A Personal Reflection on Introducing Design to the U.S. Army

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In this blog, I explain how I accidentally became involved in a major transformation in U.S. military thinking, and reflect on some lessons from my experience.

This is a preprint of an article that will appear in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies.

The Australian Army: Complexity Theory and Adaptive Campaigning

Every two years, the Chief of Army Exercise convenes the Australian Army’s Generals for professional deliberation. In 2006, there were three Exercise themes: mission command, a systems approach to problem solving, and the land-air partnership. The organizers of the Exercise, led by Colonel Damian Cantwell and Lieutenant Colonel David Wainwright, were also the authors of Adaptive Campaigning. Adaptive Campaigning was the Australian Army’s new capstone doctrine, which drew on insights from complex adaptive systems theory to address the challenges of complex warfighting.

As a defence scientist working deep in a defence research lab in Edinburgh, South Australia, receiving one of only three invitations to civilians to attend the Exercise was a rare opportunity to observe and interact with the top brass. At the time, I was leading a basic research project on complex adaptive systems for defence, while also completing my PhD thesis on a multidisciplinary approach to complex systems design. My Research Leader Anne-Marie Grisogono and I had contributed to the conceptual development of Adaptive Campaigning, and we were asked to help run a workshop on Systems Thinking.

Brigadier General (Retired) Huba Wass de Czege, founder of the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) and author of the famous AirLand Battle doctrine, was a keynote speaker at the Exercise. SAMS was well known as the most intellectually rigorous Army educational experience globally, often dubbed the “book a day” club for the prodigious reading load. SAMS graduates were often referred to as Jedi Knights for their advanced planning skills. Huba was fascinated to learn of Adaptive Campaigning, and quickly delved into the theory of complex systems with Anne-Marie and I. At the conclusion of our conversation, he said, “You know, you two really ought to come out and visit SAMS and see this thing we’re calling Design.”

The School of Advanced Military Studies: Systemic Operational Design

A couple of months later we received a visit invitation from the SAMS Director, Colonel Steve Banach. On my first visit to SAMS, I arrived during the middle of a Systemic Operational Design practicum. There were 16 students seated around a horseshoe classroom. Whiteboards spanning three walls were covered in a variety of systems diagrams, visualizations and notes on South American narco-terrorists. Sitting in the middle of the horseshoe at the front of the class with Huba Wass de Czege was Israeli Brigadier General (Reserve) Shimon Naveh. Shimon, who resembled Michel Foucault in both appearance and vocabulary, was delivering an animated lecture on his dialectical engine of description / problematization / synthesis. After about an hour of Shimon’s theoretical exegesis, Huba provided some translation and interpretation through storytelling, and then the students broke out into small teams to work on the next iteration of their design inquiry.

I was fascinated. Over the past decade, I had observed and participated in dozens of Army planning exercises, and read about hundreds more. This was almost exactly like none of them.

There was no evidence of division of labour according to the Staff System. There was no sequential process being followed. There were no PowerPoint Slides being produced. Most surprising of all, there were no doctrinal manuals in sight.

Instead there were copies of books like A Thousand Plateaus and A Treatise on Efficacy and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and A Primer in Theory Construction scattered on desks. There were expansive discourses on meaning and rationale and rival logics. Students were creating new forms of visualization to express and debate complex ideas systemically. The instructors were allowing the students to thrash about, become confused, and get frustrated. They were spurring the students to think more critically, to be more creative, and to engage their deepest differences in beliefs.

This was different.

When I returned home to Australia, I read everything I could find on Naveh’s theory of Systemic Operational Design (SOD). That took less than a week. Even though Shimon had been practicing SOD with the Israeli Defence Force since he founded the Operational Theory Research Institute in 1996, he had thus far refused to put his theory into writing. He was reluctant to document a practice that was still evolving and defied proceduralization. There were only a few student monographs, interviews, and a very readable summary by retired Marine Corps consultant and concept writer John Schmitt’s from SOD’s American debut at Exercise Unified Quest in 2004–05. I next worked my way through the SAMS SOD reading list, which covered a broad spectrum from military operational art, to continental philosophy, to epistemology, to historiography, to complexity theory, systems thinking and general system theory, to architecture theory and design thinking. After two more visits to lecture on complexity theory, I was offered a position as the first foreign civilian ever to serve on the SAMS faculty.

The U.S. Army: Design Curriculum and Doctrine

I arrived at SAMS in 2008. The U.S. was at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and design was being scaled up from a pilot elective course to part of the core curriculum, which required an evolution of the course design. SAMS was attempting to write a student text on design, but the current draft satisfied no one. Just before my arrival there were several falling-outs based on both personality and ideology. Jim Schneider and Tim Challans (SAMS faculty), and then Huba Wass de Czege, Shimon Naveh, and Rick Swain (Booz Allen Hamilton contractors) severed ties with the design program they had created at SAMS due to disagreements with the Director. Together, under Bob Mayes’ leadership, they established Booz Allen’s Center for the Application of Design (CAD). My position at SAMS was funded through a contract with Booz Allen, which effectively rendered myself and my colleague John Rochelle as the bridge between SAMS and CAD. While this position was not without tension, it also afforded me a unique view on this early forking of military design practice in the U.S. Army. SAMS would end up calling their version the Army Design Methodology, while Booz Allen called theirs Operational Design.

At the same time as we (Mike Stewart, Alice Butler-Smith, Peter Schifferle, Bruce Stanley, Matthew Schmidt, and myself) developed and began teaching the new curriculum, SAMS was approached by the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate (CADD) to contribute to the writing of design doctrine. This was controversial, given Naveh’s widely expressed views on doctrine as antithetical to design, as well as the paucity of peer reviewed literature on systemic operational design on which to base the doctrine. But the Army was at war, and CADD was in a hurry to publish the new concept.

I was drafted onto a team of four writers, along with Lieutenant Colonel Richard Paz (CADD), Lieutenant Colonel Chris Prigge (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and co-author of the Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design pamphlet), and Major Trent Mills (U.S. Army Central Command Design Team) to write Field Manual Interim 5–2 Design (2009). This interim doctrinal manual was then condensed by a new team led by Lieutenant Colonel Steve Leonard into Chapter 3 of Field Manual 5–0 The Operations Process (2010), the predecessor of Army Doctrine Publication 5–0 (2012). A curriculum of 3,000 pages of reading on design at SAMS was eventually distilled down into 13 pages of doctrine that would serve as the main instrument for introducing the Army Design Methodology to the U.S. Army.

Booz Allen took a different approach to documenting design. In 2009, Shimon Naveh, Jim Schneider and Tim Challans published The Structure of Operational Revolution: A Prolegomena, a 120 page treatise on systemic operational design. The Prolegomena articulated design’s historical and philosophical roots and presented a theoretical frame for military design inquiry. Rick Swain published a practitioner’s companion to the Prolegomenatitled Fundamentals of Operational Design, which described a methodology that was used by Booz Allen to teach design to Army units in the field.

In the three years I was at SAMS, we graduated 600 Colonels and Majors educated in design.

I stayed with Booz Allen’s Center for the Application of Design for a further two years through to 2013, helping to establish and coach design teams at U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), U.S. Cyber Command, U.S. Army Pacific, and Australian Special Operations Command. Recently in July 2016, I returned to visit SAMS and the USSTRATCOM design team. Both the curriculum at SAMS and the USSTRATCOM design team have continued to evolve, but the initial structures we developed in 2008–2011 remain at the foundation of the U.S. military’s approach to design.

Personal Reflection

This story is one of remarkable success. The U.S. Army is an organization comprised of 1.4 million active duty personnel. It is often perceived as highly conservative and insular. Yet in less than a decade, the U.S. Army introduced a radical new idea, iteratively experimented with and adapted it, documented and taught it, applied it in the field, and prescribed it across the entire organization.

This new idea was not a change in the margins of the military profession. It was a challenge to the very core of how the Army thinks about and plans operations, by an organization who was already second to none in planning complex organizations. And it was done while the Army was busy fighting two wars. I am still struck today by the professionalism, openness, and willingness of the Army leaders I worked with to embrace and commit to change.

Even though we were far more successful than I could have anticipated, I still believe we fell a long way short of the potential of Shimon Naveh’s theory of systemic operational design:

  • There are still only a handful of people in the U.S. Army who understand design deeply;
  • Design is talked about far more than it is practiced;
  • Of those who practice it, there are many who have adopted the language of design to describe what they have always done without understanding or committing to designerly practice;
  • There are multiple design camps, practices and languages associated with Army Design Methodology, Marine Corps Design, Operational Design, Design Thinking, and Systemic Operational Design; and
  • In the integration process, the institution altered design much more than design altered the institution.

In my view, the three main challenges we failed to develop satisfactory responses to were:

  • Institutional Culture
  • Balkanization
  • Pathways to Mastery

These are each described next.

Institutional Culture

The dominant institutional culture of the U.S. Army is a form of technical rationality that views strategy as a search for the ways (courses of action) that best satisfy stated ends (objectives) within the assigned means (instruments of national power). Strategy is then developed using a waterfall process that cascades from the top down. Technical rationality combines a naive realist epistemology with instrumental reasoning. Army officers often characterize this more simply by saying “we are a blue collar Army” with “an engineering mindset.” “Give us a clear objective and adequate resources and we’ll achieve the mission.”

Systemic operational design challenges this entire worldview. SOD is post-positivist and constructivist. It challenges the mission as received from higher HQ. It views strategy as an unfolding of potential that derives from a dynamic interplay between ends, ways and means in a constantly changing environment. The signature move of SOD is reframing — seeing the same situation with new eyes. Reframing is not a change in the situation. It is a change in the internal condition of the design team.

Seen from within the institutional culture, the activities of SOD appear incomprehensible, inefficient, and even dangerous. Why is this discussion going around in circles? Why do you keep drawing these ridiculous spaghetti charts? Why do we keep questioning the mission we have been assigned?

The dominant institutional culture does not have the time or patience for philosophical distinctions. Doctrine limits the professional language of the Army. Every term has a single definition that is dictated by the institution in a separate doctrinal manual, Joint Publication 1–02. Naming is framing. It is difficult to escape the institutional paradigm when you can’t change the language.

How do you introduce a new paradigm when you cannot have a discussion at the level of paradigms? We never came up with an adequate answer to this question. Proponents of design basically fell into two camps, which I will call the Home Team and the Away Team.

The Home Team wanted to play the game according to the rules of the design paradigm. They were the purists: Design isn’t for everyone. I can’t teach anyone to design, but with a willingness to learn and put in the effort, some people are capable of learning design. Most officers will never get design. It’s best if they don’t even pretend to understand it.

The Away Team wanted to play the game according to the rules of the institution. They were the pragmatists: We need to make Design as simple as possible. We need to demonstrate value to busy Army officers. Even if we can get them to think a little bit deeper, a little bit differently, that is progress. Design provides new tools for their toolbox. Every Army Officer can benefit from knowing a little design.

The Home Team was mostly ignored or derided by Army leaders. For every 100 students, they would convert one or two devoted acolytes, but in the process they also generated active resistance to design. The Away Team was better received by students. But because none of these students were required to challenge their fundamental beliefs, they were never able to really reframe. Their design projects simply perpetuated the dominant instrumental approach to problem solving.

I feel like both were unsatisfactory. Neither was able to transform the dominant institutional culture. Perhaps we needed to find another, more neutral field from which students could acquire perspective on both the home field and the away field (a meta-perspective). Maybe we needed experiential pathways that allowed students to venture onto the away field without first having to learn the rules of the new game. Or perhaps we needed to introduce design to officers before they became so acculturated into the paradigm.


Shimon Naveh is a purist, and honest to a fault. His willingness to openly criticize his peers and his clients’ organizations is polarizing, winning a devoted following, while also creating enemies. As design took hold in the U.S. Army, there were many who wanted to distance it from Naveh’s theory and practice of Systemic Operational Design. They did this by rebranding SOD to the Army Design Methodology. This included changing the language of design to doctrinally approved terms and rounding off SOD’s sharp edges.

Because SOD was introduced through a mostly oral tradition, and Naveh was continually updating his own language for describing SOD, different organizations developed different variants of design. The U.S. Marine Corps incorporated an abridged version of design into their planning doctrine that was influenced by Schmitt’s article from the early Unified Quest experimentation. SAMS wrote a student text Art of Design Version 2.0 (of which I was the lead author) based on the SAMS design curriculum. The U.S. Army doctrine was used by the Command and General Staff College to teach design, along with a handbook written by Jack Kem, who had not been involved with any of the experimentation with design. The U.S. Army War College wrote their own manual, which was a high level synthesis of secondary literature on military design. Naveh’s longest teaching relationship was with USSOCOM. However, USSOCOM eventually decided to insource design education, which is now run by the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU). In 2016, JSOU published a white paper Design Thinking for the SOF Enterprise.

Through a combination of ideological divides (Home Team vs Away Team), personality conflicts, and the oral tradition of design, a Balkanization of design occurred. This greatly weakened the message, as Army officers began to focus on the differences between design sects rather than the broader movement they collectively represented. This effect seems to be common in most human endeavors, from religion to science. There is certainly an argument that having multiple variants of an idea compete with one another provides selection pressure that can strengthen the more successful variants through a form of Darwinian evolution. But when competitive forces overwhelm the need to cooperate on large systems change, it would seem that the Balkanization becomes destructive to a change movement.

Pathways to Mastery

SOD was intimidating for novices. The language Shimon used was full of statistically improbable phrases and multi-syllabic words drawn from an immense literature: deterritorialization, problematization, smooth and striated space, rhizomes, fractal self-similarity, and homeostasis. This made it seem as though you would need to read for years before you would be even qualified to attempt designing anything.

The translation of design into doctrinal terms did not make it any easier for novices to learn design. Doctrine is the wrong vehicle for learning design, because it is written to be comprehensible at the eighth grade level on the first scan. Design cannot be learned by reading a 13 page manual. I believe design is best learned in a studio setting, designing for a real world challenge, in the presence of experienced coaches, and supported by a community of practice. The U.S. Army frequently uses doctrine as a tool for behaviour change, but it is a blunt instrument for teaching a subtle craft like design.

Intellectually, SAMS was a great setting to introduce design, but we were always starting behind the 8 ball. Ideally, design would be infused from day one at West Point, and be reinforced along an Army officer’s career. Instead, there is a fair amount of unlearning that has to occur before a mid-career officer can learn design. My experience with Colonels was even more difficult, since they had already achieved career success without design, and so they were on average less open to learning a radically new approach.

For officers who were naturally attracted to design, there were few pathways for them to develop mastery of design. If they were lucky enough to be accepted to SAMS, they would take one course on design. There was nowhere to go after that to further specialize in design, and no active communities of practice. There is a small military “design cabal” mailing list, but only a handful of SAMS graduates are subscribers. Army officers rotate through postings every two years, and career progression moves in the direction of becoming a generalist, not a specialist. There are good reasons for this, but it does make it challenging to build any real depth of knowledge in design in serving officers.

What We Got Right

It is also important to acknowledge the things I think we got right. The way we chose to introduce design:

  • Continually experimented and adapted our approach;
  • Was reflexive in applying design to the introduction of design;
  • Used education as a leverage point for organizational change;
  • Used current issues to teach design rather than fabricated scenarios;
  • Educated and enlisted advocates from the pool of retired Generals who were mentors to serving Generals;
  • Found a “hook” for design by connecting it and integrating it with existing planning processes; and
  • Emphasized continuity with military traditions through the use of historical antecedents, rather than promoting the unique differences of design.


This reflection is provided in the spirit of learning from a valiant effort to make radical change. I am also motivated by a frustration from reading too many success stories that whitewash all of the personal, political and cultural challenges that subvert change efforts. I don’t believe the challenges we encountered in this experience are unique to design. Nor are they unique to the U.S. Army. By discussing them, I hope that others who intend to make radical change can consider some of the barriers before they arise. I am truly grateful for the opportunity I was given to play a small role for a few years in a big and worthwhile change effort that forever changed my own life’s trajectory.

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