Graphic from author’s systemic design lecture for an international ILE program, 2022; slide 1 in this sequence
Graphic from author’s systemic design lecture for an international ILE program, 2022; slide 1 in this sequence
27 September 2022

What is Design and Why Might Militaries Require ‘Systemic Design’?

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Original post can be found here:

In contemporary practice, militaries using modern decision-making methodologies are increasingly frustrated, confused, or defeated due to complex security contexts not conforming to such methodological form and function. The defense community of practice, with the emergence of systemic design for military contexts over the last two decades, is now perhaps primed to examine beyond the superficial or process-oriented (hence performance of individuals) of institutional convergence and reinforcement of deeply held beliefs and practices.

Recognition of one’s own institutionalized war frame is paramount so that an organization can shift toward innovation and break through institutional barriers that otherwise will compel operators to continue the rain dances unwittingly (or even unwillingly). This illuminates an institutional shift toward what military forces are seeking organizationally and behaviorally next that liberates them from thinking about warfare in limited, linear fashion.

The NATO Operations Planning Process (NATO-OPP), the Joint Planning Process (JPP) and similar methodologies as practiced today may counterintuitively be part of an institutional barrier to breaking out of one’s war frame. Unwittingly, our own institutions may be preventing the rapid military innovation, imagination, creativity, and experimental mindset necessary for emergent security challenges now plaguing western societies. We know we need to change, but we struggle with how to do so, and what sort of change is worth the disruptive risk. Many military forces today in the post-9–11 drawdowns are calling once more to “return to the basics’”, “keep it simple, stupid (KISS)”, or “focus on the fundamentals” which all translates into an insular, convergent and institutionally self-invested effort to retain and maintain all existing practices, beliefs and theories/methods. Yet is this really what the next generation of military professionals should do? Preserve the status quo? It is precisely the ideas and things your military deems “off limits” that are of paramount interest to designers.

author’s slide 2 in this sequence

Change is difficult, particularly when innovative experimentation comes with no guarantees other than ‘doing more of the same will only lead to previously experienced outputs. Strategic and operational failings in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere for NATO, the United States and allies reliant on the same decision-making methods has once again opened a brief window for institutional reflection just as after the Vietnam War. As a recovering operational planner, I can vouch that ISAF and the Coalition in Iraq were very, very good at complying and adhering to the doctrinal methods, techniques, models and terminology in countless iterations of warfare deployments, unit training exercises, simulations and more. Why does it seem to be a matter of defending institutionally approved methods, theories and doctrine while seeking to assign blame elsewhere? Why does this pattern repeat across the Anglosphere?

What our militaries do with this opportunity will shape future security forces as well as whether they prepare for future unrealized and unimagined conflict contexts or return to fixating on winning the last wars for tomorrow and beyond. We must risk letting go of tried and proven concepts not because they did not work before, but because our fixation on clutching them is limiting our willingness to consider things paradoxical or counterintuitive to what we believe already works fine. Innovation is messy, and war is the most dangerous and chaotic of any human enterprise. There is good reason we seek to standardize, make universal practices, attempt to control and predict, and attempt risk reduction in so many endeavors. Yet these activities come at a cost.

Designing a new way to act in war requires our design of how and why we think… so that we can design novel ways to consider the unimagined, unrealized, and unexplored just outside our current frame.

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Modern military organizations seek a particular overarching approach to arranging decisions and activities in time and space from broad, overarching strategic designs down into subordinate and hierarchically compartmentalized operational and tactical actions. This is found in how entire commands, or a service component will establish a ‘strategic vision’ that takes a standardized, mechanistic approach to identify, evaluate, prioritize and arrange sequences of engagements/activities that converge cumulatively toward a desired end state (strategic goal). Language found in these strategic documents include “achieving objective returns on investments”, “optimize planning and execution”, “establish a standardized approach to identifying and prioritizing decisions”, as well as statements like: “connecting the Command’s objectives through planning steps, execution and assessment through a repeatable, structured process”.

These dominant methodologies, conceptual models and the very terminology used to convey these concepts reflect what this lecture introduces as single-loop as well as double-loop learning and strategizing. These approaches ultimately are non-reflective, in that an organization quickly becomes trapped in a cycle of doing things repeatedly while expecting different outcomes. Thinking in loops has been conceptualized and reinterpreted from a range of theorists across the disciplines of sociology, cognitive science, organizational theory, and more. Donald Schön along with Chris Argyris are two of the recognized pioneers on this topic with Gharajedaghi, Ackoff, Weick as other prominent writers on the topic. For military specific applications, Christopher Paparone addresses this in detail through a sociological treatment of military culture, and Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card focus this on how military intelligence analysists might improve their conceptualization of adversaries.

In order to deeply consider how and why military organizations plan activities in time and space as they do, the conversation must move above and out of purely procedural arguments such as whether one is following the latest planning doctrine properly, or if certain terminology ought to be removed and replaced with new language in order to clarify the specific theoretical, practical and technical assumptions underpinning the explicit military strategy-making and planning efforts. Instead, only a philosophical inquiry can examine why militaries as a profession appear obligated to warfighter frames for decision-making in complex reality, and why those institutionalized frames also filter out paradoxical or antithetical constructs that disrupt or challenge the conventional form and function of the organization.

slide 4 in this sequence

Militaries over the last three centuries followed suit of most all other communities and professions by emulating the rise of classical (natural) science that was preoccupied with independent variables. The whole is nothing but the sum of the parts, and to understand any system, one must apply a scientific method to isolate, determine basic rules that govern those parts, and then reassemble the whole to gain increased stability, prediction and control of the entire system that must respond to these independent variables within. War philosophers of the ancient or Feudal Ages would rationalize upon war some natural orders, but these new scientific ones employed the scientific method to test and evaluate theories, create and sustain conceptual models, and render methodologies drawing from both to equip warfighters with a different way to rationalize reality.

In the 2011 edition of Joint Planning 5–0, operational art and planning is depicted above with the ill-defined qualities of a complex reality gradually becoming stabilized, ordered, or frozen in time and space just enough so that the detailed planning and execution can occur. Then, as time goes on and complexity demands deviation from plans being executed with adaptation and reflection, the ‘evolving problem’ shifts back into uncertainty and is ‘unfrozen.’ Sandberg and Tsoukas, in critiquing this Newtonian Styled ‘scientific rationalized worldview’ find three distinct problems with this frame:

In particular, there are three problems with scientific rationality: (1) it underestimates the meaningful totality into which practitioners are immersed, (2) it ignores the situational uniqueness that is characteristic of the taskspractitioners do, and (3) it abstracts away from time as experienced by practitioners.

Single-loop thinking as featured in nearly all military decision-making doctrine pursues analytical instead of systemic thinking, it seeks to universalize and converge the institution regardless of situational context (universal laws and principles), and it turns time into a linear-causal, forwards-backwards, objective phenomenon that operators can pause, rewind, fast-forward or play at normal speed in simulations, planning activities and as interpreted during organizational execution of these plans. This frame is institutionalized and mandatory for any operator participating in the organization, least they risk alienation or declaration of heresy.

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The ‘single loop’ is defined as means-end thinking, where a future state of reality is envisioned and clarified so that a desired ‘end’ or goal is realized. “Ends are set and then a search begins for the best means of meeting those ends.” The single future state becomes fixed or static, so that a single ‘end’ can be reverse-engineered in a linear-causal manner that employs systematic logic. Systematic thinking is entirely linear, where we assume that reality can be understood through the isolation of distinct value sets for the parts of a whole, leading to what is assumed to be the total value of the whole once added up. Single loop thinking is non-reflective, meaning that operators employing such conceptualization focus on the process and performance by self-evaluation through measured adherence (and validation) of the process.

In other words, non-reflective operators become stuck in WHAT-HOW by following an established sequence and are unwittingly and/or unwillingly committed to following the process at all costs. Once cannot escape the single loop process dependence as a single-loop operator cannot question beyond the limits of following said process. This mechanistic mode reflects powerful influences of how the Age of Enlightenment transferred the laws of reality from ideological structures and beliefs to natural scientific laws and stability; single-loop thinking in turn exercises a mechanistic, mindless system process that has no purpose of its own other than to work as a tool. Operators using single-loop are not mindless, but within using the logical frame they remain non-reflective and devoted to using the tool as it was designed.

Systematic logic seeks to break things down (reductionism) into inputs linked to outputs, or where ‘A plus B leads to C’ in a reliable, uniform, repeatable and verifiable manner. An institution curates such systematic constructs formulaically so that users in the future can refer to an increasing stockpile of solutions paired with historical problems; we become armed with solutions searching along our paths for possible matches to emerging problems in our way. “Single loop learners are task oriented, oriented exclusively to identifying the best means to meet their defined ends…[s]ingle loop learners are isolationist in this way.” This elevation of ‘goal-rational orientation’ suggests a fixation on goals/ENDS where everything is reduced to a means-end calculation. Rutgers criticizes this logic as it “disguises how and by whom the goals in question are to be established and which values underlie them.” Problems are linked to predetermined solutions in what is a linear-causal relationship of systematic reasoning in single-loop thinking. Schön elaborates with: “It is not by technical problem solving that we convert problematic situations to well-formed problems; rather, it is through naming and framing that technical problem solving becomes possible.” Kinsella, in studying Schön’s theories, elaborates with:

Practitioners set the problems that they go about solving, and such problem setting is a form of worldmaking that often falls outside the realm of the technical knowledge learned in professional schools. Problem setting often begins when one’s usual understanding of the world bumps up against a disorienting dilemma or problematic situation that falls outside of one’s usual frames… In this way the practitioner is viewed as setting the problem within a world of his or her own making [emphasis added].

In single-loop cycles, the military operator is conditioned to not necessarily identify a problem, but to frame a ‘problem’ within how their paradigm constructs and explains reality so that the frame itself is validated- making ‘problem-solution’ ideation the default setting for militaries attempting to think and act. When reality is not bending to our will, we deduce there must be a solvable problem lurking, and we set out analytically to identify and isolate it for further treatment. Single-loop thinking prevents any operator inquiry into those values as they violate the closed, single-loop cycle. An illustration of how modern militaries engage in ‘single loop learning’ can be seen below from the 2020 edition of Joint Planning Publication 5–0.

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