By Dr. Gordon Bennett

One of the questions that frequently arises in my introductory military design thinking seminars is “why do we need design thinking when we have operational planning?” This is a great question and one that doesn’t often get a lot of attention in light of theoretical discussions or constructs.  As practitioners of design thinking, we need to better communicate to potential users and military skeptics why they need design thinking and how it will create operational planning on steroids.  They need to see that problem identification and innovative solutions will flow from design thinking through to operational planning thereby enhancing operational planning.

I usually start by asking the student, “What initiates a planning cycle?”  Operational planning is initiated for two reasons: Higher commander’s orders or a change to the intelligence picture. However, what if you are the higher commander?  How do you determine which problem needs solving or what the problem even is?   In both of these cases, problem discovery needs to happen and design thinking can provide the tools needed for that.  Similarly, commanders in both of these cases require creative solutions and cohesive direction that can be derived from design thinking as it flows to operational planning.

Second, I ask “what happens when the situation needs resolution outside the normal planning methodologies?”  Examples might include relationship building with host nations and allies, sustainment and procurement problems, equipment failures, training redesign, recruiting, answering research questions, and public affairs issues to name a few.  “How might we create a strategic supply chain?” is a complex research question based on a sustainment problem.  The foundational problem of “How can we resupply our troops in X situation?” is not a traditional problem to be solved with operational planning because it can entail tactical through political levels of problem discovery and may entail additional sub-problems within it.  There is also no single answer.  Therefore, such a problem may become a wicked problem of the kind which design thinking is designed to address.  By failing to meaningfully pose the problem or consider the multi-order complexities of the situation, operational planning falls short of determining the answer, but works very well in demanding an end state, creating a plan, rehearsing that plan, and launching.

One way that I answer this question to military members new to design thinking is by illustrating the following diagram.  In this simple diagram, problem discovery and understanding the problem environment are best tackled using design thinking.  Operational planning establishes the desired end state, plan, and plan rehearsal.  The overlap between the two is the creation of the commander’s intent, generation of creative solutions, prototyping solutions that contribute to course of action development, and determining what resources are needed for prototyped solutions.


Using design thinking with operational planning in this context does several things.  First, it enables commanders to ensure they are addressing the right problem within the right context.  Second, it helps generate more creative solutions due to design thinking’s multitude of idea generation techniques.  Third, it reduces risk of plan failure by incorporating prototyping before course of action development.  Prototyping identifies and addresses concerns with potential solutions early on so that modifications to plans or courses of action later are reduced.  Fourth, design thinking uses divergent thinkers which results in better outcomes than a room full of similarly-minded military members.

By using design thinking, non-linear, non-traditional, or complex problems can be unwound so they can be meaningfully assessed.  Meanwhile, operational planning can be enhanced by supplementing it at the beginning with design thinking.  Without design thinking, operational planning falls short in too many situations and often in a world of complexities.



Dr. Gordon Bennett is the author of Misfit Design Thinking: Using Design Thinking to Energize Innovation and Creativity.  In his book, he dedicates an entire chapter to the relationship between design thinking and operational planning for military leaders.  He is regularly sought after to teach design thinking and strategic thinking courses to industry professionals and professional associations when not working in the Strategic Joint Staff in Ottawa, Canada.

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