Planting Seeds at the Strategic Level: Utilizing Design and Demonstrating its Utility

Colonel Tod Strickland, Canadian Army

Various military forces across the globe have either consciously or sub-consciously been using design for many years; Slim’s campaign in Burma provides a historical example where framing, reframing, and reflection in action are all readily apparent.  Relatedly, both the Israeli Defence Force and the American Army have been experimenting with Design for over twenty years. Yet within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), Design has yet to take hold; it remains largely foreign to our doctrine (perhaps not a bad thing), has only recently begun to be taught beyond an introductory level within our schoolhouses, and is largely unknown within the officer corps. The factors behind the current state of affairs are myriad; the situation itself affords an opportunity.

Examining today’s problem-rich environment demonstrates that there is a real and tangible need for the CAF to incorporate design thinking and processes at the strategic level, in particular, given the wide-ranging institutional issues that currently confront our military. Beginning the process of the adoption of Design need not be difficult; it could be facilitated, by using members of the extant pool of trained personnel to form a design cell within the existing command and control architecture, which in itself will help re-start the broader process of cultural change within the Canadian Armed Forces.

The problems that the military must work through at the institutional level are the very definition of complex and adaptive. The procurement system used by conventional forces is byzantine and prone to direct intervention by numerous parties with divergent aims. Our personnel system is challenged by the realities of the modern work force and the broader social dynamics within our nation. The development of new capabilities, like the continuously evolving cyber domain, forces us to take a more holistic view as we work through how best to serve our national interests. The list could go on at length; how are we to best respond to climate change, how do we meet evolve our approach to peacekeeping, what do we need to do to adapt to the legalization of marijuana, how can we encourage more Canadians to serve?

Our existing thought processes, and linear methodologies were not designed for problems of this nature. The Operational Planning Process, the Joint Operations Process, and their cousins were never intended to tackle the realities of trying to change or improve complex adaptive systems and the problems that they generate, yet for many officers within the CAF, this is the only sanctioned methodology available.  However there is a group of Canadian officers who by dint of their time at the School of Advanced Military Studies or during their education on the Joint Command and Staff Program, have been exposed to another way – Design.

Taking personnel that we have already paid to train, and incorporating them at the strategic level, either as part of the Strategic Joint Staff or as an element in the Chief of Defence Staff’s Initiative Group (CIG) is one way that we could begin shifting our problem solving culture and addressing the institutional problems, in particular, confronting the CAF. That there would be challenges and hurdles to overcome in undertaking this proposal are certain, but the benefits are substantial and more than justify the outlay in time and energy.

Planting the seed at the strategic level, and being able to demonstrate the utility of design concepts, using selected AMSP and JCSP graduates as a hub around which solutions could be pursued, would help change the dialogue that accompanies the problems that we can anticipate hitting in the longer term. Further, such an initiative, would help open minds to the idea that there are perspectives possible that can lead to relevant approaches to a wide range of problems that actually encourage discourse between the military and the society it serves. The promotion of holistic thinking, a higher level of discourse, and shared understanding of both ourselves and the complex reality in which we expect the CAF to perform are all potential benefits which commend a design based approach to enable our decision makers.

As some of our allies have seen, the incorporation of design is not without its challenges, and nor is design a panacea that will solve every problem we confront.  Indeed not all issues necessitate creative or unique approaches. However, our current methods are not meeting the demands of our current reality, and new means need to be attempted. Starting slowly, and building a body of knowledge which can then be seen across the military as being of value is a viable first step. We have people who possess a familiarity with Design. We have myriad problems that need to be resolved. We simply need to commit the will, and then afford the time, to use the tools that we have been talking about.

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