Small Wars Journal

Using the Army Design Methodology Process to Frame Problems

Sat, 01/14/2023 - 10:00pm

Using the Army Design Methodology Process to Frame Problems

By Dimas A. Fonseca Jr.

            Leaders serving in the highest echelons of the United States Army solve complex problems consistently. The Army design methodology (ADM) process enables commanders and staff members to frame an operational environment (OE), recognize problems, and create solutions. The ADM process also promotes continuous assessment of the OE and reframes problems and solutions, ensuring leaders think critically and creatively. Through the ADM process, commanders and staff members can understand, visualize, and describe operations (Department of the Army, 2015). To solve ill-structured problems, Army leaders use ADM. To properly facilitate framing a problem in organizations, leaders must understand the problem framing activity, key ADM concepts, and tools and techniques.

Framing Problems and Framing Activities  

            Ill-structured problems require the use of ADM, and framing the problem is an activity within the ADM process, which involves a unique set of activities of its own. Framing the problem identifies obstacles impeding progress toward the commander’s desired end state. Framing activities help leaders frame a problem including reviewing the environmental frame, identifying problems and mapping out their relationships, and using a narrative and graphics to capture the problem frame (Department of the Army, 2015). The purpose of problem framing is to determine which obstacles are impeding the end state. The environmental frame encompasses the current and future state of the OE. Soldiers attending the Sergeants Major Academy (SGM-A) use practical exercises in a small group setting to help develop graphics and narratives depicting framing a problem to prepare for future positions as senior enlisted advisors. In addition to practical exercises, Soldiers attending the SGM-A receive instructions on ADM concepts such as operational art and systems thinking to help reinforce framing problems and framing activities.  

Key Concepts

The ADM process is a practical planning and problem-solving methodology because the process integrates key concepts within the ADM framework. The key concepts associated with ADM are operational art, critical and creative thinking, collaboration and dialogue, systems thinking, framing, visual modeling, and narrative construction (Department of the Army, 2015). The key concepts within ADM assist commanders with their activities, such as understanding, visualizing, and describing an OE. Operational art and systems thinking are two ADM concepts that facilitate framing an OE. Ill-structured problems are challenging, making systems thinking and operational art essential to understanding the obstacles hindering the commander’s desired end state.

Operational Art

Within the ADM process, commanders and staff members apply the use of operational art to all significant activities, including framing problems. Operational art is the cognitive approach to developing strategies, campaigns, and operations which defines the purpose of military force at all levels of war (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2022). Operational art also has elements that support the concept, such as identifying centers of gravity, establishing decisive points, and creating lines of operation and effort. Under contingency operations, leaders can leverage operational art to determine the required military force to provide security along a main supply route. However, the ADM concept of operational art has a more considerable impact on the use of military force when combined with the concept of systems thinking.

Systems Thinking

To be successful in all levels of war, leaders must understand the various parts of systems and how each part is related. As a concept of ADM, “systems thinking is a process of understanding how parts of a system work and influence each other as part of a greater whole” (Department of the Army, 2015, p. 1-7). The OE is a complex system that leaders must frame to facilitate a commander’s activities. Using the example of providing security to a main supply route, leaders will use systems thinking to employ the command and control warfighting function to organize the different elements of combat power. The use of systems thinking enables leaders to integrate the elements of operational art and exercise the critical and creative thinking needed to identify obstacles under the framing the problem activity. In addition to using ADM concepts, leaders also have a unique set of tools and techniques to help frame the problem.

Tools and Techniques

Every ADM activity has tools and techniques needed to frame an OE. The tools and techniques that help frame problems include brainstorming, mind mapping, meta-questioning, questioning assumptions, and four ways of seeing (Department of the Army, 2015). Commanders and staff members cannot frame a problem if a problem statement is too vague, narrow in definition, or contains presumed solutions. To avoid poorly framing a problem, a practical approach would include an open discussion by a commander and their staff using the problem framing tools and techniques. Questioning assumptions and brainstorming effectively identifies obstacles and frames the problem.

Framing Problems through Brainstorming

To help frame the problem, leaders restate a problem by brainstorming obstacles. According to the Department of the Army (2015), “brainstorming helps the team develop ideas and variables for further research and analysis” (p. 3-6). To properly frame the problem, leaders must identify obstacles, and brainstorming is a technique that facilitates the ADM framework. A common way for leaders to brainstorm obstacles is by writing ideas on a board. Brainstorming in an organization’s public area, such as a multi-purpose room, will promote a shared understanding amongst the staff framing the problem. Also, brainstorming compliments systems thinking by connecting obstacles to each other. During practical exercises at the SGM-A, students use classroom resources to brainstorm obstacles impeding their instructor’s guidance. Framing the problem allows for brainstorming ideas against questioning assumptions.

Framing Problems by Questioning Assumptions

The Army operates on assumptions that leaders believe to be true and related to the OE. However, leaders must question assumptions as a risk-mitigating measure to help avoid poorly stating a problem. If the planning team does not validate assumptions when framing the problem, false assumptions will eventually become a risk to the operation (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2020). Returning to the example of protecting a supply route, questioning the assumption that an enemy force will attack the supply route will help the planning team determine the military force required for the security mission. Staff members on the planning team that questioned assumed obstacles would lead to properly framing the problem. During a brainstorming session, questioning assumptions by the planning team further integrates ADM tools and techniques. As Soldiers assigned to the SGM-A learned during practical exercises, understanding framing the problem within the ADM process will lead to appropriate facilitation in organizations.

Facilitating Framing Problems in Organizations

Leaders that understand framing the problem within the ADM process have an inherent responsibility to facilitate the activity in organizations. A key influencer within the Army is the Sergeant Major (SGM), who serves as the senior enlisted advisor to the commander and staff sections within an organization. According to the Department of the Army (2020), “the SGM is key in the training and operations planning process, leveraging their experience and vast technical and tactical knowledge to advise the staff” (p. 2-5). With so much influence and knowledge, SGMs can facilitate framing the problem in organizations. Operations SGMs and Financial Management SGMs have the platform to facilitate the ADM process in organizations.

Operations Sergeant Major

Serving as an organization’s Operations SGM requires expert knowledge of the ADM framework to ensure the assigned staff understands what framing a problem involves. SGMs in operations are responsible for advising commanders, providing leadership to the staff, overseeing training management, and communicating effectively (Department of the Army, 2020). One way to facilitate framing problems in organizations is by walking the staff through brainstorming activities in preparation for a field training exercise (FTX). An FTX will validate the organization’s ability to extend the commander’s operational reach. Leading the staff through brainstorming activities will train them to identify obstacles to frame the problems associated with the FTX. Doing the firsthand drill for a real-world training exercise will cement the ADM concepts, and tools and techniques for framing the problem. SGMs can reference ADM blocks of instructions taught at the SGM-A to help facilitate framing problems in organizations. Like the Operations SGM, a Financial Management SGM is also in a critical position to facilitate framing problems in an organization.

Financial Management Sergeant Major

As the senior enlisted advisor within a financial management organization, the Financial Management SGM is responsible for coordinating and providing fiscal assets to commanders. A significant part of financial management operations revolves around managing budgetary resources within the OE, often involving data analytics (Department of the Army, 2014). A Financial Management SGM can facilitate framing the problem in an organization using regression models and predictive analysis when reviewing data. The data charts would serve as good visual modeling products and help the SGM formulate a narrative supporting the ADM process. Through data analysis, the Financial Management SGM can help train the staff on framing the problem using data analysis to identify obstacles. Using data analytics as a financial management example, visualizing the spending rate of an organization’s status of funds will determine if the commander’s end state is trending correctly. Framing the problem using ADM concepts, and tools and techniques is challenging, but the SGM is the right person to facilitate the ADM activity within an organization.


Following the activities within the ADM process allows commanders and staff members the ability to frame an OE properly. To facilitate framing a problem in organizations, leaders must understand what framing the problem entails as an activity, including understanding key ADM concepts, and tools and techniques. Using the ADM concepts of operational art and systems thinking assists leaders with framing ill-structured problems. Brainstorming and questioning assumptions as a staff are critical problem framing tools and techniques needed to identify obstacles impeding the desired end state. Operations and Financial Management SGMs can facilitate framing the problem in organizations by brainstorming obstacles in preparation for an FTX and using data analytics to create and narrate visual models. Commanders cannot understand the OE without framing problems, making the ADM step an integral part of the ADM framework.



Department of the Army. (2014). Financial management operations (FM 1-06).

Department of the Army. (2015). Army design methodology (ATP 5-0.1).

Department of the Army. (2020). The noncommissioned officer guide (TC 7-22.7).

Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2020). Joint planning (JP 5-0).

Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2022). Joint campaigns and operations (JP 3-0).


About the Author(s)

Master Sergeant (MSG) Dimas A. Fonseca Jr. is an active duty Soldier, serving in the United States Army since July 3rd, 2001. He is originally from La Habra, California and has a Master's degree in Organizational Leadership from Columbia Southern University. Since enlisting, he's had the honor of serving all over the world, to include two deployments to Afghanistan.  His awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal and Meritorious Service Medal to name a few. MSG Fonseca is currently attending the Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas as a student of Class 73. He is married to Victoria Fonseca, and they have four children, one son-in-law, and two grandchildren.