Three Design Concepts Introduced for Strategic and Operational Applications

By Zweibelson, Ben | Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Three Design Concepts Introduced for Strategic and Operational Applications


Zweibelson, Ben, Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations


Many discussions on design theory applications within military contexts often revolve around a small population of design practitioners using complex terms and exclusive language, contrasted by a larger population of design skeptics that routinely demand a universal, scripted, and complete examples for "doing design right."1 Design, a form of conceptual planning and sense making, continues to gain traction in strategic political and military institutions, yet faces misunderstanding, disinterest, and outright rejection from military strategists and operational planners for a variety of reasons. This article aims at moving this discourse toward how several design theory concepts are valuable for strategists and decision makers, and how select design concepts might be introduced and applied in a simple language where military practitioners can traverse from strategic intent into operational applications with tangible results. As a lead planner for the Afghan Security Force reduction concept and the 2014 (NTM-A) Transition Plan, I applied design to strategic and operational level planning using these design concepts as well as others.2

This article takes three design concepts that do not exist in current military doctrine, provides a brief explanation on what they are, and how military practitioners might apply them in strategic planning and military decision-making efforts drawing from real-world applications in Afghanistan. Design theory, as a much broader discipline, spans theories and concepts well beyond the boundaries of any military design doctrine.31 introduce these non-doctrinal concepts intentionally to foster discourse, not to provide a roadmap or checklist on how to "do design" by simply adding these to all future planning sessions. What may have worked in one planning session on reducing Afghan security forces beyond 2015 may be an incompatible design approach for influencing Mexican drug cartels this year, or appreciating yet another emergent problem in Africa. Complex, adaptive problems demand tailored and novel approaches. Diplomats, strategists and operational planners across our military and instruments of national power might use these concepts, along with other useful design approaches, in their efforts to fuse conceptual and detailed planning in uncertain conflict environments.

Narratives: A Different Way to Think about Uncertainty and Complexity

Both our military and political institutions uses the term "narrative" in a literal sense within traditional planning lexicon and doctrine, whereas design theory looks to the conceptual work by literary historians and theorists such as Hayden White as a useful alternative.4 One definition does not substitute for the other; the military's tactical version is distinct from the post-modern one introduced here. We shall call these "design narratives" to make the distinction clear. These design narratives are not included in any military doctrine, which helps illustrate how incomplete our individual service efforts to encapsulate design are for military planners.

White proposes that a design narrative is something beyond the direct control of an organization or society. We do not construct our narratives as a story unfolds, nor do we often realize that we perceive reality through powerful institutional filters that transpose symbols, values, and culture onto how we will interpret events unfolding.5 Instead, design narratives pre-configure (form in advance) how and why a series of events will form into a story.6 These stories have particular and often enduring meanings and structure that resonate within an organization or group due to shared values and culture. While the details within the narrative will contain the familiar specifics such as facts, information, plot structure, and the sequence of events that unite the information into a contained "story", they do not establish the overarching explanation. Instead, our organization pre-configures the information as a narrative unit, or genre, often regardless of the information as it unfolds in time and space. …

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