Small Wars Journal

A Tale of Two Design Efforts (and why they both failed in Afghanistan)

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 5:24pm
A Tale of Two Design Efforts (and why they both failed in Afghanistan)

by Grant Martin

Download the Full Article: A Tale of Two Design Efforts

Trying to be a "good neighbor" to the Afghans

One Friday morning not too long ago I sat facing a row of ISAF officers assigned to one of their many information offices. Maybe Strategic Communications (STRATCOM), I wondered. No, I thought, the new director of STRATCOM had changed their name, but to what I could not remember. Maybe they were from the Public Affairs office. On my side of the table a jumbled mix of staff officers from other sections of ISAF talked in low voices waiting for the lead planner to begin the meeting. A brand-new School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) graduate walked in and sat down confidently, his assistant clicking on the ubiquitous power point title slide that begins every gathering in the U.S. Armed Forces today from Washington, D.C. to Kabul, Afghanistan.

"Okay, everybody, we've got a directive from the Chief of Staff to come up with ideas on how to meet the commander's comment on being a better neighbor in Afghanistan," he began. "We will use a Design-like framework to first look at our environment, state the problem, and then come up with some solutions," he continued, describing SAMS's process of conducting "Design", the U.S. Army's doctrinal take on dealing with complexity.

We then spent the next hour wrestling with what the commander had really meant when he had reportedly said during a meeting that the Coalition needed to be 'better neighbors'. The Public Affairs-types started off dominating the discussion through their higher-ranking representative, a colonel, and her greater number of section representatives. She insisted that the commander had meant that we needed to stop bombing and doing night raids. Although this was something President Karzai seemed to never stop saying, the position seemed a little outdated. Any more efforts along those lines, I thought, would have meant sending all our weapons home in boxes and canceling all air support.

Instead, the alternative (voiced by everyone else in the room) was that the statement had been made in the context of how not to be an "Ugly American". Bombarding ministers' offices with multiple and uncoordinated visits from different NATO commands, driving with our electronic jammers on where there was no associated threat, and wearing body armor at all times and driving in fast-moving convoys of up-armored vehicles were all examples given that had been brought up multiple times recently by various Afghan leaders as being problems.

In the end trying to avoid the "Ugly American" won out. The Public Affairs colonel and most of her staff did not return after the first day and the group ran smoothly through the SAMS-approved process of environment-problem-solution identification to arrive at several recommendations for the Chief of Staff: mandate that visitors to Afghan ministries from NATO coordinate through one appointed office and require all units to empower subordinates to use their own judgment as to the Force Protection measures needed in their daily activities. This meant that we could end the requirement that everyone wear body armor or even uniforms at all times (especially when the Afghans weren't), do away with the requirement for large convoys of up-armored vehicles in areas where the threat from IEDs were not high, and require that jammers only be used in areas that had an associated threat (jammers interfere with cell phone usage). We concluded by also recommending that leaders stop micromanaging their soldiers' activities: that it shouldn't take the Chief of Staff of a three or four-star command to approve colonels (or others) going to dinner with their Afghan counterparts. Although many of these subjects seemed to only apply to Kabul, this was what many felt the commander's comments were aimed at: ministerial interaction and travel within relatively safe areas like Kabul.

The result of our work was a memorandum to the NATO commands signed by the Chief of Staff recommending all of our "solutions". What that meant was that it effectively changed nothing. Memos signed by the Chief of Staff were usually not even read much less acted upon. And, since they were only "recommendations", there were no repercussions for those leaders or units who ignored them, which everyone did.

I should have been frustrated and discouraged, but at that point in time I just smiled to myself. By then I had started my tenth month in Afghanistan and had recently gotten involved with a colonel and a lieutenant who were also very frustrated with the bureaucracy within the Coalition they had found in their attempts to carry out COMISAF's direct orders. Was it just the natural barriers to change that every established organization finds itself in? How could the Army's new "Design" efforts possibly overcome these obstacles, if they even could? Ten months prior I had been energized to give Design a try. The following anecdotes are my attempt to capture my experiences with respect to Design implementation in Afghanistan in 2010 and offer a few recommendations on how to change how we teach and practice Design.

I will attempt to do this by first describing the main two Design efforts I participated in while in Afghanistan: one at the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) and the other at the NATO Training Mission- Afghanistan (NTM-A). Along the way I'll offer some insights into why I think our efforts ultimately failed. In addition I hope to inform the wider Armed Forces community as well as those studying and teaching Design in our Armed Forces colleges about a few of the early efforts to apply Design in theater. Lastly, I would like to share some thoughts on possible ways to improve upon what we did as well as the concept itself. My intention is not to denigrate commands or commanders, and therefore I will be as general as possible in order to focus on the most important takeaways.

Download the Full Article: A Tale of Two Design Efforts

Major Grant Martin is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer. He recently returned from Afghanistan where he worked as a planner in the CJ5 at NTM-A/CSTC-A. He is currently assigned to the U.S. Army JFK Special Warfare Center and School (Airborne). The comments in this article are the author's own and do not constitute the position of NTM-A/CSTC-A, ISAF, the U.S. Army, DoD, or USAJFKSWCS(A).

About the Author(s)


Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 07/10/2011 - 3:40am

Decentralized, innovative critical thinking is certainly a desirable goal. Whether this goal requires the adoption of the rather arcane language and process of Design, or whether that language and process represent the only or best way of achieving that goal, are other questions altogether. Holding this process and this language up as the sole doctrinally approved vehicle for innovative thinking seems to me as likely to obstruct innovative thinking in the field as it is to advance it.

"Chaoplexity" fills me with an overwhelming desire to administer a dose of intellectual Kaoplectate.

Jimbo (not verified)

Sun, 07/10/2011 - 2:27am

"Couple then this development with a falling lack of understanding of simple MDMP---do not even try to get into Design. Meaning if the simplest fgorm of WG synchronization is not correct then the entire process flow is convoluted---that is in the simple use of MDMP. Only do CPTs get a heavy dose of MDMP during a 4 week period of the CCC---if one asks me way to late in their development."

This to me seems to be a failure at both the institutional and unit levels. A 2LT should come out of the commissioning source with a passing knowledge of MDMP. Not a doctorate degree in MDMP, but a passing knowledge. If this is not happening then how hard is it for leaders to train them? A great S3 I used to work for recognized this knowledge gap in the NCO team leaders we sending out and developed a POI to get them up to speed.

Spent much of the day reading the new FM 5-0 and must confess that most of the droopy eyelid time was in the design section. Mission command does not imply an Army staffed with nothing but SAMS graduates. And several cite that MDMP is difficult enough to put into practice within real-world time constraints and staff-experience levels.

Believe a major problem with design was one that MAJ Martin' team identified. Red teams/Design teams/PIGs seem to function best at higher echelons. In constrast, mission command appears tailored more to battalion and below. In addition, those red teams that are at higher echelons suffer from inadequate guidance provided by key leaders/staff. That could be because the key leaders are Generals and don't have time...or because the flag officers fear that they would unduly influence the honest opinions of the red team they convened.

While one red team was undecided on whether a) influential authorities or b) good governance of all the people was more important, the Dr. Moyar's Sangin example illustrated the value of both. Those Marines benefitted from ability to influence and target particular tribal leaders yet also had a rare effective government leader in Governal Mangal.

The similarity between the Design team's term "Valley" and CAC's "Village" both indicated the predicament of Afghanistan. It is so multi-ethnic and location-centric that any red team/design team/PIG solution arrived at in Kabul would be unlikely to apply to many particular areas and their local leaders/tribes/ethnicity-mixes and other isolated conditions.

The multi-ethnic dilemma carries over into the the ANCOP, ANP, ANA design problems as well. As the team realized, a Tajik ANSF member in Pashtun territory is begging for ineffectiveness and desertion. If you can't speak the same language and share no cultural similarity with those being policed, it's no wonder corruption and unwillingness to patrol are (or were) so prevalent.

IMHO, believe the red team should have been heard in terms of putting the individual RCs in charge of their own police training. That would have allowed:

* different training TTP and methods to be explored for conducting on-the-job training
* both partnering and support of operations
* local recruitment of ANSF with similar ethnicity/language
* potential ANSF family basing in secure compounds to reduce desertion and possibly preclude betrayal-then-flee attacks

In addition, each RC could create their own red team and more easily access the ANSF and local leaders/staffs to get more accurate expert input.

But back to mission command, if BCT staff cannot handle MDMP at the CTCs, why on earth would we expect design to work at battalion level. The Sangin example seems to illustrate that when battalion's are permitted to experiment, lessons learned are derived that apply better than historical analogies that aren't.

A question for anonymous just before me. Are units arriving at CTCs as part of ARFORGEN training with new staffs? In the old days, wasn't a CTC rotation the pinnnacle of a commander's/staff's time in charge? Now that CTC rotation is more a training tool for the combat deployment that follows, is it not?

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 07/10/2011 - 2:11am

Quote: "We all know the stories of the Israeli Army in 2006 after it had taken in many of the ideas of Naveh to the point where Brigade combat team commanders were being told to "create in the mind of the enemy the cognition of defeat"."
I fear that you might be taken in on the white-wash done after the 2006 war when Naveh and others were handed the bag on why the IDF did not perform up to snuff. has an interesting interview with Naveh on the war where he gives his version of the story. I am trying to locate another article where Naveh explains the massive resistance by IDF senior leadership (Air Force, Navy, and armored personnel that clung to Effects Based Operations concepts and resisted SOD)- essentially the IDF (led by a minority group of INF and PARA folks) attempted to teach SOD over EBO in the IDF institution in the years leading up to the 2006 conflict. A battle of ideologies ensued, yet prior to the confict, EBO won. With an Air Force EBO-favoring senior leader in charge, SOD was kicked to the curb and purged from IDF operations prior to hostilities kicking off. Furthermore, Naveh acknowledged in several forums I attended that the big mistake they made in EDUCATING the force on SOD was that they started with the top- the senior leadership; GOs. In hindsight, Naveh recognizes that telling a military leader that the past 30 years of their experience is not going to help (and will actually hurt) them learning an entirely new logic on understanding complex military scenarios was a bridge too far. In one of my last conversations with Shimon, he agreed that teaching a new logic such as Design needs to be targeted in the mid-officer education process (as in ILE, SAMS, the 1SG course, or other PMEs where your students are at around the 10-15 year mark; not young LTs or privates, and not War College folks)...that might be a troublesome statement- there are brilliant LTs, Privates, and COLs that understand Design concepts with shocking clarity- but we all can agree that in any given class of basic trainees, LTs, or War College students, they are a minority.

"EBO proponents within the IDF came to believe that an enemy could be completely immobilized by precision air attacks against critical military systems. The Israeli supporters of EBO also hypothesized that little or no land forces would be required since it would not be necessary to destroy the enemy." -…. So, at the dawn of the Israeli Hezbollah 2006 war, there was a war of ideologies (or logics) within the IDF.

Matthews concurs with some bloggers here; this is a good counterpoint- "For the IDF, the major problem with SOD was the new terminology and methodology. Not every officer in the IDF had the time or the inclination to study postmodern French philosophy. It was questionable whether the majority of IDF officers would grasp a design that Naveh proclaimed was "not intended for ordinary mortals."41 Many IDF officers thought the entire program elitist, while others could not understand why the old system of simple orders and terminology was being replaced by a design that few could understand." I agree, and Design has a tough road ahead of fusing complex concepts and new language with deliverables that are easy to understand and implement for the force at large.

"According to Ron Tira, one of the major problems within the IDF was "the over-zealous embrace of the American effects-based operations
(EBO) idea. EBOs aim is to paralyze the enemys operational ability, in contrast to destroying its military force. This is achieved by striking the headquarters, lines of communication, and other critical junctions in the military structure. EBO [was] employed in their most distinct form in the Shock and Awe campaign that opened the 2003 Iraq War. However, the Americans used EBO to prepare the way for their ground maneuvers, and not as an alternative to them." Unfortunately for Israel, the new commander of the IDF warmly embraced this new philosophy." - The Hezbollah War was led by an Air Power enthusiast that preferred EBO over SOD- and SOD got left holding the bag, in my opinion, for the results. Naveh's SOD enthusiast peers were all sacked or forced into retirement mostly BEFORE the conflict began- with the rest eliminated after the whole fiasco.

"Considered by many as vain and arrogant, Halutz possessed the utmost confidence in air power and precision weapons, going so far as to suggest in 2001 that the IDF needed "to part with the concept of a land battle" altogether." Now, I disagree with the author where he says Halutz embraced a combination of SOD and EBO- it doesnt work that way. Design is not compatible with EBO- they are fundamentally different logics; what happened was the CDR cherry-picked those elements of SOD that, in isolation, supported some EBO concepts.

"Shimon Navehs SOD has come under much criticism for being nearly incomprehensible to those who were charged with its implementation. The core of SOD may not be without merit, but it is useless if it cannot be understood by officers attempting to carry out operation orders using SOD terminology and methodology." Again- this is somewhat misleading, although still a good learning point for our militaries. SOD was not fully implemented in the IDF in the late 1990s, it competed with a rival and incompatible logic (EBO), it was implemented at the General Officer level only (and "trickled down to the rest"); the IDF was not prepared for a land war (everything can be won from the air, according to the supreme commander of the war...who might have been bias to EBO because he had spent 3 decades in a cockpit; or as Naveh called it, "a peephole to see the world.") Finally, my chief criticism for SOD's failed implementation in the IDF is about the language and theoretical concepts. While you need the deep philosophical and challanging discourse within your military at many levels, it cannot be written into doctrine, put into a powerpoint slide show, or emblazened onto your favorite coffee mug (or perhaps printed on a silly green tag and hung around your neck for safe keepings); Design is fluid- dynamic, changing; adapting, evolving; creating and destroying...and not the entire force can use it or should. Tactical operators (even up to brigades in many cases) should not problematize the holistic chaoplexity of a system...or insert your favorite hated design terms for effect. Design CAN work at a tactical level- as Grant points out, and SOF is a good example of where decentralized and highly innovative groups of critical thinkers can use design to transform the system and put an enemy at a severe disadvantage. But that is the exception, not the norm. For now, I propose that Design be taught at mid-career PME across the board- enlisted, warrant, officer, civilian (DoD, DoS, etc). Let it flourish in the back rooms- but keep it away from BUBs, OPORDs, doctrine, CTCs (except Brigade CPXs and such), but allow the effects of Design to influence all tactical operations in a practical and understandable way. 'Problematize' as a concept is a powerful idea that has no rival- but as a word, it designers must translate the effects of Design's deep understanding of a complex environment into a deliverable that lacks the fancy words, but keeps the deep message. Easier said than done!


Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 9:19pm

Gian---you had asked previously for examples concerning qualitative decline.

1. Example one---take a look at targeting which is a doctrinally driven decision making process---has to be otherwise people get killed--we have seem enough correlating data from the last three years of CTC rotations to clearly say---failure to successfuly conduct targeting leads to failures in operations and even worse failures in the use of ISR---and vice versa. Regardless of which one is failing at the core of the issue is MDMP---seems like all know of the problem but nothing seems to been done about it---now just how in the heck is Design to work when simple staff driven processes do not work correctly?

2. Example two---per latest doctrine the Cmdr is the one who during Cmdrs guidance in Mission Analysis provides to the Staff his vision in the form of intent ie campaign plan, desired endstate, intial target sets or HVPTs, initial ISR guidance and then the Staff goes off and do their thing before coming back for the next phase---just how many Cmdrs actually still do that---it is passed to the Staff for them to complete as the Cmdr has other things to focus on?

As an even worse example---we are seeing a distinct minor war raging between S3s and S2s----in some units there is no love lost between the two Staff elements--why is that being allowed to continue?

Another example---we take the youngest and most inexperienced young Lt or junior CPT and make them the Collection Manager---in COIN next to the S3/S2 one of the most critical of positions in a BCT---why do we do that-I still have no answer.

This is exactly what Grant was mentioning from his experiences in AFG---what we see in the CTCs/MCTPs is actually what is occurring in country.

When AAR after AAR clearly states "we are seeing a clear and distinct trend at all CTCs and it is getting worse" and still nothing is being done to solve the problem.

Thus my comment--- quality no longer exists.

I have to agree with the above on the Arab Spring. I don't see that this is "undeniably different than other revolutions" at all. How "fundamentally" different" is the Arab Spring from Manila '86, or for that matter Paris in 1848? Of course people will use the tools that are available to them, but tools aren't causes, and we consistently overrate the importance of social networking and similar phenomena.

It seems to me that all too often we blame "linear thinking" for problems that actually arise from convoluted thinking, which is typically a consequence of reaching a politically acceptable conclusion, then constructing a "thought process" (using the term loosely) to support that conclusion.


Sat, 07/09/2011 - 8:32pm

A quick sidetrack on your Arab Spring comments. I'm not sure exactly what you mean by your comments about new phenomena, cyberspace, and social production models, but the history is obviously not written and some evidence points to the possibility that the conventional wisdom and news stories about the power of Twitter, etc, may not be as true and important as it would seem. Facebook, for example, has only about a 5 percent market penetration in Egypt. It may have had a facilitating role among elite organizers, but was not central to the phenomenon. It was important in getting the word out, but then the media was there too. In Syria, there is a lot of info/video coming out via YouTube, Twitter, etc, but the media is not picking up on that much of it because no one is there to vet.

Without cyberspace, I'm not sure how much different things in these countries would really be. Some people I've talked to who are experts in the region are skeptical as well.

I'd have to weigh in on the side of those who see the dense and convoluted language of "Design" as more obstacle than asset. I've yet to see a <i>designista</i> argument that couldn't have been made in plain English. I've even considered translating one, just to demonstrate that, but it seems a lot of effort to make a point.

If you say it in plain English, is it no longer "Design"?

I've nothing at all against the idea of challenging conventional thought processes, but I see no reason to conceal the challenge behind such an overwhelmingly dense thicket of verbiage, especially in a process that's meant to be practiced by those outside the Design priesthood.

When the members of the inner circle present their concepts to the educated lay community, it's up to them to present those concepts in terms the educated lay community can understand, unless they want those concepts forever restricted to the inner circle. The process of stripping away the jargon and presenting concepts in plain language is often extremely enlightening to the inner circle as well, and is worth pursuing if only for that reason.

The pursuit of clarity should never be confused with "dumbing down" or "anti-intellectualism". It's not the same thing at all. The officers in the field that need a better way to analyze situations may not have mastered <i>designista</i> dialect, but that doesn't mean they're stupid or uneducated. They've simply pursued other specialties. If the concepts are going to be adopted, it's up to the proponents to make them accessible without diluting them. The challenge is not for the educated lay community to understand the priesthood, the challenge is for the priesthood to make itself understood.

Think of it as a complex problem.

Surferbeetle (not verified)

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 7:14pm


Your observations regarding the importance and newness (paradigm shift) of social production models which use cyberspace (aka the 'interweb') are spot on.  We have previously discussed Wikipedia as being an example of a social production model which is not constrained by geography.  

Models are always limited, and flawed representations of reality.  Models are commissioned, and their results are applied, when economically and politically inclined people can estimate costs, benefits, schedules, and marshal required resources (capital, willpower, etc).  Technically inclined people are required to design models.  Technically inclined people are required to transform models into a finished product.  Customers bear the costs of models and their resulting products.  We could say that your fictional tailor has technical skills, his bookkeeper has economic skills, his business manager has political skills, and that his customers have the final say as to whether or not his business model survives.

Observations at SWJ seem to trend towards a consensus that our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are akin to a tailor who is also his own bookkeeper, his own business manager, and his own customer.  

So, in a democracy, how do we get our dear friend the tailor the help he so obviously needs and that he is unable to get on his own?  Perhaps this question folds into the hopes and frustrations associated with the military design movement?


gian p gentile (not verified)

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 6:39pm

Look, we can take all of this post-modernist stuff way too far. I think Chris P makes some important uses of it when he deploys it to critque conventional thinking in the Army. But at a certain point, do we really want platoon leaders, company commanders, battalion and brigade commanders to worry about the "interiority" of knowledge rather than being able to issue a clear five paragraph field order that provides clear and cogent direction, intent, then followed up by thorough and resolute execution?

We all know the stories of the Israeli Army in 2006 after it had taken in many of the ideas of Naveh to the point where Brigade combat team commanders were being told to "create in the mind of the enemy the cognition of defeat".

Perhaps a better order would have been to go here or there for a certain amount of time and perform a commonly understood tactical task for a reasonable purpose and then be prepared to do something else.

Foucault and Derrida have limited utility for us.


Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 6:33pm

Gian---a qualitative drop is in fact being seen.

Yes every BCT loses at a CTC but that is the game as it is suppose to be the last check off as the unit is on the deployment path---always has been even 10 years ago. On the other hand if the Cmdr is aggressive, has Staff buy in and they know their MDMP they tend to hold their own and on occassions even force a OPFOR draw.

There is something more afoot in the last seven years that is really troubling---if you watched say the 3/3ID in 2005 they would run a TOC battle drill to clear fire at a rate usually seen in 2000/2001 or mere seconds---watch a BCT in AFG try to run the same battle drill today. How many BCTs can even run battle drills on anything---take a look at some of the BCT SOPs/TSOPs and compare them to say the 1999/2000 timeframe---night and day literally.

Take the development of the WG---initially they were designed to overcome the linear decision making of say up to 2005 and we felt that it did not give Cmdrs and Staff's the ability to get inside the decsion making curve of the insurgency and that Staffs were not adaptive enough in their decision making--- as they watched the Iraq SOF community develop their F3 cycles and intel/shooter fusion and decided that it might be worth copying---thus F3EAD was born and WGs followed.

Up to say about 2008 the BCTs had only say 3 or 4 "new enablers" attached to the Staffs--ie LEP, PRT, WIT, HTS etc., and many Cmdrs had no idea how to use them as there was no doctrinal guidelines for a Cmdr and or his Staff.

Then the explosion occurred in both AFG and Iraq in the nation building/FID areas (pop centric COIN) and then suddenly BCTs had 15 plus enablers working in and around a Cmdr and his Staff--still no doctrinal guidelines in place even today--we call it interagency as the buzz word now. This has led BCTs to believe that to make it work and fulfill their Campaign Plan LOE requirements and to achieve their Endstate one has to have X number of WGs to reflect the new complexity-thus the average of 14-24.

Couple then this development with a falling lack of understanding of simple MDMP---do not even try to get into Design. Meaning if the simplest fgorm of WG synchronization is not correct then the entire process flow is convoluted---that is in the simple use of MDMP. Only do CPTs get a heavy dose of MDMP during a 4 week period of the CCC---if one asks me way to late in their development.

couple this with the development of copyuing previous BCTs--many RIP/TOA units tend to adopt the previous BCT's processes/WGs with the explanation that hey it workled for them and then tinker around the edges for their time in country and end up then passing it on to the next BCT-what happens though is say the first BCT's processes and procedures were not all that effective---the problem simply occurs again and again until the last BCT has serious problemns and is forced in the middle of arotation to redo everything as nothing is working right.

This is a subject that really doe need some though and honesty.

bz (not verified)

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 4:23pm

I had a great conversation last year with Shimon Naveh in the coffee shop of a Barnes and Noble. For those that follow military Design, you know he is an important, although often misunderstood and frequently slandered Design thinker. We were talking about the post-modern concepts of interiority and exteriority; sort of heavy philosophical subjects that are quite tough to wicker down into practical military deliverables (but I am working an article on that topic now regardless)...Shimon talked about how in Design, a Commander is exploring a system holistically (looking at the big picture and refusing to get dragged down into the reductionist details that 99.99999999% of the slides I look at daily here in Kabul are about) and when that leader discovers or realizes something significant, it might just be something completely new...hence that leader must abandon the language of his organization (the interiority of organizational knowledge) and develop NEW words to describe NEW things. We are struggling to do this right now with "the Arab Spring" which uses social production models, social networking, etc to do revolutions in a form that is undeniably different than other revolutions. Now that I wrote that, some may disagree- but cyberspace and social production models in my opinion are paradigm shifts in how human populations interact with government, military, and eachother. For an older example- the automobile was originally coined the 'horse-less carriage' because new terms (or combinations of old familiar words in unfamiliar and novel narratives) were needed. We never asked how much 'horsepower' your horse had- but we needed a new term to explain how powerful your combustion engine was in comparision with an accepted form of transportation (the horse, within the interiority of our knowledge base). New words are a good thing when they are useful. Inventing or using new words to sound smart is worthless; and I cringe every time I hear someone in a briefing tell me "we are going to facilitate that"... Why use 'facilitate?' Now, terms like metacognition, problematization, and cogntive synergy are great Design terms for folks that are well-read in certain areas, but they absolutely suck when dropped into military planning (conceptual or detailed) with any staff at any level outside a Design huddle. I propose in many of my articles and musings that some words, concepts, graphics, and other actions ought to flourish in the right environments- but we need to deliver the goods to the entire force in a packaged and uniquely tailored form that is devoid of the problematic terminology. To use the metaphor of a custom suit tailor- you do not want the Army to go to JC Pennys or 'Big and Tall' for a suit when they face a military problem, and expect the same damn suit to fit no matter the scenario (like blindly applying MDMP and codified doctrine to anything and everything without thinking about thinking...) Instead, the military needs to visit a custom suit shop where the tailors will carefully craft a custom suit based upon the needs and conditions unique to that problem, and often that problem only. Yes, this takes more time and "costs" more, but the suit will have a better chance at functioning for the client. The client does not need to know all of the fancy work done in the back of the tailor shop to design the custom suit- only the deliverables; the suit itself. So, in closing, new words might be required when a custom tailor has a three-legged man come into his shop looking for a wedding tux; that tailor might invent new sewing processes and use new words to explain to his sew shop what they are doing- but in the end, the client shows up and dons his custom suit and heads off to the wedding satisfied. Or...he goes to K-Mart and buys a regular two-legged suit off the rack and wonders why everyone at the wedding will not dance with him...



Sat, 07/09/2011 - 12:02pm

Although I have to admit I had to look up metacognition, which was in a previous paper on Design, I get the terms. Also, I don't think that Grant is attempting to be elitist by using them. I think he's using the terms that come packaged in the Design (TM) concept.

Understand where I'm coming from. I read academic works on a daily basis and have published a few. I have accepted the challenge of understanding such terms. Many people have not and will not. I sat next to an O-5 commander who called a 6 page paper a "varsity read" and said "I don't do varsity reads." Of course. many others read professionally to great depth, yet they still are not necessarily going to be well versed in the sorts of terminology that the academics who originally packaged the Design concept chose to use (even if these academics were Army officers, I don't know).

One can write to a specialist audience and only get the echo chamber to nod, or one can open up his terminology and try to convert the unconverted. Guys like Grant are converted. The problem is converting everyone else. Does the average staff officer who people above are saying can't name the steps in the MDMP and so on really know what reductionist, metacognition, post-modern philosophy, etc really mean? Given all the other stuff that staff officer should know, does he really have the time to go digging into literature to accept the challenge? Or is he going to just say, "F this academic bs" and move on?

Finally, I'm not trying to talk down about anyone, but if I had not (a) been sent full time to get a masters and (b) liked it enough to actually read the assignments and keep reading once I graduated, I certainly would not take the time to try to decipher the terminology that people are wrapping this relatively simple concept (simple to grasp, difficult to implement) up in.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 10:31am

To Anon at 0859:

A question for your most interesting and worrisome post.

Do you think that there is a qualitative drop in these skills and competencies of commanders and staffs over the last 5-7 years? That is to say that prior to 9/11 one would here the same lament out of the ctcs that staffs aren't synchronized, commanders not involved, poor mdmp, the usual diss by ocs that your "wargaming sucked." So is this the same old problem albeit in different skins, or have we actually seen a qualitative drop in these skills from say 10 years before?



slapout9 (not verified)

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 10:15am

All, I would like to recommend the greatest book on Systems Analysis/Design I ever read.
Here is a link to the Author's website where you can download the first 3 chapters for free. I think a lot of people here will be able to identify with what the author is saying. The book is called "Meaning: The Secret Of Being Alive" by Cliff Havener.....who calls himself a Systems Designer

The Pap

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 10:11am


"throw a bunch of fancy terms at the problem"

Here's where I would argue that many interpret the use of different terms as a kind of academic attempt toward intellectual elitism as misreading Grant's intent.

He is taking for granted that those that read these new terms will struggle to apprehend them as he has struggled to use them. He is "challenging the field" (as Ben Zweibelson has).

Accept the challenge!

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 10:10am

Ask any staff officer to conduct nodal analysis of a identified key set of targets to check for validation of it being identified as a target---a long lost skill set.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 10:08am

Grant---there was an article just in the last few weeks on Assessments in SWJ written by a key senior Warrant from FIRES CoE---it does in fact go to the core of what you are alluding too---but surprise surprise it did not get much uptake in comments as it I think went over the heads of individuals.

Take the staff areas of ISR and targeting---any numbner of staff memebers tend to think that ISR drives everything---targeting if one looks at the JP definition is and can be anything down to targerting a behavior--recently had an officer ask--how does one tartget a behavior---that is the core reason Design in any form is not taking off and being accepted.

Take this example of where we are in our staffs--take all CPTs in a BCT who have not recently come out of a CCC---ask them the seven MDMP steps---you will rarely find one who can name one or two of them---this is why Design is doomed to fail---the staff no loner understands simple staff processes ie inputs and outputs and at critical points in the processes they do not even know decisions have to be reached.

I call it consensus decision making by PowerPoint.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 9:59am

Grant --you hit a key item that has been supported by evdience in AARs over the last three years at the CTCs---MDMP is in total disarry and many Cmdrs and Staffs are now simply stovepiping their own sections and there is no longer any synchronization between staff elements.

"it wasn't so much that anyone separated the commander from the process as it was that as a rule all commanders separate themselves from ALL processes- MDMP, Design, JOPP- you name it. This wasn't something that just I experienced, staffers in RC-E, S, and others reported to me the same. Our commanders are too busy with other things to get involved in planning or understanding the environment in the majority of my peers' experiences."

If the Cmdrs and Staffs are not even on the same page how can you expect Design to work--take RC E and S---RC E is starting warrant based targeting---South does not implement---how fast does it take the learning abilities of insurgents to find the seams-what half of a day?

We have asked our BCT Cmdrs/Staffs to become adaptive but then we stopped training them in MDMP until they get to the Captain's Career Course--by then it is to late. Look at Assessments working groups---there are now Cmdrs who simply do not trust their own staffs to deliver effective assessments and are doing it themselves with the CAUT tool---now we have truely disconnected Staffs. By the way some BCTs are now at a level of 14-20 Working Group meetings per week---think that helps staff processes---in addition to WGs we now have group huddles to do what was to have been done in WGs---next stage will be group hugs.

Your key point is spot one---let's see if the system can recognize it in time to avoid further far reaching problems.


Sat, 07/09/2011 - 3:04am

I had this note for something I was writing. It shows both that people have been advocating less "reductionist" thinking for a long time (i.e. Van Riper did not come up with this idea as a retired general) and that the military has long been enamored of getting lost in the next new process that will solve all our problems of cognition.

"Discussing the analytical methods behind concepts like Operational Net Assessment, Gen Paul Van Riper said, 'I wanted to gag. What are you talking about? You know, you get caught up in forms, in matrixes, in computer programs, and it just draws you in. They were so focused on the mechanics and the process that they never looked at the problem holistically. In the act of tearing something apart, you lose its meaning.'" Quoted in Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2005), 129.


Sat, 07/09/2011 - 2:28am

Where can I get a copy of the 2009 issue paper "Army Design Doctrine"? The more I read, I'm still not buying that this is all that much of a lightning bolt. To me the most important piece is collaboration. I wish they'd called it something like the "collaborative planning process" to emphasize the importance of collaboration and multi-directional information flows rather than Design, which means nothing. Then again, collaborative planning process doesn't mean much either.


Sat, 07/09/2011 - 1:01am

This is a rambling post now that I'm done with it, but hopefully you'll see that I'm with you, but see some issues.

I'm with you on the importance of the sorts of thought, adaptation, feedback, and distributed empowerment (if that makes sense) that Design focuses on. I do not, however, think that the answer is to throw a bunch of fancy terms at the problem. I'm not saying that your paper does that, however I feel that Design is yet another academic attempt at someone trying to carve a new niche and new catchphrases when the approach could be articulated much more simply. In fact, I don't think that the problem is with the mode of thought, and your article somewhat proves that. Even when you tried to implement Design, the institution stifled change in one way or another. The factors stifling change and adaptation are not the lack of a conceptual vehicle. Smart people like you get that there is a different way, but the people and organizational factors that stifle that different way are not going to really buy into Design, especially given the loaded terminology it seems to be couched in (from an admittedly shallow reading on my part so far). I buy the idea, but I don't buy its packaging, nor do I think it will achieve buy-in/conversion of those who aren't already essentially converts.

True, staffs have not always been successful at changing their assumptions, nor at changing structure. However, I think that smart, well educated staff officers have advocated such things for a long, long time in complex situations without Design (TM) to guide them. And their efforts were more often than not stifled. And with Design, the same thing is going to happen. How to change that? I don't know. Somehow we need to grow an institution that is more flexible, less hierarchically rigid, etc. The most vexing problem from my experiences and from your vignettes, is that commanders are simply far, far to taxed to take part in drawn out deep thinking exercises like Design seems to advocate. The bright light for them often shines on a different object every few seconds, hence the lack of focus and the shifting priorities that you allude to. This is not a hit against the intelligence of these commanders, but command even at lower levels is frequently a constant battle of dealing with the latest emergency, the latest RFI from higher, etc. This is why military leadership has always valued the coup d'oeil of rapid cognition. Obviously this doesn't work for complex situations, but how do you bridge the two and take into account the demands on the commander's time, especially as you are trying to plan and adapt in the midst of ongoing combat ops? Design can be done by ancillary staff, but how can staff principles truly get in depth in this process?


Sat, 07/09/2011 - 12:43am


Glad you are back.

To think out loud...

So it might seem that we need a Force, for lack of a better word, that acts before systemic violence gets out of hand.  A Force that tailors it's approach to meeting the needs of local folks in a locally acceptable way. A Force that is transnational and not dependent upon the bank accounts of fickle American constituencies which change their minds every two years.  A Force which is characterized by a 'sustainable balance' between market forces, civil society, and government.

Let's compare project schedules against the question of how long will it take for things to 'get better'?  The baseline condition (COA1) depends solely upon this Force.  A proposed change condition, to compare against the baseline condition, would be to apply a catalyst, which accelerates or increases the efficiency of the Force, for a defined time (COA2).  A no action condition (COA3) would be to do nothing.

'Force', 'get better' and 'sustainable balance' each need definitions and continuums to describe them.

Comparing actual world/regional conditions, past and present, to this theoretical construct/model is something to consider.  Global poverty rates pre and post Bretton Woods, and 'Bretton Woods II' (Or WWI and WWII or two smaller wars in the same geographic region) might be so broad a metric as to be meaningless (too many contributing variables).



G Martin

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 10:19pm

Kent- thanks for the compliments. Although I do not have any personal experience with the doctrinal process of Design resolving or managing a complex problem- I'd offer these thoughts:

1- A buddy of mine in the 101st and his BN TF developed a group of ANA/ANP/ALP/Afghan justice folks/Afghan OGA/and their Scout Platoon to deliver what they viewed as the problem in their sector after being there a month: the lack of swift justice. This traveling judge/jury/posse improved the relationship between the locals and the police ten fold while he was there. They received no guidance on this from higher- in fact, I doubt if higher even knew they were doing that (those in Kabul seemed disinterested to me). But, I thought that was a great example of Design at the micro level (unfortunately, like good tactics, "good" Design doesn't necessarily translate into "approved-of" strategic success either IMO...)

2- Some SF ODAs are empowered to enact local experimentation that informs higher's "ways" towards a more informed/feasible endstate due to the culture/structure/traditions of SF. I have a few examples from my own experience, unfortunately they were- like the example above- mainly good "mini-Design" efforts at the tactical level and were not successfully tied together to mean anything strategic. This is the key IMO on why many think they already do Design (we do at the tactical level I think), but also why we <em>don't</em> do Design (we lack the operational and strategic capability that Design could offer to take advantage of our awesome tactical abilities). Some suggest we just need to do better at strategy. I submit that our strategists are stuck with linear processes and thus even if they did those well we'd most likely miss out.

3- Some of my peers have reported use of Design- whether "stealth" or not- at BCT and Division levels. Although I have not heard of definite success with these efforts, I'd like to think some may have been more successful than without them.

4- Recently SAMS instructors visited the 82nd ABN DIV and led planners through Design iterations. These efforts may result in "greater" success than had they not visited- but not only is the jury still out on that- but I'd argue that it is very difficult- if not impossible- to subscribe definite causation to planning efforts. Thus the reason I think action is so important and why I think Design- and other methods/ways of approach- should be tested in our schoolhouse labs.

5- If nature is any indication, then "Design" writ large has worked very successfully in bringing about successful/enduring solutions to chaotic conditions in the allocation of resources within the world. The experiment-selection-reward-repeat framework of biological evolutionary change has been described by some- Eric Beinhocker for one- as a successful way to approach complexity. Although comparisons of what we do with nature can be problematic, I see the possibility of empowering mini-"learning organizations"- a la Senge- (aka "squads, platoons, companies, and ODAs in our world) to do these "experiments" while our higher HQs attempt to select successful ones and our systems attempt to reward them in order to affect our own positive change in a complex environment- much like nature does. Unfortunately this relies on emergent, bottom-up processes and trust in subordinates- and I'm not sure our culture supports that kind of non-micromanagement.

Bob- "crazy houseguest": brilliant! I bet no-one has come to that narrative description of ISAF in any Design iterations, although I did hear a Brit officer describe GIRoA once as the spoiled cousin who keeps asking for money and making promises to change his behavior...

RCS- I think many "Design-advocates" would say that Design offers the same as intel: "simply better understand the "problem" and inform decision makers." I disagree with them and think that if we are truly attempting to be more productive in a complex environment then Design has to be about learning through doing- and thus one would actually continually appreciate the environment more as opposed to understanding a problem and making decisions (although that could be a part of what you do). Where we get things wrong IMO is that we say we are learning because we improve in some micro way- although Senge would disagree that that is the same as organizational learning.

Thanks anon- great to be back.

Jeremy- couldn't agree more.

Peter- I'd say that Design is not what "good, smart, and well-educated staff officers have been doing all along" nor that "this is just complex, multidisciplinary problem solving"- unless you advocate changing one's structure, processes, and broad assumptions when one "problem solves". I'm pretty sure that our current processes/structure are not conducive to operating in a complex environment. The key takeaway for me from Beinhocker and others is that in a complex environment one has to change one's structure and processes. I don't see us doing that. We deploy BCT and SOTF "hammers" to every problem even though we may be facing "screws". We have processes that support JOPES and the TPFDD all the way down to TLPs and level one skills. It is a pre-engineered approach to a high-degree of efficiency and relative (read: military) effectiveness, but not very adaptive or empowering of lower levels: something I argue is paramount in a complex environment.

It is like we are a company of mini-skirt-wearing female salespersons selling pork belly futures through some kind of interest-bearing credit vehicle and we go into a country like, oh, say- Afghanistan- to do business without changing what our salespeople wear, who they are, what they sell, and what they use for financing- and then, when we are unsuccessful we blame the executors or we blame the planners for not being smarter- when it has nothing to do with planning better- no business plan that doesn't change our company's entire model/structure will ever work in that kind of environment. We don't have to be smarter going in- we just have to be able to learn and adapt- but that takes on a deeper and more difficult meaning when it comes to organizational learning and cultural adapation.

slapout9: it wasn't so much that anyone separated the commander from the process as it was that as a rule all commanders separate themselves from ALL processes- MDMP, Design, JOPP- you name it. This wasn't something that just I experienced, staffers in RC-E, S, and others reported to me the same. Our commanders are too busy with other things to get involved in planning or understanding the environment in the majority of my peers' experiences.

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 1:16pm

Just my opinion from watching to many battle staffs over the last six years--- whenever you associate the word "complex" to anything; it analytically scares people to the point that nothing is done. Then they attempt to fall back on doctrine all the while having forgotten what the heck doctrine is and or was.

And the system then calls this adaptive thinking.

slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 1:01pm

Grant Martin points out something I just can't understand. If you new anything about Systems Analysis or Design. You never,never,never would have tried to separate the Commander from the process. The moment that happened you were pretty much doomed.


Fri, 07/08/2011 - 11:40am

Good article. I'm left a bit put off on "design" though. I'm put off by all the fancy terminology and stilted efforts to make it seem like this is something new (not by Grant, but by whoever is packaging it for the Army). Between this article and Zweibelson's from last month, I picked up "metacognition," post-modern philosophy, and a handful of other somewhat vapid words and phrases. I'm not put off because I'm anti-academic or don't understand these words or concepts. I'm put off because design just seems like a way to make staff officers feel smarter when they're actually doing what good, smart, and well-educated staff officers should have been doing all along. This is just complex, multidisciplinary problem solving, right? Or am I missing something? In sum, I agree that we should be doing the sort of broad aperture thinking that design advocates, I just think that "design" as a trademark, especially using all the million dollar terms, is a bit overblown. It isn't anything new for people who are academically minded and for those who aren't, "metacognition" and "post-modern philosophy" are enough to make them gag.

MAJ Jeremy Mushtare (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 10:41am

An excellent article - the most important takeaway that I see is the emphasis that conducting design isolated from the problem's environment is completely different and potentially less effective than being in it. Dynamic and fluid complex (ill-structured) problem solving is far different than the static concepts that doctrine currently paints.

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 10:13am

Grant---good to see you back-missed the lively SWJ discussions prior to your deployment.

Welcome home.

RCS (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 9:34am

I have enjoyed all the recent articles on design - very interesting reads. From an intel perspective, those who have explored critical and creative thinking tools (structured analytical techniques (SAT), etc) will see some definite similarities. I suppose the difference is that design is supposed to lead to decisions or a course of action whereas intel use of SAT is to simply better understand the "problem" and inform decision makers.

Some references that may be helpful are:
"Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis" by Richard Heuer and Randolph Pherson; "Analytic Thinking" by Drs Linda Elder and Richard Paul; and "Psychology of Intelligence Analysis" by Richard Heuer; as well as a couple of tradecraft primers from the DIA and CIA (both unclassified).

Bob's World

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 8:24am

I don't know about anyone else, but my neighbor doesn't live in my basement, where he alternates between conducting a major remodeling job and beating my kids when they are bad, and giving them money when they are good; while taking the occasional pot shot out the window at my actual neighbor who he is in a dispute with.

ISAF is more like a crazy houseguest. That is a very different thing than a neighbor. (No design was employed in the formation of this insight).


Kent Park (not verified)

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 7:35pm


Great article. As a current student at ILE, I found the concept of Design intriguing yet somewhat esoteric. Your vignettes helped to clarify the concept in its practical use out in the operational world. Do you have any examples where Design actually helped to resolve or manage a complex problem? Interesting you didnt mention any... .

While we received a heavy dose of theory regarding VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) through academic readings, practical application of Design as part of the MDMP seems to be lacking. For one, Im not sure if the schoolhouse (outside of SAMS) has completely embraced Design. Second, we lack instructors with operational experience of leading a staff through Design. Your suggestion for tackling a local "wicked" problem using Design is an excellent idea to help officers and instructors gain some practical experience of going through the process. It was also very interesting that you frame the Design process as both planning and action. I dont remember reading anything like that in the Design student text v2.0. In everything Ive read, Design is usually framed as a "way of thinking" more than anything else. I think this is an interesting concept that should be explored further and perhaps incorporated in future versions of the Design handbook. Again, enjoyed reading your work.

MAJ Kent Park