Strategic Design Part II

Creating a Framework for Future Strategy and Policy Development

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

Editor’s note: Last Friday we introduced the need for strategic design and on Monday we published Part I of the strategic design framework. Part I discussed the observed system and desired system. Today’s segment builds on Monday’s discussion by examining two additional elements of strategic design: identification of problem sets and cognitive map development. Together this three-part article series on strategic design is intended to provide a framework for fostering “whole of community” solutions to complex problems by bridging key gaps between diverse groups with divergent interagency planning structures and processes. All figures included in this article are fictional diagrams developed for a training scenario, they are not intended to portray actual US policy or strategy. This series is a continuation of our conversation on design thinking. Previous OTH 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.

Part II

By Jeffrey M. Reilly

Strategic design is not a strategy cure all, it is a means by which to go far beyond ill structured brain storming sessions and tactically rigid joint planning.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the answer, I would spend the first 55 minutes figuring out the proper questions to ask. For if I knew the proper questions, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.”

-Albert Einstein

Strategic design is 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.

Identification of Problem Sets

The above advice from Einstein is extraordinarily insightful, however, many strategists have a tendency to view international challenges as if problems were singular in nature. This approach is a significant vulnerability in the strategy development process. The international political environment consists of numerous interrelated complex subsystems and when fluctuations occur within the international system it almost always produces multiple problem sets. Failure to understand this fact risks developing and recommending strategic response options that improperly apply the instruments of power. As strategists contemplate the employment of the instruments of power they should analyze systemic actor linkages to identify potential short, intermediate, and long-term problem sets. Identifying these types of problem sets and understanding their surrounding context is vital in determining how to identify and develop solutions. This step assists strategists with recognizing what is possible and what is not possible given the national interests and why we should take action. Additionally, it mitigates the possibility of solving the wrong problem. Identifying problem sets requires a comprehensive exploration of the contextual and environmental factors causing the tension between the desired political end states of friendly parties and those of adversaries. Isolating the underlying causes of tension empowers a much more precise methodology of what needs to be acted upon to achieve the desired political end state conditions.

To do this effectively, strategists must understand the potential to change the environmental conditions, the strategic limitations, and the full implications of changing the environmental system. Grasping the environment’s potential is important because the action taken may not only solve the problem, but also prevent future problems. Changing any contextual feature of the environment has second-and third-order effects on the environmental system. Strategists need to project the potential implications of desired changes and screen those changes for possible threats to US national, coalition multi-national, and regional interests. The crucial task is understanding the connective tissue between global trends, shocks, congruency and continuity mechanisms.

One of the greatest mistakes strategists make is focusing on the status quo. This fixation blinds strategists to the fact that we live in an extraordinarily vibrant environment that is constantly changing. Strategic design analysis of the global system provides not only the means to explore current developments and past history, but also the trends and shocks that change systems. Trends are key evolving factors that will change how the system operates over time. They offer insights into possibilities and directions of movement; however, they are not predictive. Trends have nonlinear trajectories that intersect with other trends and evolving contextual factors in the global environment. The monumental challenge is deciphering how these intersections will affect long-term national interests. Examples of trends include climate change, demographics, and disruptive technologies. In contrast to trends, shocks are sudden events that dynamically affect or change a system. An example of a shock would be the November 9, 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. Strategists need to understand there is a nexus between trends and shocks. It is impossible to precisely predict the future, especially when examining global interactions. However, it is prudent to analyze trends and understand their impact on the system.

One of the most dynamic trends that has the potential to affect the entire globe is the world’s growing physical and economic water scarcity projected for the decade 2025-2035. If current climate trends continue it is estimated that by 2025 two in every three countries will be water stressed and 2.4 billion people will face “absolute water scarcity.” One of those countries is China. Currently, 45% of China’s GDP is in regions that have a similar water resource per capita as the Middle East. Approximately 97% of China’s electricity generation is reliant on water and it is estimated that 45% of fresh-water reliant power generation facilities are in water-stressed provinces. China is home to more than 20% of the world’s population, but it contains only 7% of the world’s fresh water. A World Bank report in 2009 estimated that 19% of China’s main rivers and 35% of its reservoirs were not fit for industrial use. China is trying to mitigate this water scarcity trend by developing a number of canals to move water from the country’s water rich south to the industrialized north. One of the canals is approximately 720 miles long and stretches from the Yangtze river to Beijing. Additionally, in 2017, China launched over 8,000 water cleanup projects worth over $100 billion in the first half of the year.

In spite of these actions, a series of contextual factors and other trends are colliding against China’s interests. One of the primary contextual factors is China’s self-induced reluctance to raise water prices for industries such as coal mining which uses the most water and cause the most pollution. Another factor is mining sand from rivers and lakes. Sand is an important ingredient in producing the asphalt and concrete needed for China’s expanding urbanization projects. The process of sand mining leads to lowered water tables near the streambed, channel instability, and is one of the causes associated with China’s loss of over 28,000 rivers in the past 20 years. As the water scarcity trend looms, it is intersecting with other trends including a progressively worsening effects of climate change, a growing population, hyper-urbanization, and a GDP to debt ratio of over 300%. As these trends begin to intersect more violently, they can potentially produce a shock that will affect regional and global stability and ultimately, US national interests.

Understanding the interactions of intersecting contextual factors, trends, and potential shocks is a fundamental principle of creating effective strategic vision. It is a basic part of scenario building and examining alternative futures through assessing assumptions about the environment.

Assumptions are an intrinsic part of design and strategy development. They shape the evaluation of trends and shocks that will potentially affect the environment. Additionally, assumptions identify the greatest risk to a strategy or policy. It is important to emphasize that when strategists investigate trends and shocks they must understand that risk is a ubiquitous element and assumptions can assist in categorizing the levels of risk. One technique for categorizing risk is to assess assumptions in terms of three basic levels. Those levels are: assumptions that will cause a strategy or policy to fail; assumptions that may affect the attainment of all strategy or policy goals; and assumptions that will disrupt the timing and tempo of a strategy or policy.

Comprehending the role assumptions play in examining trends and shocks provides a foundation for developing congruency and continuity mechanisms for achieving long-term interests. Congruency and continuity mechanisms are very similar in nature. They both include outputs such as treaties, economic policies, presidential directives, and strategic guidance memorandums. However, congruency and continuity mechanisms have different purposes. A congruency mechanism is designed to achieve unity of effort at the national or international levels. A continuity mechanism seeks to ensure strategies and policies remain effective across time. Congruency and continuity mechanisms exist in two basic forms—preplanned and emergent opportunity. Preplanned congruency and continuity mechanisms are prudent pre-identified actions deliberately embedded in a policy to account for projected trends and shocks. Emergent opportunity congruency and continuity mechanisms are pre-identified adjustments to a policy or the use of the national instruments of power that exploit or adjust to the occurrence of a shock to the environment.

Figure 4 portrays the conceptual integration of trends, shocks, congruency and continuity mechanisms with desired national interests. The vertical line on the left of the diagram represents the range of outcomes from an action. The horizontal line denotes the desired outcome from an action over time in relationship to achieving an acceptable band of national interests. When an action is initially taken there is a fair amount of certainty of how the system will react; however, as time goes on, the ways the system may change increases dramatically producing greater and greater numbers of possible outcomes. The increase in the number of possible outcomes is represented by the 45-degree dashed lines showing potentially how many possible outcomes can result from an action. The only way to effectively influence the system after the initial action is to understand the potential impact of trends and shocks on the system and plan congruency and continuity mechanisms to adjust for changes in the environment. This analytical step provides the foundation for developing a cognitive map that provides the vision for both strategy and policy.

The Cognitive Map

An integral part of strategic design is the cognitive map. This map provides strategists with the means to envision the implementation of long term policy goals. In essence it is a blueprint that links strategic imperatives along strategic lines of engagement to achieve strategic end state conditions and national interests. Figure 5 provides an illustration of a notional cognitive map.

The cognitive map evolves through successive iterations of the strategic design process. It should be treated as a living, breathing document capable of providing not only the vision for a strategy, but the means for assessing how a strategy or policy is progressing. The map uses the information derived from the observed and desired system analysis and problem set identification to chart a course for long-term strategy and policy. The value of the cognitive map is that it provides a visual tool that enhances collaboration across diverse groups of stakeholders and codifies the vision for strategy and policy.


Strategic design is not a strategy and policy cure all. It is, however, a means to go far beyond ill structured brain storming sessions and the tactical rigidity of the joint operation planning process. The strength of strategic design framework is its long-term focus. The process of using the observed and desired systems to understand the environment and long-term problem set identification, combined with the cognitive map offers a much more holistic approach to developing effective strategies and policies.

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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