6 August 2018

Put on Your Ruby Slippers and Start Exploring the Zone

by :

By Brett Nesbitt & Ben Zweibelson

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If you are reading this then you are probably either:

  1. an academic, or practitioner, experienced with developing and/or delivering design thinking (or something flavour of design, systems thinking) methodologies to military professionals;
  2. a military professional who has had some type of design thinking (or something flavour of design, systems thinking) methodology presented to you; or
  3. a person with a healthy level of interest in either a). or b).

Take a moment and consider either delivering, or receiving an extended course of instruction on how military professionals “do” design thinking.  That sounds easy.  Just to keep things interesting, the methodology used is new, and unproven.  But at least there will be an absolute minimum of structure provided.  Thankfully you only need to figure out how Canada should engage in West Africa.  Sounds like a piece of cake.  Hopefully the Commanding General agrees when you present your findings to him in just over a week.  If that is not motivation enough, the course is over, and there will be no graded assessment of the efforts, or outcomes, of the students. Intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic anyhow.  Right!?

The above describes, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, the approach taken by Ben Zweibelson and me during the Joint Command and Staff Programme’s EXERCISE Shifting Sands 17 at Canadian Forces College Toronto.  The salient details of that activity will be explored during a master class which Ben and I will present at the Innovation Methodologies for Defence Challenges Conference. What follows will serve as a preview teaser, or fair warning, for could be expected from that master class.


The stage was set for our syndicate at Shifting Sands as Ben outlined the conceptual framework of Second Generation Design.  Paradoxically, the underlying premise of Second Generation Design was to limit the framework and rules which would be applied to their exploration of the topic and related issues.  The concept of exploration and discovery, as opposed to navigation to an acceptable solution seemed to pique the interest of the students.  This was a wonderful time for the syndicate and facilitators both.  But wait, there’s more.

Sadly, the students rapidly grew weary of the concept once it became clear that this design thinking stuff was difficult.  The mood also suffered slightly as they realized that Ben and I were serious about maintaining the approach for the duration of the exercise.

What, we are seriously NOT going to do a planning cycle!?


The details of what the syndicate felt that they learned, about design thinking, and West Africa, are better saved for the master class in Ottawa. However, in general terms, it is safe to say that the syndicate generated some very interesting insights into the topic of exploration, and morphed/mashed-up many of the design thinking concepts that they had used as their tools for exploration.

Earlier I alluded to the students not being somewhat discontented with the Second Generation Design.  That could be best described as an understatement, actually a significant understatement.  The students were almost universal in embracing a shared reality where;

  1. they were terrible at design thinking;
  2. design thinking did not matter; and
  3. operational planning is, was, and will forever be the panacea to all problems.

This was interesting indeed, considering the remarkable, and almost continuous, progress the syndicate was making. They were producing positive outcomes in the conduct of the exercise, and in their journey of learning how to “do” design thinking.

Despite persistent efforts to marginalize their accomplishments, the syndicate could not successfully continue to avoid connecting the cognitive dots their design thinking explorations revealed.  After one, not so subtle, call to action, the syndicate was galvanized in its efforts to share what they had, grudgingly, learned, and applied.

I remain intent on only sharing the results of this syndicate’s remarkable journey until the IMDC Conference.  Rest assured, the big reveal will happen in our master class at the IMDC Conference at Saint Paul University in Ottawa on January 30th.  I hope to see you there as Ben and I endeavour to provide you with the opportunity to take a few exploratory design steps of your own. Perhaps, together we can explore how to evolve Second Generation Design into something else. Some other thing which better supports, informs, and enables our efforts to find innovative approaches to address defence challenges.



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