Share this Post
Failing With Single-Point Solutions: Systems Thinking For National Security
Daniel H. McCauley
You cannot navigate well in an interconnected, feedback-dominated world unless you take your eyes off short-term events and look for long-term behavior and structure; unless you are aware of false-boundaries and bounded rationality; unless you take into account limiting factors, non-linearities, and delays.
- Donella Meadows, 2008
I have a problem with the Sunday morning political talk shows that our nation’s leaders use as a testing ground for solutions to the challenges, issues, and problems besetting the US on a regular basis. My problem is not that I watch the shows, but when I do indulge I have a hard time understanding the simple, linear, reductionist explanations of experts that offer predictable and comfortable responses to complex issues. Terrorism, nation-state bankruptcies, stock market crashes, humanitarian disasters, invasions through proxies, nuclear and technology proliferation, and transnational criminal organizations are just a few of the more recent headlines that all experts agree are undermining US national security. But few of these experts identify—let alone explain—the interrelationship of many of these issues or the multitude of contributing factors inherent within each of these challenges. The pundits of opposing political parties, aka experts, seek to define a static end-product easily judged as right or wrong, good or bad that doesn’t exist.
What has become clear are the uncertainties of a changing, continually globalizing world. Each subsequent change highlights the growing mismatches between the capabilities and capacities of traditional nation-states and the complexities inherent within non-traditional, global challenges. These complexities pose theoretical and real-world puzzles that demand thoughtful holistic policies by national security experts. Unfortunately, single-point solutions developed by government experts have failed to account for dynamic and volatile global conditions highly resistant to predetermined resolution. In fact, there is compelling evidence that suggests the very policies proffered as solutions act as catalysts to spawn the unanticipated consequences and shocks currently manifesting in the global environment. In fact, Dr. Jay Forrester, Professor Emeritus at the Sloan School of Business at MIT, assessed that up to 98% of all policy interventions fail in whole or part because of a lack of understanding of the systems in play. These failures highlight the limitations of our mental models and our overly simplistic approaches to problem solving.
Oversimplified, piecemeal focus on single-function groups or issues ignores the inherent interrelationships and feedback loops by relying on front-loaded predictive planning. Though predictive planning cannot adequately address these types of puzzles, even the most forward thinking leaders utilize that approach. The 2015 National Military Strategy, for example, seeks to convey certainty in an uncertain world through the development of a “blueprint” that will systematically and sequentially allow the US to maintain the best-led and best-equipped force in the world. Blueprinting continues, in reality, to use the same techniques in the same way even though we recognize the limitations of that approach in such a volatile global security environment. A volatile environment demands feedback and information, but this approach delays, discourages, or inoculates against it because it prohibits learning. This is an administrator’s strategy that, as noted leadership thinker Gary Hamel stated, possesses “an exaggerated confidence in great execution, believing that is all you need to succeed in a discontinuous world.”
When systems adapt to interventions, policy makers and pundits like to point to unforeseen shocks to excuse simplistic thinking. Therefore, a paradigm shift is needed from the plodding, methodical thinking associated with disconnected systems from a bygone era of limited communication and transportation to one that conforms to the realities of the Twenty-First Century. As Donella Meadows identified in the opening quote, thinking that fails to take a long-term perspective and that fails to understand system behavior and structure will not end well. For example, if a more holistic systems approach was taken before the removal of Saddam Hussein was contemplated, a broader set of stakeholders, internal and external to Iraq, would have been identified. Decision makers would have gained a better understanding of the historical, social, cultural, religious, political, and economic dynamics underpinning the region. Thinking in systems would have likely yielded a different policy approach. Failing to understand politically-constructed boundaries and engaging in bounded rationality causes a lack of transparency, limits the ability to improve, reduces flexibility, and increases strategic and operational risk.
To change the paradigm through which the Department of Defense (DoD) operates, a number of questions that pertain to an interconnected, complex world must be asked. First, how can the DoD improve its understanding and the discussion of complex issues and environments? Second, how does the DoD identify key intervention points that have a disproportionate effect on outcomes? Third, how can the DoD test decisions and strategies against different scenarios? Fourth, how can the DoD understand key causal factors and drivers of behavior, to include key dynamics such as resistance to change, tipping points, delays, and unintended effects? Fifth, how can the DoD expose and check logic and assumptions while noting areas of uncertainty and disagreement? In short, how do national security professionals develop useful models of complex issues that integrate multi-functional groups and issues while facilitating agile and adaptive thinking and decision-making throughout planning and execution?
The basic narrative discussion, which is the traditional way of providing understanding, fails to provide the depth and breadth of understanding needed for these complex global issues. Given human cognitive limitations, mental models are necessarily simplified to allow decision makers to function in a complex world. These mental models work well for near-term, visible effects of potential actions, but usually collapse under the weight of longer-term second- and third-order dynamics, non-linear relationships, and feedback loops. So, getting back to the earlier questions of how to frame these global challenges better, I offer a relatively old tool, systems thinking, as a remedy to simple reductionism. As Peter Senge discussed in his book, The Fifth Discipline, systems thinking is the discipline for seeing the structures that lie beneath complex issues, and for identifying high from low leverage change elements. Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing the parts in the context of the whole. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.” Systems thinking provides context for the issues under consideration, improves one’s understanding of complex issues, and strengthens decisions and plans.
Joint doctrine writers understand the benefits of systems thinking and espouse its use in operational doctrine, such as Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, “Joint Operation Planning” and JP 2-01.3, “Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment.” In JP 5-0, systems thinking is promoted as “one way of developing solutions is to view these interconnected challenges from a systems perspective.” JP 2-01.3 calls a systems perspective of the environment necessary for providing the commander and staff the necessary “understanding of significant relationships within the interrelated PMESII [political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and informational] and other systems relevant to a specific joint operation….” Unfortunately, doctrine fails to provide the tools to facilitate systems thinking and instead relies upon a systems perspective that does little more than provide categories to “bin” data. System and subsystem elements, interrelationships, functions, and system dynamicity are neither explained nor explored.
Donella Meadows described a system as “an interconnected set of elements that are coherently organized in a way that achieves something.” Therefore, a system is composed of three things: elements, interconnectedness, and a purpose. All systems are nested within other systems, so naturally there are purposes within purposes. Keeping that in mind, the harmonization of the subsystem purposes with the overall larger system purpose is essential to the proper functioning of successful systems.
Getting systems to do what we want them to do, or changing a system to make it more effective, is the goal of policymakers or strategists. Mirroring the three components of a system, there are three primary ways to undertake system change. The least effective way is through a system’s elements—unfortunately, this is where most policies are focused. Although elements are the most visible portion of a system, they tend to be static with effects primarily local to the element itself. In addition, most attempts at changing a system through its elements are confined to a single element approach. For example, if we could just pressure Dictator X or President Y to resign then things would be better. What we find is that even though the leadership changes the rest of the system remains unchanged—in most cases, changing the leadership element is often inconsequential.
Although far more difficult to do than changing an element, the more effective ways to change a system is either through its interconnections (rules) or through its purpose. A system’s interconnections are typically invisible and consist of formal and informal relationships. The formal relationships are often expressed through stated processes and procedures; but the informal relationships, inherent within unstated culture, values, and individual personalities, often circumvent and undermine the formal processes. If a system’s interconnections or rules can be changed, then the system may be greatly altered. Policy changes are multi-point solutions as by changing the rules, most, if not all, of the elements are affected in some way.
Along the same lines, a system’s formal purpose is often stated; but most systems, over time, develop secondary purposes or even a new unstated primary purpose. Bureaucracies are a great example as over time they often cease to exist for their original intended purpose and develop a new purpose—which some cynics would say is to serve itself. Changes in purpose are also multi-point solutions—this approach not only fundamentally changes the interrelationships, but many of the elements, too. What makes changes at the interrelationship and purpose level so difficult is that systems must be observed over time to discern the powerful informal relationships and the unstated purpose(s). There are instances wherein changing an element can change a system, but typically that element also changes the interrelationships and purpose.
Systems thinking helps decision-makers see hidden relationships and, most importantly, feedback loops that drive unanticipated reactions to well-intentioned efforts. By converting a discussion or written narrative into a systems model, a more disciplined approach to a deeper and broader understanding of the actors, formal and informal rules, endogenous and exogenous factors, and drivers of change is developed. Similarly, the goals or purpose of the system are exposed as are the paradigms that underpin systems. Once system elements, interrelationships, and purpose are exposed, leverage can be found that may enable broad-based change. As James Ferris, director of the University of Southern California’s Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy wrote, systems thinking “not only expands the choices that…alter the rules of the game, but it also helps to understand the interactions between formal and informal rules with a more sanguine appraisal of the impact of a bundle of rules.”
Let’s look at the 2015 National Security Strategy as an example of applying systems thinking to a strategic-level issue and how it can better inform decision-making. By analyzing the U.S. national security enterprise as a system, specific issues are viewed in a broader context and some of the political, economic, and social connections within the larger global security system are better understood. The NSS serves as the strategic approach for the US national security system and provides some key insights. It identifies the purpose of the national security enterprise—to ensure the safety of the American people—as well as four national security interests: advance security of America, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners; advance a strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity; advance respect for universal values; and advance an international order that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation.
Keeping in mind that the NSS serves multiple purposes and audiences, the stated strategic approach relies upon a US leadership model underpinned by American values. The national security system’s elements and interconnections, however, must be discerned from the NSS narrative. System elements and relationships specifically mentioned are that “strong, sustained US leadership” facilitates a “rules-based international order,” which leads to “global security,” “global prosperity,” and “dignity and human rights.” In addition, a rules-based international order leads to “effective international organizations,” “empowered citizens,” and “responsible states.” “US economic strength,” “US technological strength,” and “American values” directly enhance strong, sustained US leadership.
These elements and interrelationships are depicted in the causal loop system diagram (CLD) below (Figure 1). Lines with arrows depict the linkages between elements and the linear relationship, or constant proportion between cause and effect, as described in the NSS narrative. For example, a rules-based international order leads to global security. The positive or negative relationship between elements is indicated by a plus (+) or minus (-) sign. Positive relationships are known as reinforcing processes that compound change in one direction. Negative relationships are balancing relationships that seek equilibrium by limiting and constraining change. The relationships shown in Figure 1 are all reinforcing or positive processes, which result in growth. As with any reinforcing process, however, the relationship can also be negative, which ultimately results in collapse. Specific US domestic interests, indicated in red, are differentiated slightly from global interests. For example, when discussing values abroad, the term dignity and human rights are used in lieu of values. Likewise, American prosperity is intrinsically linked to global prosperity, thus the latter terms are used to represent both as a way of simplifying the diagram.
Figure 1. National Security Strategy CLD
What’s missing from this simplified diagram is the identification of the implied interrelationships, which creates a better understanding of the complexities involved in national security. An implied economic relationship is shown below depicting that US economic strength has a far greater effect on many of the elements rather than just contributing to strong, sustained US leadership (Figure 2). US economic strength reinforces and is reinforced by US technological strength. Economic strength directly contributes to international order through a number of mechanisms, such as funding for the United Nations and the US’s role in the G-8 and G-20 among other organizations. As well, US economic strength directly contributes to global security through NATO and other international security missions. One of the basic assumptions made in the NSS is that a strong US economy leads to global prosperity, which, in turn, bolsters the US economy.
The NSS also states that the US will underwrite global security, which has the potential to have a significant effect on the US economy. Underwriting global security means that either US forces will take on that burden directly or other allies or partners will be supported in doing so. In either case, the US economy bears the overwhelming responsibility for underwriting global security. This approach can be sustained if, as assumed, global prosperity enhances the US economy in some way to offset the additional costs. If this assumption proves false or inaccurate, then the outflow from the US economy is not compensated for by the inflow, and the US will be unable to sustain the approach economically without compensating elsewhere (say, on the domestic side, which is not shown). Further analysis is required to confirm or disprove the assumption, but the relationship is very strong throughout the narrative.
Figure 2. NSS Economic Relationships
The CLD below emphasizes the effect leadership has on other CLD elements (Figure 3). Specifically, it depicts the implied positive relationships between the strong, sustained US leadership and a rules-based international order, which would be the UN and other internationl and regional organizations, to include diplomatic, economic, and military organizations. Likewise, given the US economy and available resources, the US can significantly enhance the effectiveness of these organizations.
Figure 3. NSS Leadership Relationships
Systems thinking tools, such as these maps, enable readers to see relationships more easily and therefore question some of the inherent assumptions. For example, using the systems discussion on US leadership might lead one to question whether the US strategic approach should be based upon strong, sustained US leadership (leadership also implies a partnership and process with other actors unaccounted for in the strategy) or rather US influence as expressed through the three Ds (diplomacy, development, and defense). Using the three Ds expressed as influence as the key element, the US security system model would be as shown below (Figure 4). This small change would more readily show the US security dependency upon the US economy and eliminate some of the “fuzziness” associated with leadership as a key element. In the end, a case could be made for either leadership or influence, but with the assumption more readily visible, it becomes open to discussion.
Figure 4. NSS Approach Expressed as Influence
The national security system could be further developed emphasizing the interrelationships between American values and a rules-based international order within the CLD (Figures 5 and 6).
Figure 5. NSS American Values Relationships
Figure 6. NSS Rules-based International Order relations
A compilation of the specific and implied elements and relationships within the NSS and its interests would look something like the diagram below (Figure 7). By integrating the system’s elements and interrelationships, one can see how much more complex the US security system is than originally discussed in a simple narrative format. Systems thinking enables the reader and national security professional to move from a single-point approach to a more contextually-based framework that guides foundation thinking. In particular, it focuses attention to the issue within the context of the whole system from which more nuanced strategic options are more likely to emerge.
Figure 7. Expanded NSS
As is shown here, a broader systemic approach enables organizations to more appropriately synchronize their resources and actions to create intended system change. After all, the intent of any approach is to achieve a broader-based, longer-lasting change that enhances the safety of American citizens. A systems approach also enables decision makers to see gaps not immediately evident in a narrative. For example, the boundaries of a system’s model are normally limited for simplicity; this limitation, however, visually identifies the limits of the model. In addition, complex systems are always changing and adapting; as such, systems models incorporate system fluidity more readily. Again, these models help national security professionals understand that drivers of change are not singular, instantaneous, or easily predictable. Rather, system change drivers are multifaceted and cumulative over varying periods of time. Using a systems model to understand system complexity, one may find that not only may the current policy be insufficient to create the intended system change, it may not be necessary. In fact, you may find that the policy or action is having the opposite effect than that desired.
Using systems thinking, leverage elements and outcome elements can be ascertained within the NSS (Figure 8). Leverage elements are those elements that have a larger than expected influence on the system. In this diagram, given the number of elements the value element affects, the value element appears to have a significant effect on the system. Values, however, generally have long time delays associated with them, and therefore the effects may take decades or longer to be seen or felt.
NSS outcomes elements, the element or elements most effected when the system “runs,” can be discerned. The outcome elements are strong, sustained US leadership and rules-based international order based upon the number of relationships into these elements. The latter element appears to be affected the greatest. Given the leverage element of “values” and the outcome element of “rules-based international order” it would be logical to focus on those two elements when developing a strategic approach. Therefore, as mentioned previously, the 2015 National Security Strategy may be better implemented through influence (as expressed through diplomacy, defense, and development) rather than American global leadership (note that true systems dynamic modeling simulations must be undertaken to prove or disprove the leverage and outcome variables identified).
Figure 8. Leverage and Outcome Variables
The US national security system can be further divided into four subsystems as described in the 2015 NSS: security, prosperity, values, and international order. American security is intrinsically linked to global security and, as such, is affected by the elements of the US National Defense enterprise, US Homeland Security, terrorism, climate change, US security capacity, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), global access, and global health security (Figure 9). The global security subsystem elements are interrelated—affected by and affecting other subsystem elements as well as other national security system elements. In this example, the element of US national defense affects HLS and terrorism as well as most of the other subsystem elements. So, when global security, and by extension, US national security is discussed, the subsystem elements must be considered holistically rather than piecemeal. This more holistic approach provides a deeper and broader understanding not only of the system, but the possible reactions to potential system inputs.
Figure 9. American (Global) Security Subsystem
When US prosperity and global prosperity are discussed, the elements of a strong US economy, energy security, science/technology/innovation (STI), global economic order, and extreme poverty are directly linked (Figure 10). Each of these subsystem elements, affect and are affected by, other elements within the subsystem by varying degrees. For example, the linkage between the US economy and the global prosperity are intrinsically linked and the effect on one has a similar effect on the other.
Figure 10. American (Global) Prosperity Subsystem
When considering the US interest of dignity and human right as a subsystem, the elements of (universal) values, equality, emerging democracies, mass atrocities, and civil society and young leaders are linked (Figure 11). For example, mass atrocities undermine dignity and human rights whereas the development of universal values should minimize or eliminate the potential of mass atrocities.
Figure 11. Values (Dignity and Human Rights) Subsystem
Finally, the subsystem of a rules-based international order is composed of African investment, Asia-pacific rebalance, economic and security cooperation within the Americas, European alliances, and stability and peace in the Middle East and North Africa (Figure 12).
Figure 12. Rules-based International Order Subsystem
If one were to juxtapose each of these subsystem onto each other within the broader national security system, one would find a spaghetti-like diagram as shown in the diagram below (Figure 13). This type of diagram is not useful in this format other than to portray the complexity of the national security system and the interaction between and within systems and subsystems. Its real value would be to show that anyone who offers up single-point solutions to any of the world’s problems is, at best, extremely oversimplifying the issue or, at worst, ignorant of the complexities of the issue(s) at hand.
Figure 13. NSS System and Subsystems
A systems approach to the NSS also enables global challenges or issues to be considered within a visual national security context allowing national security professionals to more readily identify the national interest or interests at stake. In addition, it facilitates the identification of intensity of interest. For example, if one linked some of the threats that the former Soviet Union posed to today’s US national security one might see something like the diagram below (Figure 14). The extensive challenges communist ideology, nuclear weapons, role in the Warsaw Pact, and Soviet military strength had on the safety and security of the American citizens is clearly seen. It would be fairly easy to label the Soviet threat as a vital or even survival national interest. The old Soviet threat directly undermined international order and security as well as posing a direct threat to the US economy and homeland.
Figure 14. Soviet Threat to NSS
The old Cold War Soviet example was an easy one—a systems map isn’t necessary to understand the existential threat. Using this type of map can, however, be used as a template to better understand some lesser or more ambiguous threats. Security professionals can portray the Chinese system interaction while adding additional details, such as positive or negative influences, to understand the effects on American security interests. In this model (Figure 15), it can be seen that although Chinese ideology and actions touch as many of the American interests as the old Soviet model—both internationally and at home—the effects are sometimes positive, neutral or potentially unknown. From this analysis, it would be hard to firmly categorize China as a potential threat and would therefore require additional research and monitoring.
Figure 15. Chinese Threat to NSS
One of the difficulties facing security professionals today is the tendency to see every threat as similar and to lump them all in the same category regardless of the specific threat to national security interests. In fact, specific interests are rarely mentioned. Rather, almost all discussions revolve around the fuzzy, but popular, “national security interests.” Systems models can be used to identify and display visually for all to see exactly what interests are threatened. For example, ISIS as a threat to US national security could be better contextualized as shown below (Figure 16). There is a threat, particularly to stability in the Middle East, regional order, and values, but the threat is not nearly as extensive as the old Soviet and is primarily contained regionally. Using the model, one would not assess the ISIS threat to the safety and security of the American people as vital. It may be vital to allies and partners, but likely fall into the major/important category of US interests, which typically do not call for the direct use of the American Armed Forces.
Figure 16. ISIS Threat to NSS
The health of the US economy is vital to all US national interests and is the cornerstone for the safety and security of the American people. As such, the NSS model can be used to see the effects a global economic downturn would have on the US national security system—the threat is almost as serious as that posed by the former Soviet Union (Figure 17). Therefore, any threat to the US economy must be considered in that context and addressed accordingly.
Figure 17. Global Economic Downturn Threat to NSS
Finally, another use of these models would be to provide additional context when considering international and domestic issues (Figure 18). As the 2010 National Security Strategy identified, the primary driver or leverage element within the national security system is the US economy. Domestic demands on the economy can be considered in whole or in part through visual systems modeling that simple written narratives miss or omit entirely because of the complexity of issues. The diagram below provides decision makers with visual cues and linkages for consideration as well as for relationships, system feedback loops, levels of complexity, and other information.
Figure 18. Exogenous and Endogenous Demands on the NSS
Keeping in mind that although all models are incomplete, they can serve as starting points from which to develop an initial shared understanding of very complex issues. Visual models invite collaboration, and assumptions and causation are exposed for everyone to see and debate. As the Sunday morning political talk shows continually demonstrate, well-intentioned efforts to solve pressing problems create unanticipated effects. These efforts are usually simplistic, single-point solutions to the problems resident within complex adaptive systems. This type of simple thinking provokes—far too often—unforeseen reactions: the solutions developed today quickly become tomorrow’s problems. These reactions are the result of system resistance or adaptations.
National security professionals must become comfortable with tools such as systems thinking because it expands our mental model boundaries. And thereby develops an awareness of and responsibility for the potential feedback created by our decisions. Systems thinking helps us to view ourselves within a larger system; a system in which our actions create feedback that shapes the world in desired and undesirable ways. Far too often we fail to recognize the systems and feedback loops in which we are embedded and the way in which we attempt to shape our environment. This lack of recognition leads to system resistance to which we further respond by redoubling our efforts, stubbornly reacting to superficial symptoms, intervening at low leverage points, and triggering powerful, but often delayed, feedback loops.
National security professionals can do better. Developing these types of thinking skills will enhance our confidence to continually challenge our own models, and to expose the paradigms that facilitate our biases. Systems thinking enables national security professionals to have a better understanding of system possibilities, plausibilities, and probabilities. As problem solvers, we must embrace systems thinking as a tool to better understand our complex global security environment so that we don’t continue to suffer the same single-point solutions advocated by political pundits and policy makers that get us into these messes in the first place.
Virginia Anderson and Lauren Johnson, Systems Thinking Basics, Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communications, Inc., 1997.
Julia Canty-Waldron, “Using Systems Thinking to Create more Impactful Social Policy,” Journal of Futures Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2, December 2014.
James M. Ferris, “Foundation Strategy for Social Impact: A System Change Perspective,” The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy, School of Policy, Planning, and Development, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, 2009.
George Flynn, Decade of War, Volume 1. Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations. Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis, Joint Staff J-7. Suffolk, VA, 2012.
Jay W. Forrester, “System Dynamics and the Lessons of 35 Years,” a chapter from The Systemic Basis of Policy Making in the 1990s, Kenyon B. De Greene, ed., Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1991.
Gary Hamel, Leading the revolution. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2002.
Bruce W. Jentleson and Louis W. Pauly, “Political authority, policy capacity, and twenty-first century governance,” in Power in a Complex Global System, New York: Routledge, 2014.
Joint Publication 2-01.3, Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment, Joint Staff J-7, Washington, DC, 2009.
Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, Joint Staff J-7, Washington, DC, 2011.
Peter J. Katzenstein, “Epilogue: Power. 1-4, Or The Emperor’s New Clothes” in Louis W. Pauly and Bruce W. Jentleson, Power in a Complex Global System, New York, NY: Routledge, 2014.
Donna Meadows, Thinking in Systems, White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008.
National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2030, Washington, DC, 2012.
National Security Strategy, Washington, DC, 2015.
PA Consulting, Framing Complex Security Challenges, Office of Emerging Capabilities (EC&P), Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (ASD(R&E)), 2014.
Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline, New York, NY: Currency Doubleday, 1990.
John D. Sterman,, “All models are wrong: reflections on becoming a systems scientist,” Systems Dynamic Review, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter), 2002.
S. Vago, Social change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. 2004.