26 March 2018

SO SOD: An Antidote to the Futility of Design in Militaries

by :

By Dr. Ofra Graicer, IDF Generals’ Command Course


Part One: “Beware of the Power of the Dark Side”

Twenty-three years into the original infiltration of the Design movement into western militaries, we — who practice, teach or research the application of Design to national security challenges — must face three inconvenient truths:


  • The questioning of Efficacy: Although the strategic milieu both in the civilian domain and in the defence domain embraced the jargon of ‘Design’ for some time; Yet, neither military institutions nor military historians attributed thus far the success (or failure) of campaigns to the application of Design processes or lack thereof.
  • The questioning of Depth: Design processes in militaries have been stripped from their Systemic and Operational counterparts, resulting in a superficial application of Inquiries.
  • The questioning of Virtue: Idealism and positivism are characteristic of the Western code. But for commanders, they are a sure path to failure in designing strategy and operations. Design fosters critical thinking and the challenging of our professional, political and normative systems. It is a painful ordeal, reminiscing nothing of the glitter of business informed design. Thus, commanders who wish to practice Design must unleash their dark side (if they have not done so already in their career).



Why did we need Systemic Operational Design (SOD) in the first place?

The world we were born in changed dramatically and we must change with it. Everyone agrees. The Cold war ended, then returned. Two world powers turned into one, then to three. The West won, then lost its grip on global order and ethics. The idea of the nation-state won, then lost again. Capitalism won, then lost again. The Arab world is looking for a new definition and destroying civilisations in between. Africans are (literally) struggling to stay afloat. The Internet turned our world into a flat one. Now the world is fighting for net neutrality. Blue oceans of data once made us smarter, now they are making us stupid. Ultra-Jihad leaves safe havens nowhere. And, even New Zealanders are affected by Global Warming.


We all live in a Global Zone of Insecurity (as Paul Virilio coined it almost two decades ago): defence wise, politically, economically, culturally, socially, environmentally. We like to excuse ourselves by saying that our predecessors did not go through such an accelerated pace of change and distribution of knowledge.


But is that so? My father was born in Poland, 20th June 1939. He was two months old when WW2 erupted. He and his family survived the Nazis. He fought five more wars, Israeli ones, the big wars style. In a span of seven decades he experienced three world orders, went from analog to digital, from car engines he could fix to car computers he could not fix. My mom was the only woman in civil engineering class and was supposed to wear pencil skirts and heels while visiting construction sites. Two taboos she broke.


What’s my point? Darwinism compels us to stay on top of the game. The ancient Greeks understood it. Heraclitus said: You never cross the same river twice. For it is not the same river and you are not the same man.” The ancient Chinese understood it. They saw the key to strategy in relying on the inherent potential of emergence and letting ourselves get carried away by it. The Russians understood it owing to their unique ecological and cultural stance: They commenced their journey into Systems Thinking (and Operational Art) almost a century prior to the West.


The West is still winning. It is more resourceful and more direct. But for how long? My concern here is only with the role Defence institutions (and militaries in particular) play in implementing policy and effectuating change. It has been my pre-occupation for the past 20 years. I have been training Israeli Generals and foreign commanders and planners in devising policy and effectuating change. In military jargon, I would call it: Strategy and Operations. But what is that role? Are militaries an instrument of learning for States-persons? Or, are they failing them? Where does responsibility lie?


Enter Inconvenient truth no’ 1:

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland asks the Cheshire Cat:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the cat.

“I don’t much care where”, said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the cat.

The core of military design is about orientation in a constant disorienting emergence; strategic direction in a unique context; and operational implementation that communicates it to the audience: your side, the enemy’s, and whoever is watching. Force application is thus a form of strategic communication between warring parties; If you are unsure of the message (the desired outcome and how to actualise it), how would they get the message?


From Alice to Clark, in a RAND report on the Kosovo War 1999[1], the author offers: “We may never know for sure what mix of pressures and inducements ultimately led Milosevic to admit defeat, at least until key Serb archival materials become available, or those closest to Milosevic during the air war become disposed to offer first-hand testimony”. Asked by a reporter why Milosevic folded if the bombing had not defeated him militarily, Clark, who knew the Serb dictator well from previous negotiating encounters, replied: “You’ll have to ask Milosevic, and he’ll never tell you.”


The author also emphasises the importance of conscious strategic direction in interpreting historic events: “Yet why Milosevic gave in and why he did so when he did are by far the most important questions about the air war experience, since the answers, insofar as they are knowable, will help to lay bare the coercive dynamic that ultimately swung the outcome of Allied Forces.”


But that’s not all. Assume you have made up your mind about your desired strategy in that unique context and came up with a unique operational configuration to implement it, how do you measure success when something is being done for the first time? When there are no best practices to guide you, and no previous experience to hint whether your operation is going as planned?


To make things more complex, how do you measure success when war is not so typical anymore, and what merits ‘victory’ keeps changing? How do you measure success when what used to be called a ‘state of war’ keeps changing? And, on top of that, how do you measure success when you are constantly changing (with the variety and flow of reality)?


Enter Inconvenient truth no’ 2:


SOD (Systemic Operational Design) Inquiry is geared, as already mentioned, to militaries (and their counterparts) orientation in an ever-changing world, making sense of new emergences, and transformation to maintain the pace of the flow. Systems stand for the language to cope with and rationalise complexity, chaos and nonlinearity. Operational stands for mediation of tensions that are unique to generals (and their equivalents) in a manner represented by the coupling of sui-generis Strategy/Operation.  From Design we took the dialectics of (abstract) Logic and (concrete) Form. From inquiry we took, the deliberate cognitive transition from a complex emergence you do not comprehend, to a systemic understanding you can act upon.


But there are three conditions for that process to work: (1), you have to embody all three ingredients in your inquiry; (2), you have to be accountable to your process and product in some way; and (3), you are on borrowed time. That is, you have a small window of opportunity to carry the operational concept throughout.


So, if your inquiry ends in an Operational Blueprint that is shoved into a drawer, it will probably fail when eventually pulled out. Or, if your organisation’s strategic white paper identifies three institutional postures: Routine – Emergency – War to communicate threat level and state mobilisation (like the IDF’s 2016 one), you may find that those do not cover the span of forms of conflicts on the one hand, and do not complement each other systemically. Finally, threat scenarios in the strategic level imply you have given up on figuring out what the world is trying to teach you, and let your enemy lead you instead.


Enter Inconvenient truth no’ 3:

Or as we have learned from George Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’ saga, both the dark side and the light side exist in the true nature of the force[2]. It is a question of ego versus altruism, or prioritising interests. Jedis must use both, according to the context, which makes us think: what kind of virtues are we promoting to our generals? Do the traits required from tactical and field commanders are identical to those needed at the strategic-operational levels which are highly political?


I argue that generals must unleash the power of their dark side, if they had not already done so. We may not want them as our friends, but we sure as hell need them to command.

Take the IDF Operation ‘Good Neighbours’ in the Syrian Golan Heights for instance: When the civil war began, Israel thought it could stay out of it and let all sides exhaust themselves. Shortly after, the warring parties got much closer to the border and war touched us, both humanitarian and security wise. Intelligence was not even mildly tuned to these events; but the commander responsible for protecting the Golan (mind you – originally against the Syrian Regular Armed Forces…) realised that something must change.



Six years after, we have a newly established Territorial Division instated in the Golan Heights, 210, and, according to foreign press, a range of operations carried out from humanitarian assistance through intelligence collection, psychological warfare, information operations and regular warfare – all aimed at establishing new rules of the game and shaping the arena according to Israeli interests.


There was no IDF doctrine or past experience that could prepare the Commander of 36th Armoured Division, who had traditional responsibility over the Golan Heights since the 1973 War, to change his course from preparing for potential conventional all-out war against Syria, to anything but war that is really not against anyone… So him and his team of command an staff had to do trials and errors in their conduct of a series of inquiries and operations.

But they also revealed their dark side, both internally and externally: First, not all rebels are on our side in the value scheme of things. We mastered the term ‘frenemies’ these couple of years to a whole new level. Second, on the path to operational revelation, command and control was sometimes overlooked. And, finally, a regular, armoured, glorified division in IDF history has shifted for a long period of time to reforming ‘irregular’ warfare, learning it on the fly, borrowing from non-military practices.


If efficacy, depth and roundness (of character) are core concerns of every military designer, what may ensure their fulfillment?

In my first SOD evolution at OTRI – the late IDF Operational Theory Research Institute – between 1999 and 2006, I focused my theoretical and practical work on the British General Orde Wingate and his theory of Deep Operations. But being an SOD member, my research was generalist, embodying three perspectives: Military History, Cultural criticism, and Operational Art. That was when it became clear to me that SOD and SO are philosophically one and the same, since SOD inquiries begin by sorting out a situation we have encountered for the first time, and drawing from it an operation to be tested for the first time. The Cyber domain has taken this to extreme, as one cannot operate in the same axis twice, or employ the same tool twice, if one wishes to maintain non-attribution.


Part Two: How can we leverage SOD by adding SO to the equation?

In February 12th, 2002, then US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld responded to a question raised during a DoD news briefing, regarding the lack of evidence linking Baghdad and terrorist organisations. That response was ridiculed in the press but in my mind gave insight to the unsettling state of mind of generals stemming from having to cope with these paradoxes:

“Reports say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; There are things we know we know. But we also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns. The ones we don’t know we don’t know…”


In the IDF context of 2018, geopolitical known/unknowns are: The depth of Iranian hold on the Shiite Axis, from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon, and on the Middle East at large; The foreseen end to the Syrian Civil War and the joining hands of Russia, Iran and Turkey in keeping Assad in power; the Hamas/ Egypt/ISIS triangle in Sinai; Recent mutual declarations by President Trump and President Abbas regarding the movement of US Embassy to Jerusalem, and the potential for a Palestinian reconciliation; Or, an increase in Israeli-Arab involvement in latest terror attacks.


If you saw my Ted Talk you know, I place Generals with that 1% of the system makers of society. [If you have not seen my Ted Talk that is your cue]. As such, they are supposed to be the system’s sentinels, always on the lookout.


It is no coincidence then that SOD is having a renaissance in the IDF. Over half of our current General Staff are graduates of the new Generals Course ran by Shimon Naveh and myself, under the auspices of the Commandant of Colleges who is also the Northern Corps Commander.


Our Generals are facing, each in their own Area of Responsibility, a strategic context that has nothing to do with the education they received and the experience they have gained throughout their military service.


IDF Generals also witness the need to reframe their strategy and operations during short terms (between 2 to 3 years). Hence, we encourage our generals to educate themselves, rely on their cognitive capacities, and to self-organise their command system for learning mode (instead of a controlling one…) –  So they could lead the system they are in charge to uncharted territories:

* Photo of Angus Macfadyen, who plays Robert Rogers on AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies

Throughout history, we had states-persons who asked for a truc in situations of political stalemate, and generals who could produce them:

Queen Elizabeth had Sir Francis Drake and her Sea Dogs: a group of sea-raiders (privateers) also known as Elizabethan Pirates. The Sea Dogs were essentially a military branch that were authorised by the Queen to attack the Spanish fleet and loot their ships in order to bring back riches and treasure. The Sea Dogs were able to do this because they carried “Letters of Marque” which made their plundering of Spanish ships legal (in their home country) despite the countries not officially being at war with one another. The Sea Dogs were initially started in 1560 as a way to bridge the gap and close the difference between the Spanish Navy and the English Navy.


President John F. Kennedy is considered the political patron of modern special forces in the U.S. In the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he sought flexible response and demanded Congress approval for a buildup of a force that enabled him to change the orientation of armed forces towards non-nuclear, limited, unconventional wars. To this day, U.S. Green Berets remain the closest organisational truc in that sense.

It was Prime Minister Winston Churchill though who set the stage for what we now know as Special Operations and gave them their name.


After the systemic failure that led to the expulsion of Allied Forces from Europe and Britain on the verge of invasion, Churchill realised that alternative ways must be developed in order to regain control of reality by alternative understandings, alternative organisations and alternative actions.


Churchill established two institutions: the Special Operations Executive and Combined Operations HQ. SOE initiated the system of espionage, cultivating resistance and unconventional warfare. Combined Ops HQ was originally tasked to build the capacity for amphibious operations in order to invade Europe, but later expanded into: developing new forms of warfare unique to each continent during the war, initiated and coordinated special operations as part of the Allied Campaign.


The Americans followed suit with establishment of the Office of Strategic Services but unlike the British, disbanded it soon after the war ended. Some view SOCOM as the incarnation of COHQ.


However, this truc needs a frame..… Without a context, SO are either doomed to not deliver on their promises or worse, get slaughtered.

In his monumental memoire, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence poetically describes the pursuit of difference as a potential for gaining new insights:

“When a thing was in my reach, I no longer wanted it. My delight lay in the desire, and when a desire gained head, I used to strive until I had just to open my hand and take it. Then I would turn away;

There was a special attraction in beginnings… The invisible self appeared to be reflected clearest in the still water of another man’s yet incurious mind.”


In other words, cultural criticism which rises in the Imperial periphery, far away from the institutional paradigm and command hierarchy, is another truc to be utilised in the pursuit of relevance in an ever-changing reality.


In this sense, Generals are war machines who should agitate not just your rival, but also your own institution. In this sense, the essence of SO SOD is to betray the paradigm in the quest for Strategic and Operational potential. Potential by way of beating your enemy in setting the rules of the game, the play field, the timing and the tempo.

At the end of the day one may look at Strategy as a compelling argument:

  • You must build it in a certain way
  • You don’t know if it is going to work
  • and even if it does, you cannot repeat it

The truth is, successful strategy accelerates the drift: our own intervention changes reality in a way that must invite the next inquiry…

So maybe, a good strategy simply means we managed to align ourselves with the flow of reality.

Recently I attended a lecture of Eshkol Nevo, one of Israel’s successful fiction writers. During the lecture, he described his work as a writer and I could not but wonder, how much of what we expect from our Generals aligns with what this writer describes as his metier:

“I hunt stories. How do you know a good story? There must be a secret. Something not quite figured out. Something needs solving. Something out of the ordinary.  A Mismatch.”

Nevo continued:

“A story is a theory about the world. How do you know there is a story? You look for a conflict. Writing a good story involves fear. It is a measurement of its quality.”

“A good story-teller ‘fixes’ that mismatch between what reality presents us and our own reasoning.”

Nevo finished his lecture, and I was left with the thought that maybe Strategy, is but a good story.


Dr. Ofra Graicer is an expert in systemic operational design (SOD) and aspiring Generalist a-la Joseph Campbell, working for the past two decades with Militaries and Defense establishments around the globe, towards transforming them into self-disruptive systems. Ofra co-instructs the Israeli Defense Forces Generals’ Course alongside BG (Ret’) Dr. Shimon Naveh, where they prepare Senior Military Officers for General Staff level of performance, and guide them through the process of devising strategy and operations for the new era. Dr. Graicer’s research areas range from Deep Operations to Special Operations and Cyber, where she develops Future Concepts, war-games and simulations. Her book ‘Two Steps Ahead: From Deep Ops to Special Ops – Wingate the General’ has been circulating in leading military command schools since 2009. Ofra served as a Snipers Officer in the IDF and is educated in Art and Film, Political Science and Security Studies. You can visit her dedicated website at


*SO & SOD are respectvely the acronyms of Special Operations (SO) and Systemic Operational Design (SOD)


[2] For more see:

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