SPADE 2018
25 January 2022

Strategic Synthesis: Designing Military Decision-Making in an Alternative Frame

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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.”

he term ‘synthesis’ is in both the title of this monograph and established from this section forward as a major element for institutional reflection and transformation. Modern militaries invest almost exclusively in analytical thinking and have little appreciation for synthetic thinking as reflective in modern doctrine, education, training and their decision-making methodologies. This is not meant to be pejorative- again, analytical thinking is the cornerstone of modern technologically advanced societies and are how militaries can improve efficiencies, convergence, reliability, uniformity, risk-reduction and control in complex, even chaotic security contexts. Yet analytical thinking alone is insufficient, even counterproductive for strategic thinking in truly complex, dynamic systems. When one is immersed in complexity, one must shift from analytical tools to those that promote synthesis; analysis does not lead to synthesis nor can ‘doing better analysis’ compensate for this difference. Complexity theorist Russell Ackoff provides an explanation of synthesis and how it differs from analysis, as well as how organizations tend to misunderstand the relationship of both efforts toward complex systems:

The perceived wrongs in a system can seldom be considered separately and removed one by one; wrongs are generally systemic properties that arise out of the interaction of the system parts. To right the wrongs one must deal with them holistically (synthetically), not analytically. Research is the paradigm of analytical thinking; design is the paradigm of synthetic thinking. Therefore, by redesigning systems, one can right its wrongs. But, there are two types of wrongs: Doing things wrong (incorrectly), a matter of means, and doing the wrong things, a matter of ends… correcting these errors involves doing things right (efficiency), and doing the right things (effectiveness).[1]

NATO and Joint Forces have significant opportunities to transform much of their decision-making methodologies, targeting behaviors, models, language as well as deeper institutional patterns, frames, and sense-making constructs. To do this, they must shift away from exclusively analytical problem-solving (the current NATO-OPP/JPP) to strategic design and thinking synthetically (hence, ‘seeking strategic synthesis’ as the title of this monograph). With the fall of Kabul, the return of some ‘Cold War’ form with Russian and perhaps Chinese rivalries, the recent rise in aggression of non-western adversaries and emergent developments of unorthodox or unfamiliar non-state rivals capable of organized violence, NATO and Joint Forces are at a crossroads. Clearly, there is a need for deep reflection and potential disruption and replacement of more than a few sections or steps in existing military decision-making.

Military organizations need to consider actions beyond restoration or maintenance of traditional or institutionalized military decision-making for strategic, operational and tactical synchronization of forces for security challenges. NATO and Joint Forces can use design concepts and praxis to deconstruct existing methodologies, behavior patterns, language, and organizational practices so that NATO-OPP and JPP as well as other activities break out of repetitive, non-reflective cycles of convergent behaviors.[2] In other words: “The non-reflective practitioners, novice and experienced, work with single details in an elemental, procedural way which appeared to diminish their need to critically challenge proposed alternatives…non-reflective educators made the decision themselves about which problem solution would make the difficult situations somewhat more acceptable within the immediate context.”[3]

This non-reflectivity must be realized, addressed and mitigated in order to open the organization up to thinking reflectively and differently about complex security contexts. To accomplish this, NATO and Joint Forces need to shift their commanders, strategists, analysists, and staff members away from ‘single loop thinking’ which is typically prevalent in most military organizations so that they adapt ‘triple loop thinking’ that we term ‘reflective practice’ in this paper (drawing from Donald Schon’s research). This is not a suggestion to change what or how we think about warfare. This is a suggestion to change why we are unable to think differently because we are trapped within a subset cycle of non-reflectivity. As the maxim goes, ‘when the only tool you have is a hammer, you will start treating all of your problems like they all are nails.” When we insist that every conflict must be understood through our models, metaphoric devices and methods simply because the force understands them, we lose the ability to explore alternatives to our institutionalizations nor are we able to disrupt them.

Single loop learning and thinking is defined as ‘means-end thinking’ and is observed in virtually all military policy, doctrine, decision-making methodologies, and practice. “Ends are set and then a search begins for the best means of meeting those ends.”[4] Organizations reliant upon single-loop thinking (often unwittingly) remain fixated in all activities on searching for the best means of meeting the desired or leader-directed ends, to include end states, goals, or operational effects in an input-output (systematic) logical arrangement. Only the predetermined and institutionally validated ‘ends’ are defined and planned upon, while “other definitions of ends are either not recognized or not valued.” [5] This is immediately observable when an organization identifies a single desired future or end state, and through wargame simulations or ‘course of action’ selection and comparison, converge upon a single planned COA to reach a single pre-defined ‘ends’ that corresponds to clearly understood and linked ‘ways’ and ‘means’.[6]

“Creative solutions to problems are not ones obtained by selecting the best from among a well- or widely-recognized set of alternatives, but rather by finding or producing a new alternative.”[7] Yet COA production directs strategists and planners to follow institutionalized sequences of recognizable, historically validated forms of organized action, complete with doctrinally approved language. A lack of multiple futures, scenario planning, or strategic foresight indicates that alternative ‘ends’ are not considered or valued; linear causal effects that link the present state through ways and means toward the desired future ends are the only focus for analysis and planning of military activities. Further, when we dismiss any critical reflection of why we frame conflict in a centralized hierarchy of ‘strategic-operational-tactical’ that has no scientific basis because we feel it is simple enough to work sufficiently, we insulate ourselves from innovation. Doing the same things because they are familiar to the institution is only useful for as long as complexity humors the organization sticking with the concept. Change is painful only until the agony of failing to change garners sufficient attention.

Single loop practitioners are “task oriented, oriented exclusively to identifying the best means to meet their defined ends. Identification of ends and the best means to achieve them is not considered to be problematic…the consciousness of single loop learners is non-reflexive leading to an obsession with the best means to meet their defined ends.” [8] Single-loop practioners focus upon ‘are we doing things right’ and more specifically, ‘how should we do an activity to accomplish something?’ The ‘ends’ are often accepted without critical examination beyond a rationalization that ‘accomplishing this predetermined end will produce a desired output…this output is associated directly with the historically validated input were ‘ways’ and ‘means’ correlate to efficiency and control/prediction for cycles of input-output activities. “The means then is a search for a radically improved set of processes to do this.”[9]Capability and capacity become woven together in an ever-tightening cycle of military decision-making through reverse-engineering adhering to formulaic, systematic logic pairing inputs to outputs.

Thus, the organization asks what the goal is and once determined in advance, all movement toward accomplishing that goal is evaluated in terms of analytic optimization, adherence to institutional practices and methods, as well as confirmation of historical input-output (problem-solution) knowledge curation by the organization. When the modern military institution considers NATO-OPP or some JPP variation, these generally demonstrate strong degrees of single loop thinking. Regardless of where one is within the process, evaluation is conducted to determine what one is doing and how one might better execute the ‘what-centric’ activity linking singular ‘ends’ to institutionally defined ‘ways and means’. Or to consider how every ‘after action review’ shares one commonality with all others conducted in all military training environments, the primary assessment of performance is how well one (individual or unit) adhered to following the doctrinal sequence or methodology, and how one might change to adhere even more effectively in a future attempt at the same training challenge.[10]

Double loop thinking and learning takes reflection one step beyond the single loop practice and asks: “are we doing things right and are we doing the right things…there is a bid to preserve the ‘How’ and ‘What’ centers that the two questions bring forward respectively, thus de-emphasizing the task-oriented nature of intervention.”[11] To engage in double loop thinking means that the practioners still describe the theory and logic of their activities, but take a more abstract or detached perspective so that they can clarify their vision by acting toward the preferred means-ends relationship that the institution has defined. When an organization begins to repeat a pattern of behavior and some remark “here we go again”, this can indicate double loop thinking. For example, planners that examine the Newtonian physics of ‘gravity centers’ and how actual gravitational equations have no utility in warfare applications will show double loop thinking with: “we know COGs are artificial and unscientific in how militaries use them, but it is part of our doctrine and appears good enough to continue the practice.”

Conformation to the institutional form and established process (input to output, ends-ways-means) is retained in double loop thinking, with the ‘how’ question expanded to consider “how might our organization execute this action using institutional (legacy) processes more effectively” so that different ‘how might we’ opportunities are generated in double-loop thinking over single-loop practice, yet the practioners refrain from critically reflecting upon their own premises. While a single-loop practitioner evaluates how effectively they performed a ‘center of gravity’ analysis in NATO and Joint planning methodology so that they can improve their performance, a double-loop practitioner further describes the reason why effective COG analysis is essential for executing that particular methodology in order to accomplish institutional goals.

Triple loop thinking (and learning) seek to explain why individuals and institutions desire such conformity and a shared frame for linking thought and action within complex reality. They do this because all frames are inherently limited and a dynamic, adaptive system will learn and transform through emergence as the organization interacts with it. The single-loop thinker repeats best practices over and over expecting each time that they might gain some additional improvement, while the double-loop thinker may move to framing ‘good enough practice’ that still reinforces institutional frames, but expands ‘input-output’ toward ‘how might we reach the ends desired and have we been doing it wrong previously?” Only the triple-loop thinker considers further: “is our idea of ends-ways-means’ flawed in this application?” Or “have our institutional preferences blinded us to emergent opportunities that require entirely different cognitive tools for us to navigate in ways previously unimagined or unrealized? If so- what might we do differently to explore these options, and what favored tools must we let go of so that we can learn different ways of praxis?” There is a high degree of self-awareness, critical examination, and a flexible ‘in the moment’ appreciation of complexity, change, and systemic thinking in triple-loop learning. The graphic below illustrates these loops for thinking, and how ‘triple loop’ thinking is akin to Donald Schon’s notion of “reflective practice’.

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

In the above graphic, a timeline is added horizontally to illustrate that when organizations or individuals move from single-loop reasoning toward double and later triple-loop thinking, they move away from closed-system thinking that attempts to pair ‘problem-solution’ in an ‘input-output’ systematic logic. Instead, designers begin in triple-loop thinking to gain access to designing evolutionary (progressive developments), revolutionary (game-changing, radical and systemic developments) opportunities as well as single-loop ‘solutions’ to particular problem sets. The term ‘dissolution’ is provided here to indicate the complexity work of Russell Ackoff, where ‘problem-solution’ constructs can exist in simplistic or complicated systems where, as Snowden later posits, simplistic systems do permit ‘best practice’ optimized solutions and complicated systems yield to ‘good practice’ solutions as well.[13] Problem dissolution can only be accomplished within the triple-loop cognitive space:

Dissolution involves idealization rather than satisficing or optimization, because its objective is to change the system or its environment as to bring the system closer to an ultimate desirable state, one in which the problem cannot or does not arise. This is what I call the design approach. The designer makes use of the methods, techniques, and tools of both the clinician and the researcher, but he uses them synthetically rather than analytically. He tries to change the way the system as a whole functions within it. Dissolutions are found in the containing whole; solutions are found in the contained parts.[14]

Ackoff’s explanation above and his last sentence is key for NATO and Joint planners concerning how NATO-OPP and JPP approach decision-making for complex security challenges. The current NATO-OPP/JPP is structured entirely for problem-solution constructs; each deliberate activity becomes a ‘contained part’ with a paired military solution (historical, known, ritualized, static) therein. Modern military institutions should consider how problem dissolution would approach transforming the entire (whole) system, thus a systemic design that avoids ‘input-output’ reductionist ‘problem-solution’ or systematic logic in complex security challenges. Problem dissolution will be further elaborated in a subsequent section, and dissolution does not equal ‘solution’ at not just a methodological but epistemological level. Yet before presenting those considerations in how to reframe what military problems are (and are not), a robust explanation of what ‘reflective practice’ is for military designers is necessary.

Donald Schön created the theoretical basis of ‘reflective practice’ which gained prominence in the 1980s using sociology, complexity theory, systems theory as well as cognitive science and organizational studies. Schön’s work would deeply influence the design movement as well, leading to later adaptation of his ideas into security design praxis since the late 1990s. Schön viewed reflective practice as the interaction of tacit knowledge (deep, rich understanding that is hard if not impossible to articulate) with changing, emergent conditions where the practitioner is doing and thinking in a complimentary fashion.[15] Martin, in describing his own military design team’s failings in Afghanistan, articulates this concept of reflective practice with:

Somehow the Design group had to be able to question underlying assumptions and that questioning had to be able to permeate out to the rest of the command. Underlying assumptions like questioning the motivations of those you are working with, why they are doing what they are doing, and why they aren’t doing what you want them to. Assumptions like why we are there and what we are driving at. Assumptions like what “success” will look like, what our people will support, and what our politicians will accept. And assumptions about what drives people or groups of people to do what they do. We can’t accept doctrine or popular psychology as dogma. We can’t be attracted to the conventional wisdom of the day. We have to constantly question “why” we think something is the way it is.[16]

While military education, training and all institutionalized doctrine is centered on generating ‘explicit knowledge’ that is simple to convey, clear in meaning and able to be practiced uniformly and reliably across a wide population in a range of contexts, complex reality prohibits everything that is tacit from being converted into the explicit.[17] This is a core tension in organizational theory and why knowledge curation is a difficult task for most any organization. Non-reflective practioners (those stuck in single as well as double-loop thinking) will repeat activities and pay exclusive attention to their adherence to the set methodological, or indoctrinated practices as offered by their institution. In the graphic below, non-reflective practitioners will consider the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of any challenge using imposed legacy frame constructs exclusively (and often unwittingly; or non-reflectively).

Non-reflective practice uses decision-making methodologies that attempt to channel any ‘what’ discussions into descriptive orientations that reinforce legacy system beliefs, which tend to be considered ‘best practices’, are indoctrinated into policy, methods and military doctrine, and tend to become the (unquestioned) rules and norms of organizationally sanctioned behaviors. These in turn can become ritualized, where what was perhaps originally a scientific or experience-based pattern over time becomes tangled in organizational values and the practice becomes symbolic and nested in how the organization views itself (self-relevance) as well as its role, purpose, and contribution to other key stakeholders.[18] In the below graphic, this non-reflective pattern of thinking moves toward what is defined as a ‘practice of institutionalized actions’ that largely correlates to traditional planning (tactical, operational) as well as strategic behaviors and policy. This non-reflexivity “entails a refusal to use intellectual resources outside a narrow and ‘safe’ terrain. It can provide a sense of certainty that allows organizations to function smoothly… however, [it] can also have negative consequences such as trapping individuals and organizations into problematic patterns of thinking.”[19]

With reflective practice, security designers using triple-loop thinking can reframe the ‘what’, ‘how’, and introduce ‘why’ where complex security challenges are not treated “primarily as a form of ‘problem solving’, ‘information processing’, or ‘search’…Naming, framing, moving and evaluating are central in Schön’s view of design. The designer constructs the design world within which he/she sets the dimensions of his/her problem space…the situation talks back, the practitioner listens, and as he appreciates what [he/she] hears, [he/she] reframes the situation once again.”[20] Thus, to design in reflective practice means there is fluid transformation, and that which was formless and unimagined is not given novel form and unexpected function of emergent advantage toward the complex security challenge. Instead of moving toward ‘what-centric’ descriptions that reinforce legacy sanctioned activities, reflective practitioners consider ‘knowing in action’ where “doing and thinking are complementary. Doing extends thinking in the tests, moves, and probes of experimental action, and reflection feeds on doing and its results. Each feeds the other, and each sets boundaries for the other.”[21]

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

The illustration above frames the overarching shift necessary for NATO and Joint Forces to transform their decision-making activities in a manner that breaks from previous efforts. Incremental changes that make minor improvements upon previous versions of doctrine is not useful, nor is replacing recently unpopular terminology with the latest ‘military buzz words’ that have captured institutional attention during the review process either. The ‘what-how-why’ dynamic moves toward one of reflective practice by NATO and Joint Forces so that iteratively, they can design “toward failure” in that novel failure cycles a triple loop learning process of innovation, imagination, growth, and development beyond original (legacy) institutional limits. This does not mean that failure becomes an objective; failure needs to take on a different institutional understanding for modern military forces where an indirect strategic approach is appreciated. This notion of ‘indirect strategy’ is found in the work of Robert Chia, Francois Jullien, Haridimos Tsoukas, Robin Holt, and several other organizational, complexity, and systems theorists in non-military applications. Until now, no military organization has considered applying these concepts toward decision-making in complex security applications. NATO and Joint strategists, analysts and planners could become pioneers in transforming how their military organizations approach complex warfare in a clear departure from the legacy system of yesterday’s warfighter.

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] Russell Ackoff, “What’s Wrong with ‘What’s Wrong With,’” Interfaces 33, no. 5 (October 2003): 81.

[2] Haridimos Tsoukas and Efi Vladimirou, “What Is Organizational Knowledge?,” Journal of Management Studies 38, no. 7 (November 2001): 973; Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer, “A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations,” Journal of Management Studies 49, no. 7 (November 2012): 1196.

[3] Natalie Ferry and Jovita Ross-Gordon, “An Inquiry into Schön’s Epistemology of Practice: Exploring Links between Experience and Reflective Practice,” Adult Education Quarterly 48, no. 2 (Winter 1998): 98–113.

[4] Flood and Romm, “Contours of Diversity Management and Triple Loop Learning,” 157.

[5] Flood and Romm, 157.

[6] Meiser, “Ends + Ways + Means = (Bad) Strategy”; Monk, “End State: The Fallacy of Modern Military Planning.”

[7] Russell Ackoff, “The Future of Operational Research Is Past,” The Journal of the Operational Research Society 30, no. 2 (February 1979): 101.

[8] Flood and Romm, “Contours of Diversity Management and Triple Loop Learning,” 157–58.

[9] Flood and Romm, 158.

[10] The author bases this on personal experience including assignments at the Joint Readiness Training Center, Mission Command Training Program, as well as multiple iterations at the Jungle Operations Training Center, Joint Multinational Readiness Center and other similar activities with the same evaluation approaches. In all of these training centers, evaluators perform nearly identical assessments using these criteria exclusively.

[11] Flood and Romm, “Contours of Diversity Management and Triple Loop Learning,” 159.

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

[13] Snowden, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making”; David Snowden, Dr. David Snowden IMDC Lecture: “The Application of the Cynefin Framework in Military Design,” mp3 (Budapest, Hungary, 2020), audio recording from live event; Ackoff, “On the Use of Models in Corporate Planning.”

[14] Ackoff, “On the Use of Models in Corporate Planning,” 355.

[15] Schön, Displacement of Concepts; Donald Schön, “Knowing-in-Action: The New Scholarship Requires a New Epistemology,” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 27, no. 6 (December 1995): 27–34; Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action.

[16] Martin, “A Tale of Two Design Efforts [And Why They Both Failed In Afghanistan],” 14.

[17] Tsoukas and Vladimirou, “What Is Organizational Knowledge?,” 975.

[18] Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” American Sociological Review 48, no. 2 (April 1983): 150.

[19] Alvesson and Spicer, “A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations,” 1196.

[20] Visser, “Schön: Design as a Reflective Practice,” 23.

[21] Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, 280.

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

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