The Role of the Strategic Sponsor in Designing Through Complex Security Challenges: “Leading Without Knowing All the Answers”by : Ben Zweibelson
The design ‘sponsor’, often termed ‘strategic sponsor’ or ‘senior decision-maker’ (as well as primary client, etc) plays a central and visionary role in any design endeavor. While in the broader commercial design movement that spans across modernity from architecture to advertising, and from urban design to political narrative construction, the application of design to complex security affairs follows in parallel with the design sponsor being the central ‘client of authority’ from which design activities spawn from. The sponsor has the authority, resources, command and stewardship of the organization and while some decentralized or independent innovation efforts might function from a grassroots level, for any meaningful design transformation to take effect, a sponsor often must take the helm.
Militaries are steep centralized hierarchies, closer in form and function to traditional religious entities than scientific disciplines or modern corporations with respect to how information, decision and authority is usually exercised and institutionalized. One need look no further than how militaries produce doctrine and how it differs dramatically with scientific communities and other modern professions such as law, business or even policy. This form is nested in military function on complex battlefields where predictability, efficiency, risk reduction, uniformity, obedience and clear control become valued attributes to an organization that is large, bureaucratic, and usually technologically sophisticated. Formal military decision-making has developed over the centuries into the modern form that offers a linear, mechanistic and instrumented mode of systematic logic (where A plus B must lead to C based on historical observations and refined institutional knowledge curation). In these forms of deliberate planning, the commander at each level will take a central and authoritative role in directing, deciding and managing how the organization moves through attempting to understand, decide and act (followed by reflection and assessment of said actions) in what often are the most complex and dangerous conditions created by humans in reality.
When things are generally stable and ordered in warfare, the commander need not insist upon designing differently and often, the military institution encourages leaders to continue to seize upon success with further repetition of the processes that appear to be working. When what worked yesterday carried into today with smashing success, there is little impetus to design. “If it ain’t broke…don’t fix it!” But when a dynamic, complex reality rejects such order and stability, leaders tend to ask for novelty. Only design can produce change, as design in essence is not about extending successful yesterdays as far into tomorrow as possible- that is what planning exists for. Design seeks to critically think about what tomorrows might be potentially out there but are unrealized or ignored because of our fixation on today. Design introduces innovation through prototypes that have no history in any yesterday because they are new. Their ‘newness’ can be unnerving, confusing or shocking because design, when done successfully, transforms the system so that tomorrow’s advantage becomes realized just as organizations reliant entirely upon yesterday’s ideas are surprised in the change up. Indeed, this is precisely when the commander must modify their leadership role, and shift from the traditional military decision-maker of planning activities into the design sponsor for disruptive innovation.
In commercial design applications such as in architecture, software design or advertising, the sponsor may be the senior executive in the position of ‘client’ requesting design consultation from an outside or internal capability. The sponsor is the ‘bill payer’ as well as the top decision-maker within the design activity, regardless of how active or passive a role they may play. That sponsor often faces difficult and even existential risks (of the company succeeding or going out of business) where making the wrong decision, or even the right decision too late in the game matters to them and many other stakeholders. In war, a military commander is responsible over matters of life and death, as well as the national interests of their respective society(s) and for the civilian populations where such a conflict might be unfolding. Both corporate and military leaders struggle on when to focus on the traditional decision-making processes that extend yesterday’s best concepts into a fragile tomorrow, and when to shift to the divergent and innovative activities of designing that present quite different risks, opportunities and consequences.
There are some profound differences between being the commander central to traditional military decision-making processes and that of the military design sponsor where innovation, experimentation, improvisation and disruption/destruction of institutionally cherished views/structures/behaviors are in the kill zone of a curious, reflective design team. This article seeks to provide some milestones along the way for military design sponsors so that they do not accidently shift back into a command decision-maker role that can quickly defeat any design momentum and render the team into operational planners. Innovation is not going to feel remotely like efficient analytic optimization of existing methods, models and doctrinal practices… it will take a reflective and patient commander to sense the difference and as do as the Germans say Fingerspitzengefühl. This translates to ‘finger tips feeling’ and means an intuitive flair or gut instinct that requires profound situational awareness and tacit mastery of one’s abilities as well as inabilities within the greater context of others in a complex, emerging context.
The design sponsor is not expected to be the expert or the most experienced on the topic, nor should the sponsor be the sole authority and decision-maker for which all design activities orient toward as it occurs in military strategic and operational planning. In those modes of security decision-making, doctrine and the methodology dictate that the Commander is central and the authority for ultimate decision-making and is expected to lead the staff toward accomplishing each of the required steps in a deliberate planning process. In design, the sponsor may have a general, abstract or hazy vision of what the challenge appears to be, but acknowledges that within a design facilitation they will be learning, discussing, experimenting, and collectively innovating a new, unanticipated path forward that cannot be executed in a strict, hierarchical mode of progression. More likely, the sponsor may just know that things are no longer working well at all, and there is some gap between what the organization used to have and where they wish to move toward, yet they cannot close the gap using anything from their past knowledge. Something entirely new must be created, and even the sponsor may not know what that is until the designers gradually explore and discover it. This puts the sponsor in the unfortunate cloud of uncertainty and unfamiliarity as the rest of the design team, and there will be institutionalized urges to ‘take control’ or ‘make a decision and get to action fast’ that could disrupt the entire design journey.
The sponsor, depending on availability may only be able to issue the design challenge, empower a design facilitator and resource a design team to act in their absence. This is an unavoidable yet difficult way for design to occur in military organizations. Senior leaders are limited on time and availability, and at an institutional and cultural level, many military senior professionals are uncomfortable with taking an active role in experimenting, improvising and reflectively practicing within a systemic framing where change is implemented in radical, even highly disruptive ways. The formal military culture of ‘prepare briefing, issue ‘read-ahead’, present decision-brief, request decision, execute guidance’ has produced generations of military professionals that assume such activities should extend to all military challenges. For innovation, change and creative warfare, this is rarely the case. The design facilitator is the Sherpa for the organization and is leading the design team not toward creation, but first toward destruction. Old and fragile ideas and concepts must be found, challenged, and destroyed so that the institution is freed to extend into new directions that the earlier concepts were blocking. The facilitator negotiates this difficult, often controversial ascent toward a design summit by encouraging the team and also critiquing and challenging them when they fear moving too far from an orthodox or institutionally encouraged perspective. The sponsor can aid in this journey, working through the facilitator and also directly engaging with the design teams, provided that the sponsor and facilitator trust and communicate frequently and tacitly.
When a design sponsor is able and willing to devote time, the design facilitator will need to carefully engage the sponsor with the design team as well as other stakeholders, groups and populations throughout the entire design process. Ideally, the sponsor should jump-start a design effort by issuing the design challenge to the core design team and be available in that period to discuss with the team their initial questions, ideas, challenges and perspectives. This, like most activities in design, will not be a formal or ‘issue guidance, receive guidance’ sort of hierarchical exchange. Good design sponsors start with a position of ‘I do not know’ coupled with the curiosity of: ‘I sense something is different, and I need the design team to explore this deeply to discover new paths that I and others have yet to stumble upon”. There is a healthy level of appreciation of complexity, change, emergence, and how institutions tend to become bureaucratically rigid over time instead of more flexible. The sponsor likely knows this tacitly (wisdom-based, but hard to articulate clearly) and will dedicate time with the team to move them as far forward as they can conceptually. This should include difficult, forbidden, or otherwise controversial issues within that initial challenge framework. The sponsor must protect the design team as they work through these controversial activities as, if seen from the outside and in a poorly understood context, the rest of the organization might misinterpret the design work outright. The sponsor protects the design team, encourages it, provides a safe environment for it, and in turn uses top cover to begin the long-term narrative of introducing what can be radical design deliverables into the broader organization.
The design sponsor, when able, should visit and engage with the design team periodically throughout their work cycle. If a design team has three days, three weeks, or three months to conduct their design inquiry, that leader should engage at the start, sometime in the middle, and then receive the final design presentation. Of course, if a design sponsor can spend more time, this only adds to deeper design appreciation and trust, as well as opportunity for deeper design debates and experimentation. For longer projects, that sponsor should take multiple efforts to get partial design status updates, and dedicate sufficient time to discuss, improvise and critique the ideas with design teams in progress. None of the engagements including the final presentation should take on the airs of a formal planning or strategic decision briefing, and techniques such as making briefing slides, ‘read-ahead’ packets, ‘executive summaries’ or ‘decision points’ should be applied. These efforts work for the purposes of planning, but tend to be disruptive and detrimental to how design and innovation emerge.
When the design sponsor is not available, the design primary facilitator(s) should bring updates and deep questions/concerns to the leader and spend time one-on-one with the sponsor in order to convey new thoughts and perspectives back to the larger design team. Sponsors should take an active role in also engaging with associated senior stakeholders that may not be directly involved or even aware of the design effort, so that the sponsor can gain new insights and express some improvisational or experimental ideas with a range of other key people/groups/organizations that might only be possible if done by that sponsor. Afterward, that sponsor must convey those insights back to the design team (usually through the facilitator or directly). Where there is design, there should be white boards. A facilitator should never fear wheeling a white board into the sponsor’s office with a handful of markers and ask for the sponsor to take part in some of the divergent ideation. In turn, a sponsor active and able to contribute should keep a white board nearby, and when inspiration strikes them, they should put pen to thought and later bring those ideas to the facilitator and/or the entire design team in a collaborative mode of ideation, iteration, reframing and prototyping. Designers are more artists than engineers (depending on the design focus of course), and artists must go through many rough sketches until they morph their ideas into a final form.
The design sponsor wears “two hats” in that they function as the primary client for the design activity, and also during the design implementation and transition into actionable planning and execution, the leader assumes the traditional role of Commander leading the deliberate planning and assessment phases. During this, a design sponsor should attempt to wear both hats and be mindful of extending the divergent, abstract and innovative form for design into the deliberate planning side so that one informs the other, and vice-versa. The execution of the plan (inspired by design to be planned in novel form/function & purpose) will have design consequences that the sponsor is ultimately responsible for. How does the leader then cultivate the necessary reflection, introspection, reframing, additional improvisation, experimentation and innovation to carry momentum into a new round of design and novel planning?
Design sponsors will consider the different structures, organizational logics, and overarching goals as they exist for design and detailed planning, so that the sponsor avoids confusing either team. When not available, the design sponsor must empower the design facilitator, provide the design team with necessary resources and time, and engage iteratively with the design team throughout its cognitive journey. Sponsors, when exchanging information with a design team, should avoid formalized presentation, and instead engage directly with the designers through reflective practice.
One should beware of checklists when discussing design. However, the list below offers the basic ingredients on what a design sponsor tends to do in military design contexts. They may occur in any order and the list below is not exhaustive. Design sponsors are typically responsible for some or all of the following requirements:
a. Providing initial design guidance and ensuring that guidance is understood by the team; frequently in the form of a question and often abstract in form. Guidance should never be rendered in some ‘ends-ways-means’ framework, as the point for designing is to bring to the organization that which is needed for changing tomorrow to a newly appreciated advantage unknown or unrealized by adversaries, and in order to introduce such a design the team must also convince the organization that likely is fixated only on yesterday’s successes extending forward.
b. Assignment of the design facilitator: often a senior leader or key staff member within the organization with extensive design experience is a primary responsibility of the sponsor or at times the sponsor’s appointed subordinate (like the Chief of Staff).
c. Tasking authority provided to the design facilitator or appropriate leader in order to select design participants as well as direct external design support from across the organization as required must occur. The sponsor in a military organization is usually the senior leader, and without initial ‘top cover’, innovation is quickly stamped out or marginalized.
d. The design sponsor will prioritize time to engage with the design team periodically in order to develop design understanding and maturation of making sense of the complex challenges and design options for experimentation. The bigger the challenge, the more time that sponsor must commit. Accordingly, that time is spend engaging with the design team, and not in some passive briefing mode.
e. When not available, the Design Sponsor at a minimum will engage with the design team indirectly (facilitator, notes, exchanges, sharing concepts and white papers with written feedback) in order to continue design discourse to enable design team discovery, continue the sponsor’s own learning, and refine or adapt guidance as the design effort progresses. When a design challenge spans weeks or months, the sponsor should treat their design team as an escape from the trappings of standard military meetings and scheduling… this is when the Commander gets to roll up their sleeves and think creatively! They should relish the chances and clear time on their calendar when they are fresh, or when they need a re-charge.
f. Once the design team presents the final design deliverable, the sponsor will shape the conditions for implementation of that deliverable into the organization as appropriate for subsequent planning and execution. Often, the design becomes what inspires new or refined commander’s guidance so that the operational planners might plan…but plan differently through novel, transformative forms. Implantation must include amplification and dampening options, as well as some qualitative and, when appropriate, quantitative methods to set assessment on whether the design is producing the transformation, disruption, or systemic change originally expected. Does the organization understand, and can they make sense of the novelty and difference that the design is attempting to implement?
g. The sponsor ensures the unique context required for a design inquiry is protected so that design activities are not disrupted by organizational behaviors and processes that the design inquiry might be inquiring upon.
h. The sponsor moves between convergence and divergence, from the tacit to the explicit, and must use a cunning and systemic mode of coaching, encouraging, challenging and at times, correcting the design team so that they can move far enough cognitively that they reach a destination unreachable by existing conventional planning methods alone.
 To the howling protests of legions of military doctrine writers, consider how military doctrine is drafted by elite, insular committees without show of citation, reference, and other competing theories. Individual authorship is forbidden, with doctrine reflecting the service just as religious doctrine represents the church, school or faith. Production, review and final decisions reflect not a community of competing views, but a strict central hierarchy commanded and controlled not by the author teams but the military commander who signs and enforces the new doctrine. New doctrine retires old versions, and must cooperate and support all existing other doctrine without conflict. No semblance of a legitimate peer review is done, and once published the doctrine cannot be challenged or critiqued by competing ideas within the community as the doctrinal process functions much as a religious dogma within many monotheistic faiths that also operate in hierarchical, authoritative and deliberate fashion. Lastly, military doctrine, like religious parallels, demands faith and obedience of all statements within it- there is no scientific rigor or any semblance of a scientific methodology employed within the doctrine itself.