Systematic Logic and Linear Mechanistic Strategies
6 February 2022

Shifting Military Decision-Making from Single Ends to Emergent Multiplicities

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Original blog post can be found here:

This is an excerpt from a design monograph that addresses design, NATO operational planning and Joint planning methodologies (NATO-OPP, JPP, and various service-specific deviations therein). This monograph is pending publication and was produced through the Joint Special Operations University where the author is a design educator (contractor) for the U.S. Special Operations Command. The title of the monograph is: Disrupting Modern Military Decision-Making: Deconstructing Institutionalized Rituals through Design Synthesis.” 

Strategists and analysts may question why existing detailed planning approaches (NATO-OPP, JPP, etc.) are not already sufficient for any security organization to continue applying in complex challenges. This requires a quick history lesson in where the modern military strategic framework and decision-making methodology comes from. The modern managerial movement that emerged from the Industrial Revolution and massive national endeavors such as political and military activities spanning World War I and II and the subsequent Cold War inculcated a precise, end-state oriented and mechanistic way to organize people and resources to act towards purposeful ends.[1] This mode of organizational decision-making and coordinating actions in time and space is best summarized as ‘systematic’ and the modern world’s most recognized and approved form of performance choice.

The modern military as an institution chooses to approach nearly all of life’s challenges systematically, where “the true goal of the system, the reason it programs itself like a computer, is the optimization of the global relationship between input and output.”[2] We demand that a clear, standardized and linear path be constructed (cognitively) so that we can derive an output from every input, and therefore an already established solution can be readily taken off the shelf and applied to any problem encountered.[3] This forms the conceptual baseline for single-designed ‘end states’ and the entire ‘Course of Action’ (COA) creation, wargaming, selection and codification process for operational planning and campaign design. It also exists within all aspects of contemporary NATO-OPP and JPP methodologies, models, theories and language as already presented in this monograph.

Thus, the systematic logic for sequencing all actions in time and space for most every unit, group, organization, company and even nation-state tends to be represented by very elaborate arrangements and categorizations of inputs and outputs that are analytic and attempt to standardize, reduce risk, increase prediction, and otherwise provide the expectation of increased control over time with the accumulation of more information, more experience, and more repetitions within a stable reality.[4] This produces as Paparone explains: “clear specification toward the industrial-like reproducibility of individual and organizational roles and activities and gives a sense of disambiguation and orderliness…the logic of systematicity is written into dozens upon dozens of ‘how to’ manuals covering a wide spectrum of subjects available in breathtaking detail.”[5] In turn, most every organization approaches the future in the same systematic outlook that today’s input should correspond to tomorrow’s output or desired end-state;[6] the linear path then becomes an engineering or mathematical problem to be worked out with standard risk, resources, or ‘ways and means’ to go about linking the input to the output in clear and often standardized concepts[7] that correspond to the institutional best practices for planning.[8] Activities are arranged in a linear, ‘A plus B leads to C’ systematic construct where reality is frozen briefly, isolated and analyzed through universal rules or tenets, and subsequently reassembled so that the reverse-engineered plan might be executed step-by-step to bring about the predicted (and expected) future single state transformation.[9]

The problem with thinking about the future in starkly systematic terms is that complex, dynamic systems feature high levels of emergence, and these phenomena reject such systematic logics outright (as the earlier section on emergence and nonlinearity explained). Systematic logic works best in simple or complicated systems where there is a higher level of stability and indeed, ‘cause’ leads to ‘effect’ in either extremely predictable ways in simple systems, or in relatively reliable patterns in complicated systems.[10] Emergence in these systems tends to be ‘simple emergence’ that still largely work within these settings where systematic planning logic will do an organization plenty of utility.[11]

However, in complex and chaotic systems, the future is going to be remarkably unpredictable, and any attempt to use systematic logic will result in the organization anticipating and preparing for a future that will not occur, but also likely becoming dangerously cavalier or over-confident that their future models and strategic outlooks are sound and valuable. Modern militaries should consider this with how security activities occur in complex security contexts worldwide. Many tactical and technical activities will indeed remain complicated enough to encourage systematic logic usage, but NATO and Joint Forces function above and beyond these within a global and highly complex frame. Possibilities do exist in nature, but any consideration of the future can only be talked about.[12] Whether one employs convergent, systematic language or divergent, systemic will determine how and why the organization looks forward.

Instead of systematic planning for the future where an organization uses a ‘management-by-objectives’ recipe book structure,[13] taking a systemic approach to the future orients on complex dynamic systems as emergent, nonlinear, and entirely unpredictable affairs to consider future action within. This would include NATO and Joint Forces reforming their decision-making methodologies to shift away from single-state future strategies toward a divergent process of generating and maintaining multiple futures. The emphasis on analytical logic would be reduced, with systemic logic emphasizing multiple relational forms of knowledge as well as different (often competing and paradoxical) ways of making sense of the same reality. Systemic thinking toward the future is divergent (multiple possible but different futures) instead of convergent (a single end-state), where systemic design thinking attempts to generate and accommodate “multiple inequivalent descriptions” within a vastly complex context.[14] This would also denote a shift from modern to postmodern strategic design.

Systemic thinking toward multiple futures invests significant time, energy and imagination towards multiple frames of reference that are often different paradigms in play among stakeholders, competitors, peers or rivals within a complex dynamic system. When more than one paradigm competes on how to make sense of reality, systemic designers will seek highly customized, unique and tailored explanatory logics for design action. Such strategic designs may function in one possible future but potentially be insufficient or counter-productive in others (as in, a particular military activity executed may generate multiple potential emergent outcomes).[15] It is the generation of these multiple divergent futures that creates the cognitive “maneuver space” for the design team and subsequently the strategic design sponsor to consider and simulate future actions in a wider range of potentials where a convergent future end-state is not the centralized focus. This creates problems for pure analytical treatments in military strategic design, where a single potential activity might generate a wide range of possible futures where in some, the emergent effects of said activity might yield profoundly different consequences, risks and opportunities depending on the future drift of the complex system.

Furthermore, systemic design emphasizes designers consider subjectivity with objectivity, the tangible/rational/analytic with the intangible/irrational/interpretivist side of a complex reality.[16] One must not reduce all strategic concepts down to formulaic, isolatable and measurable variables that eliminate or marginalize that which cannot be rendered into mathematical equations. Systemic designers acknowledge that even if a design future concept proves successful, attempts to standardize, or reproduce the same design construct into an operating principle or general practice for the organization will subsequently fail. Unduplicatable design lessons are not just an example of systemic design, but indicative of how complex, dynamic systems feature emergence and essentially ‘learn’ from design activities so that the earlier design contexts dissolve in the arrival of the future system. This also indicates that while military forces seek a new collective pathway for how to consider, manage and develop military activities for national security interests, they should also avoid attempts to rigidly methodize, indoctrinate, or standardize a ‘step-by-step’ procedure that eliminates the very essence of systemic praxis necessary to break away from institutionalisms and the creep of codification.[17]

With virtually all operational, tactical (or local level) planning as well as most strategic planning centered exclusively on systematic logic,[18] the shift to design thinking and multiple futures presents modern militaries an opportunity for systemic logic to be introduced into strategic-oriented activities such as NATO-OPP/JPP while other tactical and operational activities remain unaltered. There are multiple ways to think about the future for design in nonlinear fashion; the fastest and most comprehensive tool for doing this in a security context seems to be the inclusion of scenario planning into design methodology.[19] Scenario planning has been used extensively across industry and academia since the 1970s where it first made a splash during the 1973 oil crisis.[20] Scenario planning worked its way into nearly every Fortune 500 company’s strategic planning department as well as academia since the 1980s as a mainstream alternative (and systemic) mode of thinking toward a dynamic, complex future. Yet in governmental, security (military, federal agency) as well as most law enforcement organizations, only the dominant systematic logic for planning toward singular desired end-states is expressed in contemporary strategic thinking, design, and organizational planning efforts. Today, few in the Department of Defence are even aware of multiple futures outside of small groups and sections experimenting with it.

In the late 1960s, a small group of economists while working for the Hudson Institute developed a novel yet controversial way of planning future strategies for organizations in complex environments. Led by economists Jimmy Davidson, Edward Newland, and Pierre Wack, the Royal Dutch/Shell Oil Group developed this model of complex decision scenarios in the 1960s-1970s for an international oil company confronting complexity. They did this while challenging the many dominant strategy-making methodologies of the time by building upon pioneering economic work of Helmut Kahn and Anthony Weiner of the Hudson Institute. Wack and his team of economists saw the existing and dominant process of forecasting as increasingly problematic over time, particularly in the manner that the dominant managerial methodology (Taylorism School of Management) turned most all strategic planning into mechanical, systematic, ‘input-output’ focused where existing organizational solutions are assigned to problems as they are identified.[21] Complexity theorists such as Russell Ackoff would explain the different ways humans understood and approached ‘problems’ with ‘problem-solution’ becoming the dominant mode of framing.[22] Here, one needed to recognize the solution first, so that when unexpected ‘problems’ occur, the organization can scan through their known solutions list and correlate ‘problem-solution’ constructs suitable for formulaic programing of established strategies and operations.

In the Industrial Era leading up to the end of World War II, analysis, and linear cause-effect relationships (systematic logic) constituted the framework for scientific analysis, strategy, organizational form, and management. Organizations would curate institutional knowledge composed of many historically viable ‘solutions’ to which they could identify future problems and through linear decision-making, pair recognizable problems to institutionally understood solutions already mastered. This became the modern scientific way of warfare for the industrialized West.[23] In the immediate rise of the early Information Age and the arrival of the first computers in this same period, the science of ‘cybernetics’ took hold not just across scientific disciplines but throughout industry, management, and organizational theories. Cybernetics addressed the relationship of problem sets that correspond to “communication, control, and statistical mechanics.”[24]

Cybernetic thinking would embrace computerized assimilation of more and more information so that one can focus attention to very specific (micro) segments of a larger system, where decisions then can be fragmented into smaller and smaller segments sequentially arranged in a linear path for the organization to follow into the future like a trail of orderly, reliable breadcrumbs. “For in analysis we assume that which is sought as if it were already done…by so retracing our steps we come upon something already known… and such a method we call analysis as being solution backwards.”[25] The desired ‘end’ could be arranged into a single future line (of effort, operation, or physical geography) to which ‘ways’ and ‘means’ need be conceptualized in reverse order, leading back to the present state of the system.

In much of the twentieth century, this systematic way of strategizing about the future by conducting cybernetic inquiries using reductionist analysis of mass data would dominate industry and government policy, and the promise of increased prediction and greater control with the advancement of increasingly more powerful computational assistance by smarter machines continued to propel a shared validation that this was the only way to consider the future. Management and strategy thrived where ‘forecasts are usually constructed on the assumption that tomorrow’s world will be much like todays.’ Strategic planning and forecasting “was predicated on a closed-world ontology: the assumption that the future will be, more or less, an extension of the past, or at least predictable.”[26] Pre-set inventory of ‘solutions’ available based on past experiences and input-output analytic reasoning.

Solutions await causal linkages with new “problems” encountered. The organization then stacks these many groupings of ‘proven solutions to potential problems’ and then relies on rapid, reliable recognition of any future problem so that the assigned solution can be applied. Inputs link to rationalized outputs, and a causal, almost mechanical ‘identify problem, connect solution, solve and continue’ logic flows.[27] The below illustration demonstrates this legacy mode of strategic design and should appear familiar to most military audiences as the baseline for modern strategic and operational decision-making (as well as most tactical ones).

[28] This graphic is the original work of the author and used in other unrelated academic applications in 2021.

An organization that expects every tomorrow to follow a sequential, obedient and relatively stable path stemming from a string of ‘yesterdays’ does this for a reason. It is for systematic logic (input leads to output) to be employed to offer a predictable future encased in the stability of solid analytic reasoning and historical precedent. Any deviation was an anomaly, an outlier; something that was possible but statistically remote and an area to be less concerned with. In this way of framing reality, when mechanistic, linear planning encounters anything that conflicts with the expectation that “tomorrow ought to behave mostly like all the yesterdays have”, that logic becomes frustrated. Surprise occurs; a feeling of a ‘loss of control’ and paradox happens.[29] Yet as globalization and the rapid spread of information and technology caused major transformations in societies, and the increasing complexity of this new interconnected world began to render predictive strategies and linear causality moot in more dynamic contexts.[30]

Emergence cannot be explained or even sufficiently defined within the frame of the legacy system; the arrival of emergence requires entirely novel developments in order to articulate and appreciate the novelty of the emergent system itself.[31] The traditional planning logic where systematic thinking sought to isolate all encountered “problems” in causal rationalization so that inputs could link to outputs would prove insufficient in complex, dynamic systems. The reverse-engineering of existing ‘solutions’ rationalized to future problems could not address emergent, never-before-seen “problems” that violated all interpreted rules and principles of past “solutions” awaiting analytic and causal linking.[32]

[33] This graphic is the original work of the author and used in other unrelated academic applications in 2021.

Wack observed that traditional planning was “based on forecasts, which worked reasonably well in the relatively stable 1950s and 1960s”,[34] yet the increasing globalization and technological boom of the 1970s and onward made previously stable systems anything but predictable. Oil demands expanded as societies increase their wealth, size, and consumption, yet conflict and inter-state tensions also impacted the oil market in profound and often novel ways. Earlier terrorist organizations tended to function in more stable hierarchies, while contemporary ones have morphed into more dynamic, flexible and illusive organizational forms. The same can be said of illegal drugs, or human trafficking, or the transformation of environmental terrorism from the Twentieth to the Twenty-First Centuries (the Earth Liberation Front). The older versions of these illicit enterprises were, in retrospect, more stable, predictable, and essentially controllable through older forms of law enforcement and policies. Newer emergent forms are radically different, requiring sophisticated and often entirely dissimilar ways of strategizing to compete with them.

[35] This graphic is the original work of the author and used in other unrelated academic applications in 2021.

In the more stable (at least economically and in terms of industrial actions) 1950s-1960s, companies like Shell followed a linear and highly mechanistic planning cycle that worked towards quantitative data (tested, validated, re-occurring, predictive), convergence (increased uniformity, reliability, efficiency, control), and an increased expectation that any future should usually be an extension of past patterns and experience.[36] For Wack and his team of radical experimenters, they proposed an alternative mode of strategic design. Writing on the development of scenario planning, Wack observed: “too many forces work against the possibility of getting the right forecast. The future was no longer stable; it has become a moving target. No single “right” projection can be deduced from past behavior.”[37] Wack realized that to prepare an organization for radically different future environments and potential paradigm shifts in how a complex system behaves, he needed a strategy model that did far more than make more accurate forecasts in a systematic logic. Instead, a systemic way of thinking about multiple futures would become more useful in addressing dynamic, emergent systems. Single desired futures were out; multiple simultaneously co-existing futures would be generated instead, with each of these future states demonstrating different combinations of overlap (commonality, convergence, dependence), tensions (divergence, difference, independence) and interplay (novel and emergent qualities that no not exist in any legacy frame or understanding).[38]

[39] This graphic is the original work of the author and used in other unrelated academic applications in 2021.

Thinking with multiple futures does not permit the systematic logic where recognizable inputs could be linked to understandable outputs in a mechanistic, rationalized manner. Instead, a scenario-based approach would change the decision makers’ assumptions about how the world works and compel them to reorganize their mental model of reality. Scenario planning would use the term ‘planning’ in a new and quite distinct context, just as security design today presents a very different way for law enforcement and security thinking on complex systems versus traditional managerial or institutional planning does. Some might consider ‘planning’ and ‘design’ as problematic terms in both contexts, which also offers yet another parallel between the Shell scenario planning movement of the 1970s and the current security design movement of the 21st century. Scenario planning does not enhance or “bolt onto” the legacy way of linear planning…it is an entirely different mode of thinking about the future.

Systematic logic does not become more systematically capable with an infusion of systemic logic…they remain separate and distinct ways of thinking and acting upon reality. In the next section of this monograph, we will provide you a relatively easy heuristic aid to initiate quick systemic thinking toward multiple futures. Designers should seek to understand that systemic thinking about the future cannot be reduced into “a single desired or preferred future ‘end-state’ or strategic goal, nor such purely analytical or linear-causal logic subsequently be applied toward whatever is generated in systemic thinking toward multiple futures.[40] Scenario planning with multiple futures within a systemic logic is one way to inform an organization so that should they apply sequential, systematic logic towards a short-term goal, they do this while appreciating the emergent, non-linear and dynamic qualities of the larger complex system they unavoidably are operating within…

This excerpt is part of a larger monograph pending publication in 2022.

For more, follow Ben Zweibelson, subscribe to ‘Think JSOU’ on YouTube, consider JSOU courses, research and educational outreach by visiting , and also connect with Ben on LinkedIn to learn more about this monograph and the planned publication in 2022.

[1] Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design, 13–15.

[2] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Theory and History of Literature, Volume 10 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), 11; Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine.”

[3] Zweibelson, “One Piece at a Time: Why Linear Planning and Institutionalisms Promote Military Campaign Failures.”

[4] Gharajedaghi and Ackoff, “Mechanisms, Organisms, and Social Systems,” 289–91.

[5] Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine,” 519.

[6] Stanley and Lehman, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective; Weick, “Reflections: Change Agents As Change Poets- On Reconnecting Flux and Hunches.”

[7] Meiser, “Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy,” 82; Tsoukas, Complex Knowledge, 276; Chia and Holt, Strategy without Design: The Silent Efficacy of Indirect Action, 25–29.

[8] Weick, “The Role of Imagination in the Organizing of Knowledge”; Karl Weick, “Drop Your Tools: An Allegory for Organizational Studies,” Administrative Science Quarterly 41 (1996): 301–13.

[9] Tsoukas and Hatch, “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice: The Case for a Narrative Approach to Organizational Complexity,” 992–93.

[10] Snowden, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.”

[11] Fromm, “Types and Forms of Emergence”; Hempel and Oppenheim, “On the Idea of Emergence.”

[12] Krippendorff, “Principles of Design and a Trajectory of Artificiality,” 417.

[13] Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine”; Weick, “Reflections: Change Agents As Change Poets- On Reconnecting Flux and Hunches”; Weick, “The Role of Imagination in the Organizing of Knowledge”; Tsoukas and Vladimirou, “What Is Organizational Knowledge?,” 978.

[14] Tsoukas and Hatch, “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice: The Case for a Narrative Approach to Organizational Complexity”; Tsoukas, Complex Knowledge; Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine.”

[15] Schultz and Hatch, “Living with Multiple Paradigms: The Case of Paradigm Interplay in Organizational Culture Studies”; Lewis and Grimes, “Metatriangulation: Building Theory From Multiple Paradigms”; Ritzer, Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science.

[16] Naveh, Systemic Operational Design: Designing Campaigns and Operations to Disrupt Rival Systems (Draft Unpublished); Naveh, Schneider, and Challans, The Structure of Operational Revolution: A Prolegomena.

[17] DiMaggio and Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields.”

[18] Zweibelson, “One Piece at a Time: Why Linear Planning and Institutionalisms Promote Military Campaign Failures.”

[19] The design educators at the Joint Special Operations University use this in their design educational approach. See: for their public-facing ‘mutiple futures’ design lesson.

[20] Peter Cornelius, Alexander Van de Putte, and Mattia Romani, “Three Decades of Scenario Planning in Shell,” California Management Review 48, no. 1 (Fall 2005): 92–109; Richard MacLean, “Environmental Leadership: The Power of Scenario Planning in Executive Communications,” Environmental Quality Management, Winter 2008, 95–100; Arif Sikander, “Scenario-Planning as a Stand-Alone Tool for Strategic Foresight: Limitations and Options,” Change Management: An International Journal 16, no. 1 (2016): 13–18; Pierre Wack, “Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead,” Harvard Business Review, October 1985, 73–89.

[21] Bousquet, “Cyberneticizing the American War Machine: Science and Computers in the Cold War,” 90.

[22] Ackoff, “On the Use of Models in Corporate Planning.”

[23] Bousquet, “Cyberneticizing the American War Machine: Science and Computers in the Cold War”; Bousquet, “Chaoplexic Warfare or the Future of Military Organization”; Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity.

[24] Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine”; Bousquet, “Cyberneticizing the American War Machine: Science and Computers in the Cold War.”

[25] Kitchener, “Bertrand Russell’s Naturalistic Epistemology,” 122.

[26] Tsoukas, “What Is Organizational Foresight and How Can It Be Developed?,” 275–76.

[27] Ackoff, “On the Use of Models in Corporate Planning.”

[28] This graphic is the original work of the author and used in other unrelated academic applications in 2021.

[29] Kitchener, “Bertrand Russell’s Naturalistic Epistemology,” 140.

[30] Dent, “Complexity Science: A Worldview Shift.”

[31] Fromm, “Types and Forms of Emergence”; Carlisle and McMillian, “Innovation in Organizations from a Complex Adaptive Systems Perspective.”

[32] Zweibelson, “One Piece at a Time: Why Linear Planning and Institutionalisms Promote Military Campaign Failures”; Kitchener, “Bertrand Russell’s Naturalistic Epistemology,” 122.

[33] This graphic is the original work of the author and used in other unrelated academic applications in 2021.

[34] Wack, “Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead.”

[35] This graphic is the original work of the author and used in other unrelated academic applications in 2021.

[36] Tsoukas and Hatch, “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice: The Case for a Narrative Approach to Organizational Complexity.”

[37] Wack, “Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead.”

[38] Schultz and Hatch, “Living with Multiple Paradigms: The Case of Paradigm Interplay in Organizational Culture Studies.”

[39] This graphic is the original work of the author and used in other unrelated academic applications in 2021.

[40] Zweibelson, “One Piece at a Time: Why Linear Planning and Institutionalisms Promote Military Campaign Failures”; Stanley and Lehman, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective.

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