Explaining Military Design Deliverables: Moving from Innovation to Something Operational Planners Can Use to Break Out of Static Repetitionsby : Ben Zweibelson
This is a section from some design educational material the author is developing for a military design and innovation course. All content reflects the opinion of the author and in no way reflects any endorsement or stated position beyond that of this author. Follow me on Twitter, Medium, LinkedIn and Instagram to see more content like this, snapshots of things I am reading and researching, new design news, podcasts, articles, videos, and more.
There are really no exact rules or principles governing how a military design deliverable ought to be. In fact, we know that even across the U.S. and international military partners, there are a wide range of design methodologies coupled with proposed ‘design outputs’ that again are quite varied and unlike one another. Also, we have certain units and leadership that prefer one form of design while others desire yet a different composition. When we consider that design is a process or mindset of being reflective in ‘thinking about our thinking’ while we approach truly complex and adaptive systems, then that implies that what works today for design may catastrophically fail us tomorrow if we attempt to institutionalize it into a standard practice.
If creating new and divergent design is as varied as there are types of cakes, pies and baked goods on this planet, there will not be specific recipes but there will be some patterns of ingredients that designers will want to have in their deliverable. For example, to extend the metaphor a bit further, an English Trifle and a Shepard’s Pie are quite different dishes. Of course, this sets up a holiday joke from the television show ‘Friends’ where Rachel Green accidently combines an English Trifle with part of the recipe for Shepard’s Pie… and while such a dish might taste entirely unlike what the cook set out to create, the systemic perspective offers that if the design deliverable is for a hit comedy show producing what is now stuck in the American zeitgeist for Thanksgiving Holiday humor, the design deliverable hit all the right notes.
The pattern of design features within any military oriented design deliverable tend to share the following in common. This is not a complete list, nor should designers seek to follow this every time, particularly as they gain greater practice and personal insights into how they reflectively practice.
Frame the legacy system:
The design team needs to frame what the legacy system is, why it matters, how and why things behaved before and why potentially the organization now views something as ‘problematic’ because ‘what was working yesterday no longer is today.’ Alternatively, one might offer that the tools that solved yesterday’s military problems do not match up with the emerging and different challenges of today that appear to require not just new tools, but quite different ways of realizing what is new and different beyond the existing (legacy) definitions and historical record of past success in warfare.
The legacy system is the past, or at times how we simply imagine the past was…and in the legacy system we have the past thoughts and actions of all of us, including the organization we are designing for, and the many stakeholders, actors and cultures of those participating willingly, unwillingly, as well as wittingly and unwittingly in the current emergent system of change. Change is central here to framing design, as well as gaining and maintaining a useful design mindset. Change cannot be isolated down into a single action or relationship underneath things that are transforming, change is more like a motion blur that is perpetually and pervasively moving everything forwards. It does not stop, and it is usually very hard to predict and impossible to control. Yet the effects of change are what causes an organization to even want to do design. In the legacy system, perhaps older models, methods or concepts — worked sufficiently within previous applications. However, change has brought us into a newer, emergent system that no longer affords the same value or outputs of what worked for the organization in the legacy system.
The legacy system requires significant explanation (systemic versus systematic description), meaning the designers need to explore tensions in the system and offer various reasons for why things are today different (emergence) than how things used to be for the military organization. Military innovators struggle against institutional resistance in articulating this very issue. Army Air Corps’ General Billy Mitchell would advocate for a deliberate shift away from ‘battleship-oriented sea war’ in the Interwar Period between World War I and World War II, promoting the rise of a new form of naval combat that centered not on battleships (legacy frame) but on naval aviation and air power. A lesser known example is also that of Billy Mitchell who, in the final year of World War I, would propose a radical idea to strip out bomber aircraft and fill them with infantry soldiers, machine guns and basic aviator parachutes to drop en mass behind German lines. His idea was approved by General Pershing but the Germans surrendered before any actual implementation could occur. However – the point here is that Mitchell had a keen designer’s insight and could visualize both the legacy system for how warfare was yesterday, and where it needed to go for experimentation toward tomorrow’s next war.
Designers might put themselves into Mitchell’s mind for a moment and imagine it is in the early 1920s when naval aviation was in its infancy. No plane had yet successfully landed or taken off from a naval craft in the water, nor had one successfully sunk a ship using an air-dropped torpedo. Mitchell conceptualized these and while these are tactical and technological matters, he extended his frame to imagine multiple futures where the next major war might include mass numbers of aviation operating in the sea and striking from naval vessels instead of just terra firma alone. His revolution in thinking was hardly contained to naval innovation, as other aviation theorists argued that long-range strategic bombers could operate and strike deep in the heart of enemy population centers and industrial nodes, changing how war might be waged. New ideas such as ‘morale bombing’ and early conceptualization of attacking deep in an enemy’s manufacturing and resource producing areas (typically far from the front) became strategic ways to leverage victory differently than before. Back to Mitchell and his fertile design imagination, he took time to advocate for a new way to combat forest fires and large firefighting challenges by applying water and extinguishing chemicals through aviation instead of just from the ground. His ideas would extend to the development of firefighting smoke jumpers as well; yet all of these ideas required a framing of the legacy system so that the institution could make sense of what had changed, and why they needed to change with it.
Frame the institution or ‘Self’ paradigm and that of ‘others’:
The design deliverable requires an explanation beyond the legacy system itself- as the institution (or group, target population, enterprise) is likely in a complex security context interacting with other groups of humans who may view the same reality through a quite different social lens. For a quick example of different groups within a complex war context, consider World War II again and the notion of suicide pilots (kamikazes as termed by the Japanese). By 1943, the German military was in a similar desperate situation, but while Japanese culture associated deep spiritual meaning to the personal sacrifice of a warrior for the greater cause, German culture differed in nuanced ways. Certainly, German military were sacrificing on battlefields, but this distinction demonstrates how different belief systems will influence a different war paradigm that employs distinct decision-making methodologies. In one, a ‘Divine Wind’ concept would encourage select Japanese pilots to sacrifice themselves in daring attacks to detonate their explosives-laden aircraft directly into enemy ships and targets, while German culture promoted something else.
German society during World War II (and extending to today in sophisticated German automobiles, technology and industry) have a deep seated belief in the power of technological innovation to overcome otherwise insurmountable odds. The German military would suggest to leadership as well as the German people that technologically advanced ‘super weapons’ could change the course of the war and snatch victory from the jaws of impending defeat. Some examples are the German V2 rocket program, atomic weapon experiments, unorthodox and highly risky experiments on attempting to create ‘super soldiers’, and the expectation that jet-powered advanced fighters would shift the advantage back to German airpower. The German Luftwaffe created a task force called ‘Sondercommando Elbe’ that were to blunt or temporarily halt the wave of Allied bombers for several weeks to give engineers and scientists enough time to speed manufacturing of the new Me 262 jet fighters. These Sonderkommando Elbe pilots, flying conventional piston-powered prop aircraft, would try to ram or collide with enemy bombers mid-air, but the pilots were expected to survive by ejecting or otherwise parachuting out, in order to return and fly yet another mission. The Japanese Kamikaze pilots, however, had no such intent on returning to base. Their actions and effects during the war appeared tactically and technologically similar (ramming planes directly into targets), yet the purpose and belief system behind these activities were quite dissimilar.
While this may not make too much of a strategic difference for the Allied forces when a German plane or a Japanese one smashed into something, the framing of ‘self’ and ‘other’ from a design perspective has great value in appreciating difference as well as tensions in the system. It is these tensions that become the next crucial ingredient for a design team to employ in their deliverable. Designers need to consider what tensions exist (and that tensions are not problems to be analyzed and “solved”- a complex system will not permit such things), and in order to accomplish this- they must have framed the social paradigms of the key stakeholders, groups or entities currently engaging in what is the security challenge unfolding in complex reality.
Framing Tensions: Between Legacy and Future Systems as well as Paradigms
Tensions express from a complex system in many different ways that may be hard to detect, or our own social paradigms might influence us to ignore or marginalize such occurrences. In the earlier example of German and Japanese fighter pilots, how might ‘suicide in warfare for larger national purpose’ be framed so that the Allied forces could gain some new advantage when battling both nations in the skies? If we were to frame World War II as part of the legacy system, consider how this tension changes if a designer extended the concept of ‘suicide in warfare for larger national or group purpose’ to that of suicide bomber attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan?
The notion of ‘tension’ should not be taken in a literal, engineering-based format that might isolate the critical support beam on a bridge to target for collapsing the structure. Instead, ‘tension’ in complex, social and dynamic systems is a blend of the tangible and intangible, objective and subjective, the explicit (clear, easy to identify or measure) and the tacit (hard or impossible to clarify; how experts with mastery can excel but struggle to teach their skills to others).
Designers, in exploring tensions in either a system setting (dynamic between legacy and unfolding, emergent system) or that of social construction (one war paradigm and that of another one by groups engaged in conflict). Will need to ask deep, penetrating questions with systemic logic. What is changing, and why? How does emergence occur in nonlinear ways, and what will the novelty inspire for language, concepts, actions and opportunities? This way, any design deliverable must explore and articulate these tensions between the legacy system and the emergent range of futures. In particular, tensions cannot be solved, fixed, or eliminated through precise targeting or reductionism — indeed there is no ‘end state’ in complex systems.
Tensions are also often paradoxical, in that they express opposing and simultaneously conflicting aspects yet still exist as a system-wide phenomenon. For example, modern militaries invest in greater technological expense to protect their own operators on the battlefield, but also safeguard the lives of innocent non-combatants…while also increasing the lethality of weaponry against identified targets. The weapons are usually increasingly more deadly, but also expected to be more precise so that the superior weapon effect does not risk causing collateral damage to friendly forces or innocents in the immediate area. Speed is another example of paradox in modern warfare, in that weapons are becoming far faster (such as hypersonic weapons, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence) and the decision windows for leaders are decreasing, while they simultaneously are gaining greater access to more information at increasing speeds. There is a much more rapid spread of information (and disinformation) inside a conflict zone (or security context) including social media and the rate that a narrative might move now well outpaces any procedural talking points prepared within a military organization. Leaders in modern warfare are pressured to make faster decisions as their organizations gain more data at greater speeds, yet weapon effects and the entire tempo of contemporary warfare is also accelerating.
Most tensions demonstrate paradoxical patterns because they deal with complex and networked aspects of reality. Militaries prepare for war, and in doing so, may paradoxically be preventing the next war by maintaining a form of peace between two hostile nations, or also shaping a new, more deadly future war by fostering greater tension between marginalized groups within a brewing conflict that is being delayed by peacekeeping efforts. Most system tensions are complex, and cannot be ‘solved’. Tensions can change over time, such as the tension of limited human transportation in the period of animal and wind-based locomotion, transformed into a broader and frequently more intense tension involving subsequent fossil fuel and Industrial Age inspired automated transportation.
If the Information Age moves towards people interacting more and more within cyberspace, that tension of ‘transportation’ may again change dramatically, creating novel and more intense, dynamic processes within the emergent system. The agricultural generation at the end of the 19th century would expand rapidly with the rise of the combustion engine automobile and similar transportation, yet the next generation might remain static in their homes, traveling digitally through virtual and augmented reality to accomplish work, social life, and travel differently.
Framing the ‘Problem’ with Insight into How This Also is Problematic!
Reflect upon the ‘problem’ with feeding horses along dirt roads of the animal-wind period of transportation — and how it is no longer of concern to automobile operators on a superhighway — some of those drivers have new ‘problems’ that have nothing to do with hay, a loose horse shoe, or muddy roads. The problems of the earlier agricultural era of animal and wind power do differ from those that would emerge in the industrialized, fossil-fuel powered world that remains dominant today. Yet if several decades from now, all transportation is done with artificial intelligence through pods of vehicles that whisk travelers autonomously (or those that even want to travel in the physical world), what will happen to parking garages, city traffic jams, automobile insurance or even the standard household ‘garage’ architecture if no one ‘owns a vehicle’ anymore? What problems dissolve, and what unrealized, unimagined ones will manifest? Problems are symptoms of deeper systemic tensions, and these tensions need to become the focus of the design mindset through reflective practice. In the tensions between the systems, what design opportunities now are available?
A design team will want to frame the difference between the legacy system and that of the emerging one (or more appropriately, a range of futures that all differ significantly by exploring where legacy tensions might move, as well as novel and emergent tensions that could arrive through systemic transformation) with ideas that are systemic. Placing the term ‘problem’ which is predominantly used in systematic logic is itself troublesome, in that the design sponsor or the organization set to receive the proposed design might miss the distinction and seek a ‘problem identified and paired with solution’ sort of approach. Designers will want to consider this, and attempt to frame the problems conceptualized by various stakeholders so that a systemic appreciation occurs. Designers might consider the earlier treatment of different problem frames (see: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/moving-beyond-problem-solution-logics-in-military-decision-making-7ca496acb26c) that Ackoff presented, and offer a systemic view of the challenges that moves beyond the limits of ‘problem-solution.’ They may also consider how the institutional paradigms may influence an organization toward ‘problem absolution’ in that if a challenge is considered too difficult or taxing to deal with, sometimes nothing is done because the bureaucracy is oriented toward permitting non-action for what is expected to be a lower risk response.
Depicting Multiple Futures: Design Risks, Opportunities and Consequences
The design deliverable should explain both the logic for how multiple futures were constructed as well as how they differ from one another. This requires careful and deliberate consideration in what the design risks, opportunities and consequences are within each of the futures for that design sponsor to consider. Remember that multiple futures consider the potentiality of emergence in a complex, dynamic system… many futures will merely be possible until eliminated through change and the passage of time (see: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/shifting-military-decision-making-from-single-ends-to-emergent-multiplicities-5ae56c3a1ee1). However, ideating and designing through a wide and divergent group of futures enables both a spatial and a systemic gaze on what might emerge, and in turn enable designers to consider why and how their design deliverable will perform differently depending on what new path the future may provide.
The design team will seek to explain each of the possible futures in relation to one another, to the entire system, and how the design deliverable will manifest and exercise differently depending on what future unfolds. The more thought and energy put into the multiple futures (and iterations of conceptualizing and re-conceptualizing them) will likely increase the difference of these futures from the institutionalized, single-future (what we already wanted before we started) ideal future end-state. That future can of course occur, but complex systems tend to resist such efforts of control and prediction by human designs.
Amplification and Dampening Strategies for Design Implementation
The design deliverable will need to explain the actual design prototype (what, how, and why to design X) and explain the implementation phase. This should not devolve into planning, as the operational or strategic planning team will carry that portion out in detail. Instead, the design implementation provides the framework and novelty for the planners to plan in new ways, toward a new purpose/vision, and appreciate how and why they are planning with a different perspective. For example, the difference between running ship operations and sustainment on a battleship and that of an aircraft carrier, in crude terms, did not differ greatly in many core functions in the Interwar Period between World War I and World War II. Despite the aircraft carrier not existing before the first designed prototype and experimentation phase, both vessels share many common attributes that would extend “how things were planned and executed” from the well-tested and known battleship process to that of the new aircraft carrier. Some requirements would be novel and require radical change in naval aviation, strategy and operations, while other things (defense, supply, maintenance, crew management, navigation) would remain nearly identical to earlier naval surface fleet efforts.
The design implementation would take what needed to occur in the Interwar Period to shift navies from an earlier construct to the new one, and include both the activities that would largely go unchanged and those that necessitate entirely new ways of designing so that the planners can ‘plan in new ways’. Ultimately, the air craft carriers that battled in World War II would have planning activities synchronize and coordinate all actions on the new aircraft carriers- but this could not occur by simply repurposing every existing procedure, doctrine and planning method from the battleship. Some concepts and behaviors would be retired, others modified, and some required entirely new theory, models, methods and language that would by systemic design be introduced. The design deliverable needs to consider and articulate this into the design implementation.
Further Afield: Design Consequences, Results, Reframing
While design is iterative and framing leads to subsequent learning, reflective practice and the need to re-frame, there are always design consequences in reality. A design consequence is rarely predicted, although many predicted ‘design risks’ may indirectly lead to some consequences. Note that military organizations have a ‘predicted solution fetish’ that manifests in all linear decision-making… meaning that design deliverables are often unwelcome due to the uncertainty, risk, and requirement to transform without the certainties of established, historical constructs. Yet every act of innovation represents something novel, untested, and with a historic age of zero. Once cannot have both, particularly in complex warfare.
A design consequence is that outcome that, through how complex systems behave in dynamic, emergent patterns, cannot be anticipated or conceptualized in a systematic (A plus B leads to C) logic. For a design consequence to be a real consequence, there must be systemic change in a system. The design changes the system, addressing what Ackoff termed ‘design dissolution.’ The consequences are often unexpected or defined in retrospect with ‘surprise’ in that the organization implementing the design did not foresee such a consequence occurring. Another critical aspect of design consequence is that while some ‘problems’ might be solved, resolved or dissolved, other novel ones will develop that are unprecedented. These new problems are both a result of the design (a consequence) and also inconceivable using the legacy system frame.
Examples of design consequences abound. When Apple created the first smartphone (first in a joint venture with Motorola, then the following year independently) in 2007, the designers did not anticipate the multitude of consequences ranging from how smart phone cameras would displace the digital camera market, change many human behaviors, and also create entirely new areas of creative and social exchange where individual people became their own portable television or movie studio able to upload and broadcast what previously took entire companies to produce. The rise of social media platforms created design consequences unprecedented in earlier societies such as the unprecedented shift in teen mental health and online ‘cyber bullying’ as well as many new social pressures in the Information Age. From a military angle, the development of the atomic bomb did bring about the termination of hostilities in World War II, but the arrival of the Nuclear Age changed warfare and ushered in new concepts such as ‘mutually assured destruction’, ‘limited conflict between nuclear powers’, ‘Cold War’ politics and economies, and the rise of anti-nuclear movements.
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 Friends image source: https://www.vulture.com/2019/09/friends-i-made-rachels-english-trifle.html