24 June 2019

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants to Reach a Cake: Observations About Military Design Facilitation

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By Aaron P. Jackson

“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

– John of Salisbury, The Metalogicon, 1159

“Story isn’t the icing on the cake. It is the cake.”

– Peter Guber, Tell to Win, 2011


Unusually for a design facilitator I have a theoretical background in design thinking rather than a practical one. I entered the field via studying the entry of design thinking into military doctrine. I subsequently helped to incorporate a framing method into Australian Defence Force (ADF) joint planning doctrine, and I have since continued to research military design thinking in relation to both military planning and civilian design thinking.

Along the way I have participated in some design courses and workshops, most notably as a Visiting Instructor for a US Joint Special Operations University Special Operations Forces Design Basic Course in April 2019. But I have not yet been a design facilitator. Until now. The culmination of my period as Distinguished Visiting Professor at Canadian Forces College (CFC) was facilitating a design activity during Exercise Shifting Sands, the final exercise in the Advanced Joint Warfare Studies stream of CFC’s O4/O5 level Joint Command and Staff Program. Frankly, design facilitation was involved, exhausting, and sometimes tense, but the experience was worth the effort and energy. What follows is a few anecdotes about my design team’s experience.

The design challenge for the activity was to develop a holistic, systemic understanding of the problem the United Nations, Canada and its allies seek to address by deploying peace support components and counter-terrorist components in the same environment in West Africa. The desired outcome was to develop a game changing approach or design concept that would reframe the challenge to open new pathways to address it. This broad objective was deliberately ill-defined, to facilitate the design team’s freedom to explore as broadly as possible. This breadth notwithstanding, it was evident from the outset that the paradoxes and tensions between these two types of operations, and their second and subsequent order effects, would need to be addressed as part of the design activity. The design team consisted of nine O4 and O5 level CFC students, who were all undertaking their first major design activity.

My approach to facilitation combined methods from civilian human centric design and the UK Design Council’s double diamond, the methods taught at US JSOU, and the framing component of ADF joint planning doctrine. It also incorporated a splash of inspiration from both Israeli Systemic Inquiry for Operational Mediation (SIOM) and an emerging Polish Security Forces design method that is still under development. The reason for my use of this eclectic mix of methods was simple: I know some of the methods from each of these methodologies well enough that I was confident to apply them as a facilitator, but I was not confident enough in my knowledge of any individual methodology to be able to use it exclusively for the entire activity. By excellent coincidence, this approach to facilitation fit perfectly within CFC’s mixed-methodology ‘agnostic approach to design thinking education’.

For the first two days of the six day activity, my team combined with another that was facilitated by OCAD’s Assistant Professor Michele Mastroeni. The support he provided gave me an intellectual crutch while I adjusted to the requirements of facilitation. This was not the only support I received, however. Members of ‘the design cabal’ network of military designers also offered guidance and advice via messages or personal conversations. Two of the most prominent, Ben Zweibelson and Philippe Beaulieu-B, both stated early in the exercise that a ‘baptism by fire’ was the best way to learn how to facilitate design activities. With the benefit of hindsight, I am inclined to agree with them.

The guidance and mentoring that I received is the first reason why this blog post has the title and epigraph that it does. My facilitation was only successful because the support given by a range of more experienced facilitators enabled me to stand on the shoulders of proverbial giants. Where they didn’t do this in person, their methods did it for them. For example, one of my inspirations for an activity we did on day five, which examined what needed to be destroyed and what needed to be created to move to a desired system frame, was inspired by a conversation I had with Ofra Gracier about SIOM last April. Even though the method I used was not from SIOM, employing the idea of destruction that Gracier had explained was very useful in the context of an activity taken from a different design methodology.

This mix of methods from different methodologies also lent itself to an improvised blending, which added to my own nervousness about what the ultimate outcome of the design activity would be, but which also enabled a flexible and emergent approach tailored to the training audience. The outcome of any particular activity was almost always a key consideration in selecting which activity would follow and how this ought to be applied. Anecdotally, this supports my previous advocacy that military planners should develop a “multiparadigm toolkit” that can be assembled as required to suit each situation as it is confronted. From the design team’s perspective, this approach resulted in a perception that was eloquently summarized by one student as: ‘there is a low barrier to entry as a design workshop participant, but a high barrier to entry to facilitate’. This observation was accompanied by most students indicating that while they think it is likely that they will retain at least a few design methods that they can apply, they will probably not be confident enough to lead design teams in their next military postings.

A few of the highlights of the design activity are interesting enough that they warrant being recorded here. The first was that a short (three hour) graphic facilitation course was held for one student from each design team before the activity began. Inspired by this, my team combined the use of graphic representation with the ADF planning doctrine’s method for creating a system map of the observed system. This resulted in an excellent creative drawing of the observed system, its components and their interactions, which was much richer and more interesting than a simple collection of nodes and links would have been. This is also an excellent example of emergence; the students themselves decided to experiment by combining these two different activities, without any guidance or instruction to do so.

On another occasion, when the two design teams were combined, Mastroeni and I attempted an activity that had a very different result than we intended. This meant that the next activity we had intended to do could not be done. It also prompted the design team members to ask some unexpected questions. We facilitators were clearly unsure about what to do next. What we did do was stop the exercise to discuss the team’s questions, then we discussed the difference between our intent for the activity and what actually happened. This turned the situation into a learning activity, which I hope helped to confirm for the students that it is not only ok to fail when doing design, but it is in fact a good thing because it prompts the need to question one’s own assumptions and to reinvent.

On the morning of day three the design activity transitioned from developing an observed system frame to developing a problem frame. Mastroeni and I decided to separate the two syndicates at this point, so that I could try an experimental activity with mine. This activity involved using semiotic squares as a means to explore and reconcile paradoxes and tensions between different types of operations, and between different actors within the observed system. I took inspiration for this from two military design articles, one by Zweibelson, and the other by Zweibelson, Grant Martin and Christopher Paparone. I did, however, alter their method after revising some of the fundamentals of semiotic squares as originally developed by Algirdas Greimas and, at Zweibelson’s suggestion, by linking the final output of the exercise to narrative construction as discussed in both the military and civilian contexts.

The resulting variation to the method is shown in the image below. Students were first asked to write two paradoxical elements they had identified within the observed system in positions A and B. They were then asked to write labels describing either the opposite of, or the complete absence of, A at position ~A; and the opposite of, or complete absence of, B at ~B. Whether they wrote the opposite or complete absence of A and B was contextual and depended on the nature of the paradox and the actors involved. Next, students were asked to write a 2-3 sentence description at position X of what the observed system would look like if it included a combination of A and ~B. A similar description was written at position Y to describe the observed system if it included a combination of B and ~A. Finally, students were asked to write a detailed narrative at position Z, detailing what the observed system would look like if they combined the elements of the descriptions given at positions X and Y that best enabled a possible resolution of the paradox identified at A—B. The narrative at position Z represented a possible way to either resolve the paradoxical tension by presenting a new frame for conceiving the situation, or identified a best-fit compromise for managing the ongoing existence of a paradox that could not be resolved through reframing.

Having deconstructed the observed system to derive these narratives, the next part of the activity was to construct possible future systems by assembling the narratives into cohesive wholes. Working individually but sharing results with the group at each step, each design team member had initially developed three semiotic squares. In pairs, they were asked to draw a picture that showed what the system would look like if all six of the narratives the pair had developed were implemented concurrently. The resulting pictures were collections of metaphors rather than being systems maps.

This brings me to another pertinent observation, which is the value of creating metaphors by drawing pictures. This was an excellent means to achieve one or both of two things. The first thing was the assembly of parts into a whole. This worked because a metaphor is a single, holistic and imaginative output that needs to encompass all of the parts of the system under observation to be feasible. Written descriptions grounded in reality tended to work well when deconstructing systems, but metaphors represented by pictures tended to work better when constructing them. The second thing that the use of metaphors and pictures achieved was to reverse the periodic tendency of the design team to drift into either attempting to plan, seeking solutions or finding barriers based on past experiences, or attempting to use familiar existing terms to describe new and different situations and problems. This was because the construction of metaphors requires the abandonment of existing ontologies that are grounded in reality. The ability of the metaphor, expressed as a picture, to enable the designer to escape reality for long enough to be able to appreciate it in a different way on the return cannot be understated.

Returning to the semiotic squares activity, the final part was that the design team was asked to combine all of the narratives and metaphors into a single picture showing a desired system. They were given two simple rules for this part. First, they had to construct another metaphor to depict the system as a whole, rather than drawing a system map. Second, they were not allowed to re-use any of the pictures that they had drawn when constructing their previous metaphors while working in pairs. This meant that they had to ‘drop their familiar metaphorical tools’, including drawings of flags, stick-figure people, dotted lines, arrows and logos of various organisations, which had all frequently featured in prior drawings. This rule triggered a requirement to reframe the metaphor construction itself, leading to the creation of a new metaphor of a ship cast on turbulent seas, which in turn led the design team to identify new possibilities for creating the intent of the metaphor in the ‘real’ world.

This activity was an example of the advantages of selectively combining different design methods. The combination of semiotic squares and narrative construction resulted from my interpretation of a collection of papers on military and civilian design thinking, and was also influenced by papers on semiotics. The idea to use metaphors and their visual representation as pictures came from one of the JSOU design methods being taught when I visited there in April. Asking the design team to produce their second metaphor without re-using any of the images contained in the first metaphor came from another JSOU design activity developed by Zweibelson. Before the design team began construction of the semiotic squares, they completed a ‘warm up’ activity during which they identified three tensions or paradoxes in their own lives, or that they had observed elsewhere but which were not related to the problem (such as ‘I need a car before I can drive to a job, but I need a job before I can afford to buy a car’). This activity was developed by another JSOU design facilitator, Nathan Schwagler, as a way to help his students to understand tensions. I applied it in a different context to precipitate a different activity, and it worked well for me, too.

Several students later gave me feedback that this was their favourite design method used during the two week activity. They also found it to be the most difficult method to conceptualise, however, as paradox and tensions between competing ideas are not subjects often explored in professional military education, so working with these ideas was largely unfamiliar. The slow progression of the semiotic squares activity, and the sharing of results at the conclusion of each part, helped the students to progressively overcome their unfamiliarity with these concepts. By the conclusion of the activity they had developed an appreciation for the method’s utility. The warm up activity helped, too, and I subsequently used another of JSOU’s creativity games to help the design team to warm up again the next day. This aspect of the activity also received positive student feedback, with one remarking that the use of creativity games that were not directly related to the design challenge helped them to feel mentally recharged.

Of the eclectic mix of design methods that were used, those drawn from the military design literature seemed to generally be the best in terms of challenging the students to think deeply, because these were the methods that best made them have to question longstanding assumptions underlying military ontologies. The military design methods also introduced them to new and relatively challenging ideas such as paradox and tension, in addition to the focus on prompting creativity that was the exclusive goal of most of the (albeit very useful) civilian design methods. This difference is most likely due to the influence of postmodernism and poststructuralism within military design thinking, which has not been present in civilian design thinking, although the difference between military design’s focus on operations and campaigns, and civilian design’s focus on product and service development is probably another contributing factor.

The fourth and fifth days of the activity consisted of constructing various desired system frames, which involved multiple iterations of deconstruction and reconstruction of the observed system, the problem frame and previous iterations of desired systems. My use of this pattern owes its lineage to SIOM, as explained to me by Gracier, though the constituent methods used to action the pattern were different to those used in SIOM. I gave the design team only about the last 90 minutes of the activity to develop a solution frame, using the 1-2-4-all method that is part of the human centric design methodology. This was done in response to the question, “how would you operationalise the journeys from the observed system to a desired system?” The 1-2-4 parts of this activity went as intended, however the ‘all’ discussion within the design team led to an outright argument between the two groups of four over what the operationalised force actually needed to do.

This argument was one of the most tense moments of the design exercise. It was also one of the most productive. In attempting to operationalise their journeys into a deliverable product, the design team very quickly began to plan and discuss tactical tasks, however they found that all of their legacy terms for these tasks were no longer applicable. What they wanted to do wasn’t counter-terrorism but looked like it in some ways; it wasn’t peacekeeping or peace enforcement, but it looked like them in some ways; it wasn’t counterinsurgency, but it looked like it in some ways; and it wasn’t a train, advise and assist mission, though it looked like one in some ways. There were similar parallels between their design concept and various civilian activities, too. What they wanted to do wasn’t community policing, but looked like it in some ways; nor was it social work, but it looked like it in some ways. To resolve the argument they created another metaphor, which enabled them to develop a new label to capture their design concept: culturally led operations.

At the end of the activity, each design team was required to produce a ‘placemat’ and deliver an eight-minute brief on their design concept, to be followed by fifteen minutes of questions. The new metaphor my team developed was that of a tent in the desert surrounded by oases. Their placemat, which visualises their metaphor, appears below.

My design team won the prize for best presentation of a design concept. They began their brief by prompting the audience to stand up and sing a West African song, prior to explaining their metaphor, design concept and the ways that it could be operationalised. This delivery technique was their own idea, and although I had encouraged them to be creative with the brief I had no say in the format they chose. The prize that they won happened to take the form of a carrot cake, and I realised as I watched their brief that I had spent the week standing on the shoulders two types of giants. The first type took the form of more experienced design facilitators, while the second took the form of the organic innovations of my design team, which no amount of my own facilitation could have predicted or prompted. From the shoulders of this second group of giants, I was able to reach a cake.


Dr Aaron P. Jackson is Academic Year 2018-19 Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Defence Studies Department at Canadian Forces College, Toronto. The views expressed herein are exclusively the author’s own and do not reflect those of any organization with which he is, or has previously been, affiliated.

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