campaign Failures. Defence Studies Journal15(4), 360–375.

Zweibelson, B., Hedstrom, L., Lindstrom, M., & Pettersson, U. (2017). The Emergent Art of Military Design: Swedish Armed Forces and the Contemporary Security Environment. The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences: Proceedings and Journal3, 83–97.

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