7 July 2019

How we Design

by :

Matt (Mathieu) Primeau- It will be my pleasure to take over Dr. Philippe Beaulieu-Brossard’s role as Design program lead for the Joint Command and Staff Program of the Canadian Forces College in Toronto this year. For me this is an opportunity to continue to advance the yardstick of Military Design in professional military education, which is something I care deeply about. I want to do so based on the suggestions and feedback of the military design community.

In this spirit, please consider the short article below as a though-piece for discussion on “How We Design”. I am doing it for debate. Let’s see where it leads. Thanks for your feedback.


How We Design

As conceptualized by Dr. Ofra Graicer, Military Design is a weapons system for the cognitive domain (Graicer 2018). It allows individuals and groups to tackle complex – or wicked – problems confidently and effectively. At a time where algorithms and AI are on the verge of solving complicated problems better than humans, the “complex” is THE area left where human consideration will and must prevail.

Failures to address complex problems using design-inspired methods contributes to strategic failures even when we continuously have success in the tactical realm. Our sin is to tackle complex problem as if they were complicated, thus using problem solving formulas and models designed for that purpose rather than for the true nature of our increasingly complex world. Therefore, what CFC needs to do is to provide the cognitive tools that allow senior officers and to explore problems in ways other than from causality, linearity, and ingrained biases when it is appropriate to do so.

This directly drives how I see design evolving at CFC. My vision is for the next generation of senior military officers to understand the value of design as a precursor to planning. It implies that they will have the ability to describe the nature of a problem: simple – complicated – complex, leverage systems thinking and mapping, exercise empathy, and harness group creativity more effectively.

That said, military design is facing significant challenges. One of the most critical, and which was duly noted in Ex Shifting Sands 2019, is how difficult it is to integrate the language extent in design inquiries into something intuitively tangible – or “palpable” – for a Commander to integrate fully into the realm of action. It was particularly obvious this year given that the challenges provided by CJOC were at the high tactical / low operational “level.” This created expectations of an output ready for operational application, and not so much as close to a strategic reframing as many briefs ended up sounding like. In any case, as suggested by BGen Bernard, what we need to do is find a way to involve the decision-maker into a design inquiry to create the dialogue at the right time and place to avoid such tension, just like we do in the Operational Planning Process, and the US Army does with the Army Design Methodology. This is a problem space very similar to that explored by Dr. Ofra Graicer of the IDF during the 2006 Lebanese War (see, Graicer 2017, Graicer 2018). Note that cultural context being quite different, it should inform us, not drive us. But regardless, for Shifting Sands 2020, we need to revisit in what form we conclude the Ex and manage deliverables.

A further challenge with Military Design has to do with “Speed” from a philosophical point of view. Military Design approaches suggest that we need to slow down in addressing complex problems despite living in an information age where everything is happening and adjusting faster and faster on the global stage. Taken as such, therefore, Military Design is criticized as heavy and inefficient, and thus it is suggested that it should be kept only for armchair warriors working in the policy realm or the institutional side of DND. This is emergent of the Military’s necessary bias for action, which implies that fast planning and execution leads to faster results, or most notably “getting into the Enemy’s OODA loop.” But this statement is a fallacy, in that it draws its validity only when addressing complicated problems with design, not complex ones. In complex problems, the real foe is not necessarily the enemy, but can be ourselves, or in fact is often better conceptualized in a completely different framework, that of “rival frames of thought.” Thus the problem is not with Military Design approaches, it is with understanding the nature of the problem itself, and by the same logic choosing the right problem to experiment with Military Design in CFC. This will be an area of strong focus for me this year.

Another challenge is how Military Design is the fruit of so many hard-to-access / time-demanding academic thought pieces, psychological principles, and philosophical leanings. This makes it near impossible to tackle as a whole, let alone share widely and effectively within a wide community of Defence practitioners. Consequently, the best of Military Design facilitators are imbued only with “A” flavor of the design metaphor. To teach and experiment with ”A” flavor of design at CFC fits perfectly in its experimental, a.k.a. “agnostic” approach, but it’s at times a small step away from facilitators believing that their “way” is “THE way” to do Military Design for the Canadian Forces. This risk is compounded from the almost inevitable reality that many facilitators do not have the time, resources, or access to explore methods other than their own. While there was some natural convergence away from such potential pitfalls in Shifting Sands in 2019, it remains a challenge for the foreseeable future. For CFC, the short term lesson here is to favour Military Design facilitators who are willing to share with others on the strengths and tribulations of their approaches so we can grow a balanced approached for the realities of the Canadian Defense context.

Lastly, a strong criticism from students of Military Design students in CFC over the last two years is how design as done in Shifting Sands lacks a structured, sequenced, and/or predictable “flow” or “form”, beyond its logic. It was on the lips of almost every student I talked to this year. I believe part of the cause for this set of frustrations can be found in this very article, notably (1) how we disagree about the outcomes of design inquiries and how to involve the Commander, (2) how perceptively slow it can be, or (3) how inaccessible the deep logic of design is to start with and how well it can be mastered through facilitators. But I think we did better this year than the last, some of it by design, some of it by the sort of convergence driven by the collaborative discussions between facilitators. In fact, I theorize that just about every group ended up with an approach to which the macro-narrative looked like this: (1) understanding the “now”, (2) framing an alternate “then”, (3) determining what the opportunities are in between the two and choosing one/a few, and (4) operationalizing it. This is very close to my understanding, albeit limited, of Systemic Operational Design (Graicer, 2018), so it was to my surprise that it seemed to apply by default to all of the facilitators approaches, despite what else was injected throughout; whether empathy, ideation, challenging functions (Red Teaming), forecasting, or anything else. Thus I believe this is the “checklisty” form of Military Design that students crave.

In conclusion, Military Design exists in the cognitive, where our value as humans will be increasing exponentially in the near future, at a time where it is most needed to solve the complex problems of our accelerating world. To train the cognitive implies the very sort of critical thinking, creative thinking, reframing, ideation, prototyping, complexity mapping, and other concepts that Design is unique in fostering as a whole coherent discipline. Therefore to Design is to think fully, and to think fully is to win fully.

Matt (Mathieu) Primeau has been facilitating Military Design seminars internationally since 2017, specializing in complex defense challenges at both the Strategic and Operational level. He is acting Academic lead for Military Design for the Joint Command Staff Program at the Canadian Forces College of Toronto, as well as a facilitator for the National Security Program. He is a double graduate of the US Army University with Masters in Military Arts and Science in Military History and in Design, and is an MSc graduate of Cranfield University (UK) in Defence Geospatial Information. He currently serves as Military Advisor to the Deputy Minister of National Defence.

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