Small Wars Journal

Framing Solutions in Army Design Methodology

Wed, 01/25/2023 - 9:11am

Framing Solutions in Army Design Methodology

By Rodani Tan


Historically, commanders (CDRs) and staff manage complex situations within an operational environment (OE) that continuously changes. Army design methodology (ADM) provides an approach to dealing with unfamiliar and complex problems. “ADM is a methodology for applying critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe problems and approaches to solving them” (Department of the Army [DA], 2019, p. 2-16). An example of a complex situation that needs a solution is Ellyatt’s (2022) report on Russian forces invading Ukraine to demilitarize the country. To make matters worse, this was not Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine. The situation is extraordinarily complex and requires unique solutions to alleviate the suffering of Ukrainian citizens and help keep their sovereignty. The success of a military solution to a problem depends on the abilities of the CDR and their staff to frame solutions through the application of key concepts and activities to produce an operational approach that allows detailed planning and the sergeant major’s (SGM) ability to facilitate ADM activities in an organization.

Framing Solutions

The CDR must first understand the OE and the problems preventing the desired result so he can frame solutions or operational approaches. “Operational approach is a CDR’s description of the broad actions the force can take to achieve an objective” (Joint Chiefs of Staff [JCS], 2020, p. IV-14). It is a conceptual plan to solve an issue derived from understanding the current OE and associated problems with the desired future state. Ducich et al. (2016) described how the partner-and-advise training team (PATT) developed training that transformed a Ukrainian battalion staff from an antiquated and centralized Soviet command style to a contemporary mission command focus using ADM. The PATT applied ADM to provide an operational approach to training, prompting an organizational change that resulted in the success of current military operations against Russia. Like other ADM activities, planners use key concepts to develop and formulate an operational approach.

Key Concepts

“Key concepts associated with the ADM include operational art, critical and creative thinking, collaboration and dialogue, systems thinking, framing, visual modeling, and narrative construction” (Department of the Army [DA], 2015, p. 1-5). Key concepts are fundamental in building ideas and a foundation for knowledge that can be universally applicable to any significant problem. OEs provide a range of problems and can become overwhelming for staff to solve. Also, key concepts provide planners with the tools to understand better the operational environment with its complex issues and creative approaches to solving them. Operational art and systems thinking are two important key concepts that facilitate the development of an operational approach.

Operational Art and Systems Thinking

Operational art provides ten tools known as the elements of operational art (DA, 2015). Elements like the center of gravity (COG) and decisive points are essential in creating an operational approach within the limits of resources and capabilities and an important activity within framing solutions. JCS (2020) defines COG as “the source of power or strength that enables a force to achieve its goals or where an opposing force can focus its operation, which will lead to enemy failure” (p. IV-22). A COG is a critical capability with critical requirements and vulnerabilities that form a system. An example of a COG is a mechanized unit, which can disrupt ground forces but requires logistics to enable projection and becomes vulnerable when prevented from receiving a resupply of fuel and ammunition.

Critical requirements or vulnerabilities can represent decisive points during battle to diminish an enemy’s capability. “A decisive point is a geographic place, specific key event, critical factor, or function that, when acted upon, allows CDRs to gain a marked advantage over an adversary or contribute materially to achieving success” (JCS, 2020, p. IV-32). An example of a decisive point is Ukraine’s successful disruption of the Russian military’s logistics which caused the Russians to abandon their vehicles due to a lack of fuel supplies (Davydenko et al., 2022). The analysis used in identifying a COG with its critical requirements and vulnerabilities, which also helps determine a decisive point, indicates systems thinking.

“Systems thinking is a process of understanding how parts of a system work and influence each other as part of a greater whole” (DA, 2015, p. 1-7). The ADM uses systems thinking to identify problems, find solutions, and give planners a framework to organize complex and confusing information. The systems thinking approach is analytical thinking to see the interdependencies and relationships between elements within a system. When an operational approach applies changes to parts of the system, this may produce a behavior or outcome that is favorable or unfavorable. For this reason, critical thinking and systems thinking are essential when planning an operational approach to have a good outcome.

Critical and Creative Thinking

According to DA (2015), critical thinking uses questioning, reflective judgment, and appreciation of differences that make each situation unique. In contrast, creative thinking creates innovative ideas that lead to new perspectives and approaches to a situation. Both are essential in developing a range of options for solving problems. An example of applying critical and creative thinking is when staff members analyze different solutions that best solve an identified problem. For instance, Ducich et al. (2016) described that the PATT initially thought of a progressive, linear approach to training. Upon further analysis, the team adopted a spiral development approach to achieve a better end state. By applying critical and creative thinking, the PATT adjusted their training program to best achieve the end state of a fully trained Ukrainian battle staff. In addition, CDRs and staff can effectively apply critical and creative thinking by conducting continuous collaboration and dialogue.

Collaboration and Dialogue

Collaboration and dialogue between CDRs and staff create an important learning environment in which members can think critically and creatively with a candid and open exchange of ideas. “Collaboration and dialogue help develop shared understanding between the CDR and staff and externally with other CDRs and unified action partners” (DA, 2015, p. 1-7). For instance, collaboration and dialogue usually happen in working group meetings where participants exchange opinions and encourage competition of ideas. Both enhance understanding, improve group thinking, and eventually produce a better solution to solve a problem. The knowledge developed in working groups produces a frame of reference for developing solutions that help build a visual model and narrative.

Framing, Visual Model, and Narrative Construction

Framing is essential to finding viable solutions. A problem framed correctly identifies the root cause of a problem preventing progress toward the desired goal; for instance, identifying an adversary correctly, whether terrorist, criminal or insurgent, is a great deal in developing an operational approach to defeating distinct types of adversaries. Central to framing is the use of visual models and narrative construction.

Visual modeling is a way of presenting ideas that stimulate thinking through graphics or drawings. Graphic modeling techniques can be rich picture diagrams using symbols, words, or lines to depict relationships between variables and tell a story graphically (DA, 2015). An example will be drawings on a whiteboard or graphic art built on a slide show with a legend defining the symbols or words used. Graphics help stimulate understanding and organize information that shows the relationships between variables better than just through a narrative.

Narrative construction uses words to give meaning to individuals, things, and events (DA, 2015). The purpose of a narrative is to tell a story and improve understanding of a visual model. For instance, creating a paragraph helps define a visual model to provoke thinking and learning, which helps reveal meaning in the facts presented for analysis. Narrative and visual modeling are essential in creating framing solutions to improve the activities involved in developing an operational approach.


Like other ADM activities, there is no recommended format for developing an operational approach. However, some activities that help the CDR and staff to frame solutions include reviewing the environmental and problem frames, formulating an operational approach, and documenting results (DA, 2015). These activities help ensure that the operational approach is feasible for further detailed planning development.

Review the Environmental and Problem Frames

Reviewing the environmental and problem frames before developing an operational approach is critical in ensuring that the data collected is still applicable and current. For instance, staff must review whether conditions in the OE are still the same whenever operations start, to ensure that desired effects are still achievable. CDRs and staff also check if the desired end state will remain the same, and if no new variables have come up for a need to formulate a new operational approach.

Formulate an Operational Approach

Planners use the elements of operational art, the understanding gained from the OE, and problem frames, to formulate a possible operational approach. The activities that enable them to apply these elements are determining enemy and friendly COG, identifying decisive points, determining direct or indirect approaches, establishing objectives, devising lines of operations and efforts, and refining the operational approach (DA, 2015). An example that illustrates these activities happened in the battle between Ukraine and Russia. Davydenko et al. (2022) reported that Ukraine’s military identified Russia’s COG and applied an indirect approach by targeting its logistics hub as a decisive point to weaken its COG. Ukraine’s military devised lines of operations against all supporting elements of Russia’s combat troops to diminish their capabilities, by seizing key terrains and continuous refinement of their operational approach to keep their advantage against Russia. As the United States continues to provide equipment and resources, the operational approach of Ukraine will aid in achieving its desired results. As they continue to refine their operational approach, it is critical to document the results for better planning in the future.

Document Results

Documenting the results of ADM activities enables the transfer of knowledge and understanding to other CDRs, staff, and unified action partners (DA, 2015). Publishing handbooks, articles, or journals are examples of documenting results. The documented results from ADM also provide knowledge and information for further detailed planning. Documenting the results also provides lessons that a SGM can use to improve their organization. The SGM’s vital role in the ADM process can impact a unit’s success.

Role of the Sergeant Major

“The SGM is key in the training and operations planning process, leveraging their experience and vast technical and tactical knowledge to advise the staff and the Operations Officer” (Department of the Army, 2020, p. 2-5). With an understanding of the ADM process, key concepts, and activities, the SGM can expertly facilitate framing a solution in an organization through working groups. For instance, the SGM works within working groups to develop solutions to organizational problems. SGM collaborating with the staff enables observation of their creative and critical thinking and may provide coaching when needed.

A Finance SGM in an installation should collaborate with other senior leaders to create solutions to untimely pay adjustments that are prevalent in each organization. Applying key concepts and activities to frame solutions with other senior leaders should help alleviate the financial hardship of Soldiers by identifying the current barriers that prevent a Soldier from receiving timely pay adjustments. The ADM activity of framing solutions will be vital in creating an operational approach to solve untimely pay adjustments.


The success of a military solution to a problem depends on the abilities of the CDR and their staff to frame solutions through the application of key concepts and activities to produce an operational approach that allows detailed planning and the SGM’s ability to facilitate ADM activities in an organization. Using the key concepts provides a foundation for building knowledge and understanding to find solutions to any problems. The activities discussed guide formulating of operational approaches, even though there are no prescribed ways. The products documented in framing solutions are essential for developing detailed plans for CDRs and staff. Lastly, the SGM being the most experienced and knowledgeable is an excellent asset in facilitating the ADM process in his organization by providing guidance and expertise when developing the right operational approach to achieve the desired results.



Davydenko, D., Khostova, M., & Lymar, O. (2022, August 11). Lessons for the West: Russia’s military failures in Ukraine. European Council on Foreign Relations.

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

Department of the Army. (2019). The operations process (ADP 5-0).


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

Ducich, N., Minami, N., Riggin, R., & Austin, J. (2016, November). Transformative staff training in Ukraine. Army University Press.

Ellyatt, H. (2022, February 24). Russian forces invade Ukraine. CNBC.

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 Rodani Tan is a Senior Finance Manager who deployed multiple times in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He currently attends the Sergeants Major Course at the US Army Noncommissioned Officer Leadership Center of Excellence. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Commerce major in Business Administration from the University of Santo Tomas. He is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Management majoring in Organizational Leadership.