Introduction to Strategic Design

Creating a Framework for Future Strategy and Policy Development

Estimated time to read: 6 minutes

Excerpt: A strategic design framework may be the point of origin for fostering “whole of community” solutions.

By Jeffrey M. Reilly

Editor’s note: Today’s article kicks off a three-part series on Strategic Design. This segment makes the case for a “whole of community” approach to strategy and policy development and introduces Strategic Design as a framework that could facilitate collaboration. Next week’s articles will build on this introduction by presenting the structural elements of Strategic Design. The articles use real-world challenges to illustrate the basic organizational framework of design and highlight the mechanisms that enhance applied creative collaboration at the strategic level. This series is a continuation of a larger conversation OTH has hosted on design thinking. Previous publications on this topic include The Military Design Movement: Drifting towards Embracing Uncertainty and Transformation in Complex Environments, Podcast 5- Designing Future Security: An International Roundtable on the Military Design Movement, and Podcast 1- Second Generation Military Design.

“National security threats have evolved and require involvement beyond the traditional agencies of DOD, the Department of State, and USAID… What has not yet evolved are the mechanisms that agencies use to coordinate national security activities such as developing overarching strategies to guide planning and execution of missions or sharing and integrating national security information across agencies. The absence of effective mechanisms can be a hindrance to achieving national security objectives.”
Government Accountability Office 2010


The statement above was published more than eight years ago and the problems identified in the report persist. In fact, as the global environment becomes inherently more complex the inability to effectively coordinate interagency planning is one of the single greatest vulnerabilities to US national security. When the bi-polar structure of the Cold War dissolved, the US found itself confronted with multiple complex contingency operations demanding innovative adaptations to interagency coordination. Most of the United States’ national security structure was developed during an era of predictable and relatively static threats that required different forms of coordination. In May 1997, the Clinton Administration issued Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 56. Based largely on the challenges and experiences of Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, this directive mandated reform in the interagency coordination process. Recognizing that the future demand for US involvement in complex contingency operations would only increase, the PDD’s intent was to establish management practices aimed at achieving unity of effort among US Government agencies and international organizations. The progress toward the PDD’s objectives, however, has been precarious and slow.

On September 11, 2001, 19 members of a relatively obscure terrorist organization known as al Qaeda infiltrated US security, boarded four transcontinental airliners, and carried out a series of devastating attacks on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Between 08:46 a.m. and 09:37 a.m. that morning airliners loaded with over 10,000 gallons of fuel struck the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center and the west side of the Pentagon. A fourth airliner, Flight 93, crashed in a field in southern Pennsylvania. The total estimated number of deaths that day was 2,981.

In November 2002, the United States Congress in conjunction with President George W. Bush established an independent, bipartisan panel to investigate the attacks. Designated as the 9/11 Commission, the panel was charged with identifying lessons learned and providing recommendations for safeguarding the nation against future acts of terrorism. The Commission reviewed more than 2.5 million pages of documents and other materials from dozens of government agencies, including more than 1,000 hours of audiotapes. What they found were indications of a wide-ranging failure to adjust the way government identifies, coordinates, and manages problems. The 9/11 Commission Report specific findings included: unsuccessful diplomacy; lack of military options; poor intelligence coordination; problems in the FBI; permeable borders and aviation security; and ineffective response. Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the North American Aerospace Defense Command were described as unprepared for the types of attacks launched against them. The report made a number of specific recommendations, but the principal focus was on creating a different way of organizing the government to achieve unity of effort.

Almost four years after the lessons of 9/11 the lingering effects of poor interagency coordination reemerged. On Monday, August 29, 2005, the United States faced another major crisis, a natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast with sustained winds of 127 miles per hour, spawning tornados and catastrophic flooding. Katrina’s widespread, massive devastation caused an estimated 1,833 fatalities, precipitated $125 – $150 billion in damages, and displaced more than 250,000 people, a number greater than those displaced during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

Unlike 9/11, however, the effects of Hurricane Katrina were predicted with uncanny accuracy by the National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Hurricane Center (NHC). On the evening of August 27, the NWS projected that Katrina’s landfall would most likely be Buras, Louisiana, 65 miles south-southeast of New Orleans. This prediction was only off by 20 miles from the Friday forecast. According to Louisiana emergency management, it takes 48 to 72 hours to evacuate vulnerable residents from New Orleans. NHC’s forecasts afforded emergency management and the public 56 hours to implement their hurricane plans and make evacuation decisions along the north central Gulf Coast.

The inability to effectively collaborate across agencies is a perennial problem that continues to plague effective strategy development today. Since 2005, the Government Accountability Office has published numerous reports on interagency collaboration. One of the reports in 2009 highlighted that organizational differences in agencies’ structures, planning processes, and funding sources had hindered interagency collaboration, wasting scarce funds and limiting the effectiveness of federal efforts. Another report highlighted that the US government efforts to improve the capacity of Iraq’s ministries to govern was being thwarted by multiple agencies pursuing individual efforts without an overarching strategy.

Curing the ills of outdated, parochial, and stove-piped interagency organizational structures will probably not be solved without a congressional mandate similar to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. It is also important to emphasize that even if an interagency act was congressionally mandated, it would take decades to normalize and culturally embed within our current national security system. However, the concept of strategic design possesses the intrinsic capability to bridge key gaps between diverse groups with divergent interagency planning structures and processes. A strategic design framework may be the point of origin for fostering “whole of community” solutions.

Strategic design is a constructivist model focused on developing schemata to explore and examine complex problem sets involving grand strategy and policy. It exists as a multidisciplinary framework that assesses systemic challenges within a macro-level environment, identifies problem sets, and formulates the vision necessary for strategy implementation.

Dr. Jeffrey Reilly is a retired Army officer with 26 years of active duty service. He holds a Master of Science from the University of Houston and a PhD from the University of Alabama. Dr. Reilly has held numerous command and staff positions as an infantry officer. His planning and operations experience includes serving as a theater-level combined and joint operations officer, plans division chief, and member of the “two major theater war” plans team. Dr. Reilly currently serves as director of joint education at the Air Command and Staff College and as director of the college’s Multi Domain Operational Strategist concentration.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government. 

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