As a tool to achieve limited and clearly identifiable objectives, the process is exceptional. Also like a tool, the user risks injury when it is misapplied. Planning doctrine was built to achieve operational level objectives limited in flexibility, scope, and duration.
This doctrine is fundamentally constrained by a presumption that military operations can generate predictable, repeatable effects, and that contextual variables can be foreseen and controlled.
But in designing strategies for flexible, perpetual, real-time competition, the concept of achievable end-states is largely immeasurable and unattainable. There is no end state in perpetual competition, and therefore any attempt to reverse-engineer a path will prove futile.
The defense planning enterprise must realize the inadequacies of current doctrine and adopt a different tool for strategy: strategic design.
Strategic design differs from planning not only in its strategic context, but also in purpose, methodology, and output. Unlike plans, which attempt to script out a sequence of actions, strategic design should aim to comprehensively and continuously understand the problem.
Such a strategy must remain above the level of operational detail, and instead convey a grand, system-level, conceptual overview. It should provide an orientation to the commander’s understanding and intent, like a compass bearing that points toward desired or acceptable futures. From this understanding, subordinate operations can be devised and executed, via delegation and the principles of mission command.
Designers must remain constantly vigilant for emerging opportunities to experiment and capitalize upon promising leads. They must continuously challenge assumptions, remain vigilant to changes in the environment, and be empowered to adapt designs accordingly. Perhaps most importantly, a strategy for a complex problem must remain adaptable to the inevitable changes in the environmental context.
Adoption of strategic design will require several significant changes. Foremost, you needs a means by which planners may conscientiously orient between the operational and strategic frames of reference.
One framework model distinguishes between the complicated, operational and complex strategic problem contexts, and offers guidance on how to approach problems in each. Complicated environments require a sense-analyze-respond approach, like that prescribed in planning doctrine, which allows the planner to select the best course of action to reach a planned terminus based on a fixed set of measurable variables.
Complex environments, as in the competitive strategic realm, require a completely different response. Because of the lack of an identifiable end-state, and because the system variables change with every interaction, these sorts of problems instead require application of a probe-sense-respond methodology that seeks to discover and capitalize upon emergent, novel solutions.
Once the correct environmental context is identified, planners may then use the corresponding approach to frame recommendations. However, when planners misidentify their environmental context, the framework predicts they will fall into a state of disorder.
Planners in this state tend to grasp for external excuses why the particular plan failed, yet make no attempt to change their approach. Unfortunately, the frustration caused by disorder is all too familiar amongst today’s planning staffs. Adding a preemptive step to planning doctrine that forces identification of one’s contextual environment could alleviate much of this frustration and wasted effort.
Strategic design teams must be constructed differently than operational planning teams. Unlike secluded military-centric operations planning, the nature of the complex realm necessitates inclusion of other agencies/partners from the start. Interagency equities must be included from the start to provide a deeper and broader optic of the environment, allowing designers to better appreciate emergent aspects that otherwise would remain unexplored.
This construct also enables design participants to build, test, and strengthen connections and concepts throughout the process. Furthermore, an inclusive design team enables participants to bring the capabilities of their respective organizations to bear.
Team composition is key to the strategic design process. The team should be formed around a core nucleus of dedicated individuals. This core must be empowered to build a network of expertise and interest from a wide range of sectors beyond the military community..
Because they must communicate continuously, the primary task of the core members would be to facilitate discussion and an open exchange of relevant information and ideas between the networks of other team members as they work to develop the strategy products described below.
Once interesting and plausible operational ideas surface, the core team would then be responsible for coordinating with those assigned to resourcing, controlling, and executing the initiatives. Most importantly, the team must have a timely and appropriate feedback mechanism to judge the effects of the strategy so that they can look for subsequent investment opportunities.
Designers must adopt a new language that better conveys the characteristics of strategic design. Operational terms like end state, measures of performance, assessment, and lines of effort have no meaning in the complex realm. Just as hockey lexicon is poorly suited to call a baseball game, designers should adopt a different language to help planners shift to the complex realm.
The language of investment banking makes for an excellent candidate for adoption. When discussing competition strategies, designers could employ terms such as diversification to convey a range of options intended to generate many incremental gains; return on investment to judge the effect a particular action; analysis to describe the effort to understand past system trends; prospectus as a means to convey a summary and prediction of those system trends; and divestiture to convey the need to abandon a particular effort.
This investment-framed methodology also inspires innovation, and mitigates large-scale risk by accepting failure as not just possible but inevitable. It promotes the employment of control measures to minimize risk by allowing invalid approaches to fail in a safe and controlled manner, so they may then be abandoned at minimal cost.
Adopting the language of investment also helps military planners better communicate with non-military stakeholders, and better conveys the perpetual, emergent nature of the complex competitive realm.
Finally, new guidance is required to account for the different methods and desired outputs of strategic design. While operational design orients toward a single course of action, strategic design should aim to test a variety of simultaneous, controlled experiments to determine viability.
Designers must be allowed to study, experiment, and iterate indefinitely, as the problem sets they face are likewise continuous and unending. Most importantly, initiatives must be allowed to fail, safely and early, as new innovative solutions will emerge only through experimentation.
But timely determination of failure, however, requires a deep understanding of the underlying systems. Therefore, strategic designers must remain a step removed from operational planning, and instead focus their efforts on developing a comprehensive, team-based understanding of the systems of the strategic environment.
This systemic understanding can then better guide the strategic design process, and subsequently identify operational opportunities to invest or divest resources through subordinate activities.
With this new guidance must come an understanding that the products of a complex-realm strategy design effort will look vastly different from those characteristic of operational planning. There will be no force deployment synchronization matrix, no quantifiable progress objectives, and no subordinate taskings. There will be no phasing discussion, lines of effort, or end states.
Such a strategy should also be brief, with illustrations and diagrams as welcome inclusions, and could even be presented as a compelling narrative. The resulting strategy should explain the system of concern, the rules of that system, inherent relationships, an outline of the overall strategic approach, an exploration of potential futures, and identify indicators that would inform future vectoring decisions.
Another design model serves as a good starting point by which to craft a process to design complex strategy. Strategic designers must first develop a deep understanding of the problem and its systemic trends.
Must convey the need to thoroughly understand the system and the motivations of those involved.
Unlike operational planning, identification runs continuously and simultaneously throughout the design process, as actions taken can change the surrounding context. Next, designers must seek to define the specific issue they intend to address, considering the variable and reactive nature of the complex environment.
Designers must ideate repetitiously to develop multiple possible recommended actions before. Then, using controlled simulations such as war gaming or red teaming, designers can prototype, test, and adjust these concepts in controlled environments before prescribing real-world application.
Another model worth considering is the Orient-Observe-Decide-Act loop to explain how the key to victory in an aerial dogfight is to make decisions faster than one’s opponent. This model offers a partial point of discussion relevant to the strategy design process in that it must be flexible, agile, and responsive to the surrounding context but is limited in that they are intended for application towards a singular problem.
By combining elements of several concepts emerges a model that may be more adaptable to the continuous nature of strategic design. This resulting Design Model orients designers to revolve around a hub of continuous identification, allowing an unlimited number of design and experimentation processes to spin off. In this effort, designers must be cognizant of the inherent nature of the complex environment, in which any experiment may drive unpredictable system responses, in turn affecting the entire underlying system.
This model is but one suggestion for how to approach strategic design, intended only as a starting point for discussion. Design by nature is fluid, adaptable, and contextual, and any strategic design process should remain likewise. As strategic designers seek to better understand the environment, they may very well determine another model or process would better serve their particular approach.
Strategic design and the associated Design Model are neither static nor prescriptive, but rather a starting point for designers seeking to design complex non-linear strategies. As experiments change the system, they may also very well change the nature of the approach required to plan within the system.
Therefore, strategic designers must be allowed not only the flexibility to design adaptable complex strategies, but also to simultaneously redesign the process by which the strategy itself is designed.
As the military wrestles with how to transform to meet the trans-regional and trans-domain challenges characteristic of the modern and future competition space, military planning doctrine offers an excellent starting point to begin this transformative effort.
Simply admitting that existing operational planning methodology and doctrine are not applicable for complex strategic problem sets is a crucial first step. Once we break this paradigm, military strategists will be empowered to design new and better paradigms, yielding novel methods to more appropriately meet our nation’s strategic needs.
Innovative learning will require the Military Services to embrace new, fundamental principles.
1.Leverage data analytics in context of mutidomain operations
Since military leaders rely on pattern recognition in decision making, enhancing their situational awareness is an imperative. New tools can collect and quantify survey data to reveal trends and extract insights in real time at unprecedented levels of understanding and accelerating operational tempo. Especially given the expanding role of artificial intelligence, combat training centers and deployment archives offer vast data sources, the overwhelming majority exists unstructured data that cannot generate insights in its current form and is consequently underleveraged.
2: Embrace crowdsourcing.
Solution-generation tools combine the power of crowdsourcing with the warfighter, problem owner leaders and experts with an accelerated timeline. The power of collective intelligence has been underleveraged by the Services. Strategies for the behavioral and structural changes needed to create a soldier-centric innovation sourcing funnel can be found in case studies like Turn the Ship Around from Submarine Program.
3. Foster subordinate ownership with control over organizational direction
Innovation teams can focus on key commander priorities and can become clusters of excellence by identifying existing and often underutilized experts within formations. This allows for highly capable subordinates to influence decisions and shape implementation—bringing the right people into the discussion and pacing organizational progress off the speed of its top talent, instead of bottlenecking with leadership experiences.
4. Create decentralized experimentation structure instead of compliance.
While mission command has been embraced in tactical operations, leaders often slow experiments by requiring approval for each phase of testing. A more powerful paradigm focuses on eliminating barriers for subordinates instead of adding layers of approval—accepting that risk is the cost of opportunity. Relinquishing control should not be done blindly. Leaders must learn to craft initial guidance clearly enough to empower decentralized experimentation, so commanders can focus on coordinating lines of efforts.
5. Create a culture where failure does not trigger micromanagement.
Teams must have the “belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake or for speaking your mind.” Leaders can create these environments by integrating behavioral changes—for example, having leaders personally admit mistakes or consistently executing learning conversations that encourage subordinates to share their failures. A guiding principle in these command climates is not to mistake disagreement for disloyalty, since that triggers risk aversion and bureaucratic stagnation.
6. Design sprints, and design blitzes.
Bring diverse stakeholders and experts together to develop solutions in a compressed time period to solve challenges at the installation/unit level and develop leadership teams. Team-development tools introduce controlled chaos to train collaboration, communication, and design-thinking skills while racing against deadlines and also amplify outreach. Systematically understand problem, develop prototype test plan and validate user feedback to determine success. Create series of design drills sequenced around specific outcome goals and time periods to provide leaders with the structure required to use blitzes at scale.
7: Permeate innovative design systems to the tactical level
Import Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation Model to enhance outcome quality defined with key performance indicators by the commander at the onset of training using training resources/time, pivoting from executing training for the sake of checking blocks towards achieving clearly defined/evaluated outcomes. Solidify concepts via rapid testing cycles with mini-experiments proactively hunt for causes of failure by identifying what can go wrong in advance, and user feedback strategies
8: Make knowledge management strategies self-sustaining.
Since knowledge is expensive to generate and wasted if it is not captured and employed, leaders must create systems whose simplicity incentivizes use by saving their battle drill teams time/experience to simplify future decisions and creating enormous competitive advantages with speed. Since standard operating procedures for most units are unclassified use tools approach to standard operating procedures and supporting rapid onboarding during leader transitions.
9. Create time for aggressive and innovative tactical learning,
As military leaders engage with modernization challenges, we must design appropriate learning frameworks, both procedurally and culturally. While the procedural frameworks can be imported from innovative industries, they must be complemented by military initiatives.
10. Take steps to close capability gaps
Protect innovative capital and fostering transitional change as troops take solutions to future assignments. It would also provide the Services with trained disruptive innovators who embrace discovery learning and can diverge from the status quo. Most importantly, it will build the military as a force prepared for the challenges of tomorrow’s battlefield.