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Semiotic Square
14 February 2022

The Semiotic Square and Systemic Logic: A Technique for Multiple Futures

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Original blog post can be found here: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/the-semiotic-square-and-systemic-logic-a-technique-for-multiple-futures-206b996cf30f

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.” 

Note: there is a 52 minute video lecture that takes viewers through this concept available at the ‘Think JSOU’ YouTube channel located here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIdGO21icRQ

The following method for generating multiple futures within a systemic logic is just one technique of many possible ways to conduct scenario planning. This method was developed in military design education at the Joint Special Operations University[1] to quickly move large groups of basic design teams toward systemic thinking in order to break them away from their traditional and institutionally driven systematic logic of seeking a single future desired ‘end-state’ that requires reverse-engineering lines of effort back towards the present context. Scenario planning instead requires multiple futures that need to be divergent and ideally in direct paradox with one another. Few if any of these futures ought to be clearly linked or predictably charted from present state (tomorrow equals most yesterdays) in that the organization clearly can already do this and likely desires to exclusively continue doing just this reasoning.[2] While it is impossible to imagine all possible futures, getting ourselves to consider a wider range of potential worlds requires us to design reflectively away from institutionalized preferences. Preiser et al. articulates this with:

In order to make other worlds possible, even to simply imagine an alternative means of existence, it is imperative that we engage with the restless resistance that can be found in the cutting and weaving together of complexity and deconstruction, in the possibilities that this dialogic reveals.[3]

There are many techniques involving quadrant charts, developing tensions and paradoxes so that various futures can be imagined and improvised for design team consideration. However, the sophistication and multiple sequences necessary to properly conduct some of these scenario planning techniques requires skills and facilitation capabilities that likely exceed the organizational capacities of typical small or medium-sized law enforcement or security organizations. Therefore, this ‘Z-method’ is presented as a streamlined way to achieve many of the intricate outcomes of scenario planning. When the skills, resources and energy is available, organizations should invest in more extensive scenario planning techniques beyond the method introduced here. As the ‘Z-method’ relies upon something called the ‘semiotic square’, that concept will be introduced next. This method has value for rapid implementation into decision-making methodologies such as NATO-OPP/JPP for alternative strategic and operations design where systemic thinking is encouraged over systematic logic alone.

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

Although once used by ancient Greek philosophers as a heuristic device for logical ponderings and highly conceptual discussions, the semiotic square has been resurrected in recent times within sociological disciplines and here in design for a variety of organizational knowledge and complexity theory applications. Semiotic reasoning is associated with postmodern research, where deconstruction and disruption function through language, signs, symbols and socially constructed meanings.[5] For designers to apply the square effectively, the design team should have a working understanding of paradigms, as well as a familiarity with the sociological/philosophical notions of “ontology” (what is and is not knowledge), “epistemology” (how we know how to do something), and “methodology” (the rules, principles, procedures nested within the implicit ontological and epistemological choices of the home paradigm).[6] These terms are philosophical, yet without considering such constructs it is problematic to achieve reflective practice or employ systemic thinking.

Replacing the term “paradigm” with the slightly more generic “construct” (where a group implicitly agrees on the theories, methods, instruments, and values), consider the following.[7] Construct A in Figure 1 tends to be the idealized or systematically derived “end-state” or strategic goal that normally is generated through systematic planning activities. This is where Input 1 should produce Output 2, leading to the desired future state (the linear causal logic frame explained in the previous section). Concept A is encouraged here as the “first future” for designers to generate.

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

In practice, design facilitators encourage a design team to create Future A first, knowing that this envisioned future state will represent the most institutionally acceptable form where existing preferred practices and concepts can easily continue uninterrupted (or challenged) into Future A for continued rationalized relevance. In other words, security organizations need a future garage that has sufficient space inside to store all the institutional “stuff” that must be carried forward and maintained. Anything new can only be integrated if it is rendered (assimilated) into the existing legacy frame for understanding reality as previously, or if incremental, evolutionary change can be added. Thus, new ideas and things can be added to the garage provided they “play nicely” with already existent concepts and beliefs therein. Institutional rituals, traditions, beliefs and legacy behaviors grow stronger over time, further codifying how ‘newness’ is recognized and treated upon encounter.

Once sufficient time is committed to exploring Future A, the design team then moves to Future B within the semiotic square heuristic structuring. Future B in the semiotic square construct becomes the opposite future of whatever Future A was selected as by the design team. Initially, design teams will take whatever they produced for Future A, and begin considering “what is the exact opposite of this” to begin to construct Future B. What is important here for design facilitators is to realize that the Future B construct for a design team tends to illuminate the very limits of their original frame (belief system, values, identity, expectation of reality) for what Future A is, and often what the idealized ‘strategic goal’ or ‘end state’ is for that organization.

Thus, Future B becomes a divergent orientation for the designers, but also an important organizational mirror of sorts; it provides the tensions, paradoxes, and usually the very limits (conceptually, socially, culturally) of the organization when contrasted with the concepts of Future A. Initial iterations of Future B may merely remain superficial, such as taking the doctrinal or institutionally sanctioned opposite stance of something within Future A and marking that as part of Future B. For a federal agency seeking the elimination and prevention of illicit drug commerce in Future A, their Future B might include the legalization of all illicit drugs so that the nation might regulate and tax it as legal enterprise.

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

Construct B serves not just as an alternative future scenario that provides additional divergent thinking space for the organization, but its position in the semiotic square heuristic aid generates further institutional insights into the organization conducting this exercise. In traditional strategic forecasting, only a single desired future state is framed, generally devoid of Construct B ideas in that they are in paradox and tension with Construct A. Yet this is only the second part of the four-scenario generation of using the semiotic square in this ‘Z-Method’ of scenario planning and ideation.

The semiotic square now advances, where we establish from Constructs A and B what are emergent Constructs C and D. First, designers will work on Construct C in the lower left corner of the semiotic square. Here, Construct C is a hybrid fusion of elements of Constructs A and B; designers must fuse key aspects of both scenarios together however they like. Future C presents the interaction of paradoxes and tensions highlighted by Future B, but also the institutional effort to preserve the most critical aspects of Construct A into the hybridization for Construct C. This often is where institutional preservation of values, beliefs, identity, and core concepts can be illuminated.

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

Construct C is an intended combination of Construct A and B, but in the discussion that designers undertake in how and why to create this third future, the design team will flow through iterations of convergent and divergent thinking, as well as reflect critically upon how and why they defined Constructs A and B. In this use of the semiotic square, each of the generated four futures are deeply intertwined, generating significant room for reflective practice by the design team (and the facilitators) as this process unfolds. These first three designed futures (A, B, and C) set up the designers for the fourth and most disruptive, divergent, and introspective scenario modeling of the exercise.

Construct D is defined in the semiotic square as the future that cannot possess anything from Construct A nor anything from Construct B (and thus eliminating Construct C by default). Future D presents the first real exploration of design ideation outside of all previously established frame limits that were self-imposed by the design team as they constructed futures A, B and C. Thus, Future D has the best opportunity to encourage a design team to generate entirely divergent thinking that should operate in a systemic instead of a systematic approach. Often, Construct A is established relying on institutionally sanctioned and entirely systematic logic (input to output; desired future reflects organization’s expectation of ‘solving’ the proposed problem). Construct B enables a realization of frame limits set within Construct A, while Construct C forms hybridization between the two. Only through the development of Construct D will designers need to reflect upon all three of the constructs in order to generate an entirely novel, dissimilar construct of another future.

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

Construct D is often the most conceptually taxing and intellectually challenging to develop, yet there is also something quite liberating and playful for teams as they work through designing Construct D. The systemic logic applied here requires the design team to continue to be mindful of all three other constructs in their semiotic square, which in turn helps generate what can or cannot be part of Construct D. Only Construct D operates in a divergent design endeavor, while earlier seemingly divergent engagements such as in Construct B in turn become somewhat insufficient with respect to diverging away from institutionally sanctioned expectations about future ideation. If ‘what happened yesterday’ can be expressed in Constructs A while still influencing Constructs B and C, their ability to manifest at all in Construct D are greatly diminished. Construct D is that which “has never been seen before in any day previously” and becomes the framework for real divergent ideation for the design team on futures unimagined or previously ‘off limits to speculation’ by the organization.

The divergent thinking necessary to foster constructs such as ‘Future D’ will be challenging for many modern military organizations if only due to the institutional emphasis on convergent thinking in most all decision-making activities. Military training and education tilts decidedly toward hard science, technological and quantitative logics with a linear-causal rationale. Fostering imagination, improvisation, experimentation is closely associated not with formulaic, convergent activities but with play. Research indicates that playfulness and imagination in children is correlated to creative adults that are able to blend creativity and imagination into work differently than their less imaginative peers.[12] Yet playfulness is likely to be considered offensive to the modern military institution, with shared values and belief systems oriented toward an almost pious seriousness concerning anything in war. This tension will produce significant hurdles for design teams composed of military participants, which again will likely reinforce cognitive homogeneity due to established patterns of military recruitment, conditioning, service as well as multi-generational family aspects of what has been termed ‘the warrior caste’ of a minority population isolated from the broader American society.[13] Design facilitators seeking greater divergence and imaginative futures will need to address these tensions by assembling design teams able to disrupt any potential organizational homogeneity of thought, and enable playful ideation within the design praxis.[14]

The below graphic provides the andragogic structuring that this method provides for design teams so that multiple yet systemically related futures are created. Given sufficient time and resources, this methodology should be done through several iterations where multiple different futures are discussed and created. The semiotic square as a heuristic device helps the design team consider different forms of knowledge production with respect to how one might imagine the future and begin to contrast acts of convergent (preservationist) logic with acts of innovation (divergent ideation). Not all innovative acts are superior to those of convergent retention, nor are they even potentially useful. Yet when military forces limit security design thinking to just a single paradigm, or expect innovative design while confusing it with institutionally sanctioned acts of orthodox, systematic thinking toward the future, those organizations may limit their ability to think divergently, creatively, or with sufficient reflective practice.[15] The semiotic square helps with what sociologists term “reflective practice” in that the team critically examines the deeper ontological and epistemological choices and institutional values within the organization’s socially constructed reality.[16]

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

The semiotic square technique for generating multiple futures is an alternative strategic design framework to shift modern military decision-making methodologies away from single-future and systematic (input to output, linear-causal) logic of the legacy methodology for security activities. NATO and Joint Forces could introduce this for considering a broader range of future system states that might emerge depending upon what security activities are selected, as well as those that are considered and not acted upon. Military forces, once able to recognize potential security activity requirements or emergent designs can build multiple future scenarios where the effects of these activities are considered in nonlinear and emergent frames that better realize complexity and systemic thinking. These future scenarios could incorporate not just the selected targets that are executed, but also those not acted upon. Within the strategic framework of indirect strategy, those non-actions are significant to consider within the same dynamic, complex system settings where actions are taken. Scenario planning creates what is termed “memories of the future” where potentiality is valued despite many of the imagined future states may never occur.[18]

This may give many strategists and analysts pause, in that the fear of investing time and energy on what might be an exercise in futility if few or any ideations of possible futures provide any valuable ‘prediction’ capabilities. Yet the power of multiple futures is not in prediction. Instead, preparing scenarios about possible and dissimilar futures acts as a cognitive disruptor and fertilizing act for conditions of innovative thinking about complex challenges. “Although none of those scenarios may come true, the jolt that is delivered to the organization through them is often strong enough to make the organizational challenge its business-as-usual assumptions, its current cognitive models and routines.”[19]

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 https://www.jsou.us , and also connect with Ben on LinkedIn to learn more about this monograph and the planned publication in 2022.

[1] Ben Zweibelson, Designing with Multiple Futures: Transforming Conventional Planning/Strategy Making, MP4, JSOU Design Facilitation Series (Tampa, Florida, 2021), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIdGO21icRQ.

[2] Stanley and Lehman, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective; Monk, “End State: The Fallacy of Modern Military Planning”; Weick, “The Role of Imagination in the Organizing of Knowledge.”

[3] Preiser, Cilliers, and Human, “Deconstruction and Complexity: A Critical Economy,” 271.

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

[5] Kilduff and Mehra, “Postmodernism and Organizational Research,” 457.

[6] George Rizer, Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science (revised ed.), (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1980), 7. See also: Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd ed.), (Chicago, University of Chicago, 1996), 5–15. On ontologies, see: Mary Jo Hatch & Dvora Yanow, “Methodology by Metaphor: Ways of Seeing in Painting and Research”, Organization Studies (Vol. 29, №1, 2008) p.24, 28, 30. See also: Michael Reed, “Reflections on the ‘Realist Turn’ in Organization and Management Studies”, Journal of Management Studies (Vol. 42, №8, December 2005) p. 1623. Werner Stark, The Sociology of Knowledge (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958) p.13

[7] For more on paradigms, see: Majken Schultz, Mary Jo Hatch, “Living with Multiple Paradigms: the Case of Paradigm Interplay in Organizational Culture Studies”, Academy of Management Review (Vol. 21, №2, April 1996) p. 530–533. See also: Marianne Lewis and Mihaela Kelemen, “Multiparadigm inquiry: Exploring organizational pluralism and paradox”, Human Relations (Vol. 55, №2, 2002) p. 252. Marianne Lewis and Andrew Grimes, “Metatriangulation: Building Theory from Multiple Paradigms”, The Academy of Management Review (Vol. 21, №4, October 1999) p. 673–675.

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

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

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

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

[12] Michele Root-Bernstein and Robert Root-Bernstein, “Imaginary Worldplay in Childhood and Maturity and Its Impact on Adult Creativity,” Creativity Research Journal 18, no. 4 (2006): 405–25.

[13] There is limited research supporting this pattern in other NATO nations. However, there are some indications that in nations with strong Anglo-Saxon identities, this warrior caste identity may have social, ideological, and historical precedent. For the American ‘warrior caste’, see: Amy Schafer, “The Warrior Caste: American Increasingly Relies on a Small Group of Multigenerational Military Families to Fight Its Wars. That’s a Problem.,” Slate.Com, August 2, 2017, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2017/08/the-warrior-caste-of-military-families-that-fight-americas-wars.html.

[14] Daniel Hjorth et al., “Organizational Creativity, Play and Entrepreneurship: Introduction and Framing,” Organization Studies 39, no. 2–3 (2018): 155–68; Ben Zweibelson, “Fostering Deep Insight through Substantive Play,” ed. Aaron Jackson, Design Thinking: Applications for the Australian Defence Force, Joint Studies Paper Series #3, December 2019, https://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/publications/documents/joint_studies/Chapter%206%20-%20Zweibelson%20-%20JSPS.pdf.

[15] On breaking out of single-paradigm perspectives, see: Dennis Gioia & Evelyn Pitre, “Multiparadigm Perspectives on Theory Building”, The Academy of Management Review (Vol. 15, №4, 1990). See also: Majken Schultz & Mary Jo Hatch, “Living with Multiple Paradigms: the Case of Paradigm Interplay in Organizational Culture Studies”, Academy of Management Review (Vol. 21, №2, April 1996) p. 530–533. Marianne Lewis & Andrew Grimes, “Metatriangulation: Building Theory from Multiple Paradigms”, The Academy of Management Review (Vol. 21, №4, October 1999) p. 673–675.

[16] Donald Schön, “The New Scholarship Requires a New Epistemology” Change (Vol. 27, №6, 1995) p. 27–29. See also: Donald A. Schön, “The Crisis of Professional Knowledge and the Pursuit of an Epistemology of Practice” in Teaching and the Case Method, Instruction Guide, ed. Louis Barnes, C. Roland Christensen, and Abby J. Hansen (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1987). Karl Weick, “Reflections: Change Agents as Change Poets- On Reconnecting Flux and Hunches”, Journal of Change Management (Vol. 11, №1, March 2011).

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

[18] Tsoukas, “What Is Organizational Foresight and How Can It Be Developed?,” 270.

[19] Tsoukas, 270. Tsoukas cites Van der Heijden, Wright and Goodwin.

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