Strategic Design: Compiled

Introduction: Creating a Framework for Future Strategy and Policy Development

Editor’s note: This article is an out of cycle publication in order to consolidate three previously published articles on Strategic Design.  The introduction makes the case for a “whole of community” approach to strategy and policy development, and parts I & II present 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.

By Jeffrey M. Reilly

“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.

Part I: Creating a Framework for Future Strategy and Policy Development

By: Jeffrey M. Reilly

Strategic design is a constructivist model focused on developing schemata to explore complex problem sets involving grand strategy and policy.

There are a plethora books and articles that offer insights into strategy formulation, but very few documents provide a structural understanding of how to enrich collaboration across diverse groups of stakeholders and enhance the effectiveness of the process. This analysis seeks to begin a conversation on how to leverage key aspects of design to side step common pitfalls inherent in strategy development. The intent is not to advocate a prescriptive methodology, but simply to provide a basic organizational framework for enhanced collaboration and coordination.

What is Strategic Design?

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. Similar to operational design, strategic design begins with developing an understanding of the environment. However, strategic design’s focus goes far beyond a region or joint operations area (JOA). The primary reason for this is the problem and/or solution may exist far outside the confines of a distinct region or area of operations. Strategists must be able to recognize global system linkages, understand the effective use of the national instruments of power, and evaluate actions that impact the long-term attainment and preservation of national security interests. Applying design principles also functions as a tool to see potential events that would otherwise be classified as “Black Swans.” Design, however, is not meant to be predictive. It is a mechanism that enables preparation by identifying prospective changes in the environment affecting the ability of strategic response options to anticipate, adapt and respond in uncertain environments.

The greatest challenges in examining the international environment is it exists as a multifarious, interactive, and constantly evolving series of systems. It encompasses all actors and factors that either influence or have the potential to influence national security. Understanding the environment requires a holistic critical analysis of the environment’s systemic interconnectivity. One of the best constructs for framing the environment involves the deliberate bifurcation of the environment into two interrelated subsystems that foster a shared understanding of the environment’s interconnectivity. The two subsystems are the observed system and the desired system.

The Observed System

The observed system is an analytical construction of how you believe the environment currently exists and functions. It consists of regularly interacting, interdependent, and independent elements that affect national security. Strategists begin framing the environment by examining key factors such as principal actors and their interrelationships; cultural relationships; historical context; physical geography; demographics; disruptive technology; and the lenses of key political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure (PMESII) factors.

There is no exact alchemic prescription for visualizing the observed system because the observed system is a construct of what one has the capability to see and understand. Additionally, the term “observed system” does not necessarily convey that what one is observing is the system as it actually exists. Not all variables are readily visible or have evolved sufficiently to be systemically linked. Some environments evolve over time and may not be self-evident. Another critical realization is that not all observed systems are openly accessible and access to an environment’s systemic information is not always equal. As a result, the accuracy of a depiction of an observed system is dependent upon two essential variables: access to information and the ability to critically analyze that information. An example of this is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Most nations have very limited access to North Korea, and this directly affects what can be observed and mapped within the DPRK’s environmental context. Concepts such as the DPRK’s juche are superficially understood by the West but have a tremendous impact on North Korea’s national “will to act.”

The ability to critically analyze information within the observed system is equally as important as access to information. When strategists develop an observed system, they must be able to analyze available information in depth and comprehend what the information implies for both the strategy and policy. An excellent example of this is understanding the impact of literacy on the strategy in Afghanistan. Today, Afghanistan’s literacy rate is 38.2% and it ranks 154th out of 161 nations in literacy. Although this seems like an innocuous bit of information for an underdeveloped nation, it has a major effect on both grand strategy and policy. Literacy affects Afghanistan in several important ways. The first is the countrywide lack of literacy is the single biggest obstacle undermining the building of effective Afghan security forces. In 2012, only 14% of the individuals entering the Afghan armed forces were literate. US military officers told the auditors that promoting literacy makes the Afghanis easier to train, more efficient and skilled in their work, and more knowledgeable about human rights and the rule of law. Security forces cannot be effective unless they can read and write orders and understand basic manuals associated with tactics, administration, equipment, and maintenance. Literacy is an important enabler to professionalize security forces, reduce corruption, enhance stewardship, and increase recruiting. The magnitude of Afghan illiteracy presents an incredible challenge and it dramatically slows the ability to field Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police forces.

The second way illiteracy affects operations in Afghanistan is in information operations (IO). If the majority of the population cannot read or write, the mechanism used to communicate IO has to be modified to accommodate that factor. Traditional IO methodologies do not work among illiterate populations. Evidence to support this supposition is shown in an October 2010 survey conducted by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) in Afghanistan. This survey interviewed 1,500 men in northern and southern Afghanistan. 68% of the respondents in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces had seen photos of the planes striking the Twin Towers on 9/11. However, 92% of those respondents could not relate the photos to the events of 9/11 or identify the role those events played in international intervention. Both Helmand and Kandahar provinces are among the highest rates of illiteracy in Afghanistan. If the data from these surveys is accurate, they are essentially stating that Afghans in the most hostile areas to international intervention had no idea why the US was in Afghanistan…nine years after entering the country.

But, perhaps the most significant implication of a low literacy rate will have for a strategy is on the future of a nation. In today’s international environment, no nation can compete effectively or be self-sufficient without an educated workforce. Low levels of literacy also imply that multiple decades of investment will be required to create that workforce. If the Singapore and Finland models of transforming education were applied to Afghanistan, it would take at least three decades of investment to change Afghanistan’s current pattern of illiteracy.  The challenge for Afghanistan is it is still at war and it has two national languages, Dari and Pashtu. These two factors would probably extend the investment to five decades. The question then becomes does the international community have the will to support that investment and is there a strategy and policy in place to meet that challenge. Analyzing these types of factors through the lens of the observed system significantly enhances in the development of effective strategies and policies.

The overarching goal of visualizing the observed system is learning how the system currently functions and understanding how the system will change in reaction to a particular strategy or policy intervention. Although it is extraordinarily difficult to prevent bias from creeping into the observed system analysis, it is imperative to eliminate as much bias as possible. This includes refraining from introducing proposed national strategic end state conditions and national strategic objectives into the examination of the observed system.  Integrating end state conditions and objectives into the observed system analysis prejudices observations and reduces the ability to fully understand the system. Analyzing the observed system in a relatively pure state presents an opportunity to discover crucial systemic linkages that are normally either overlooked or deleted from consideration. Pure system analysis positions strategists with a significantly better perspective on the possibilities of how to change the system. Ideally, the observed system analysis should provide a synthesis of global and regional system linkages. An example of this is Arab Spring.

In 2011, massive protests erupted across Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, and numerous other Middle Eastern and North African countries. For decades these countries had suffered human rights abuses, political repression, corruption, food scarcity, and incompetent economic mismanagement. However, on December 17, 2010 a virtually unpredictable spark occurred that would change the Arab World. A Tunisian named Muhammad Bouazizi got into an altercation with a Tunisian officer over the confiscation of a fruit cart. In protest, Bouazizi set himself on fire igniting a disruption to the system that is still being felt today in countries like Syria and Libya. On the surface the causation of the Arab Spring movement was repression, but the reality is much more complex. Many of the manifestations that erupted can be traced to physical and economic water scarcity in North Africa and the Middle East. Water is one of the most precious elements on earth and it is absolutely essential for human life. Water is also an important economic factor governing food production and industrial development. When the Arab Spring movement occurred, there was another region suffering from the effects of physical and economic water scarcity, North Asia. In late 2010 and early 2011, a winter drought over 5,000 miles away from North Africa and the Middle East amplified the impacts of the Arab Spring movement. In China’s Eastern wheat-growing province, a crop failure forced China to purchase vast volumes of wheat on international markets to feed its nearly 1.4 billion people. This doubled global wheat prices exacerbating tensions in the Arab World. Water scarcity already affects every continent. Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation.

Figures 1 and 2 illustrate examples of observed system analysis. Figure 1 provides an illustration of the types of factors and functions that may affect both grand strategy and policy. The emphasis on global analysis is recognition of the dynamic role globalization plays in the postmodern world and the fact that both potential solutions and additional problem sets may exist beyond the region and JOA.

The insights derived from a global level analysis also generate the depth and fidelity necessary for comprehending the salient factors and functions affecting the environment at the regional level. This crucial foundation provides strategists with the means to more fully understand inter and intra-regional actor relationships and contextual features that may have been overlooked by traditional analyses.

The regional assessment of the observed system shapes the detailed identification of how the environment reacts to internally and externally derived stimuli. Figure 2 illustrates a regionally focused examination of the observed system. Similar to the global analysis described earlier, strategists must understand macro regional trends and potential shocks to the creation of effective strategy and policy.

When the observed system is graphically portrayed at the global and regional levels it affords strategists the means to communicate and collaborate with very diverse agencies and international partners. The essential feature of this type of analysis is it creates a deeper understanding for those involved.

The Desired System

Based on a thorough assessment of the observed system, the desired system analyzes the perceived tension between the strategic political direction provided by national or multinational authorities and the adversary’s desired political end state. The desired system process should begin with a fundamental comprehension of national or multinational purpose and the identification of key national interests. This is in striking contrast to operational design which is guided by national strategic end state conditions and objectives. The rationale for this difference in emphasis is at the strategic level national purpose and national interests are intended to articulate why you are taking action. Knowing why is a fundamental prerequisite for shaping long term success and instilling innovation and flexibility into the development of any strategy. If strategists understand the national interests at stake (why we are taking action), the capacity to correctly adjust actions required in an evolving environment is significantly enhanced. Focusing solely on national strategic end state conditions and objectives limits the ability to react to environmental changes or take advantage of emergent opportunities.

Although strategy relies heavily on understanding what actions need to take place for success, environments are extraordinarily dynamic and they begin to change as soon as the first action occurs. The farther you move away from a strategy’s initial action, the amount of control you possess over achieving the desired outcome decreases dramatically. The reason for this is environmental reactions geometrically increase in the number of possible outcomes. This requires strategists to understand not only what the national interests currently are, but also what range of interests will be acceptable in the long-term. Establishing an acceptable range of interests builds flexibility into the strategy process by distinguishing which interests must be attained from those that are nice to accomplish.

One of the greatest obstacles to this construct is the fact that we do not have a recognized taxonomy of national interests to guide policy vision and development. As an analytical instrument, the term national interest has been used since the 16th and 17th centuries and has origins in the United States as early as the founding of the constitution. The term national interest was written about by Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and a host of other political theorists that explain specific national interests in relation to historical contexts and key events. Although these authors’ examples are helpful in gaining an appreciation for contextual factors, they do not provide the means to clearly communicate their prioritization or importance of their accomplishment. Donald E. Nuectherlien contends that there is a tendency for foreign policy to be determined by institutional prejudice and past policy rather than by a systematic assessment of national interests. In 1973, Nuectherlien published United States National Interests in a Changing World outlining four basic levels of national interests. This type of framework is intrinsic because it assists in identifying and clearly communicating national interest priorities. Nuectherlien’s levels are:

Survival Interests:  The very existence of the nation-state is in jeopardy, either as a result of overt military attack on its own territory or from the imminent threat of attack should an enemy’s demands be rejected.

Vital Interests: Protection of the country against probable dangers to its political survival and economic well-being and the promotion of a peaceful international environment.

Major Interests: Potentially could affect the security of the nation, the economic well-being of its people, and the stability of the international system, if no actions are taken. 

Peripheral Interests: Those interests that do not involve a threat to the defense or the well-being of the American people, or seriously affect the stability of the international community.

Envisioning changes in the environment assists in developing realistic long-term national interests empowers the development of flexible strategies to ensure the national interests are attained. This also sets a foundation for establishing a thorough examination of the tension between strategic political direction provided by national or multinational authorities and the adversary’s desired political end state. A crucial component of analyzing the tension is recognizing not only points of divergence, but also points of convergence. These two areas assist in identifying the degree of separation between friendly and adversary goals. This requires an examination of the adversary’s national interests and a fundamental appreciation for what the adversary is trying to achieve. The natural tendency is to concentrate on divergence in an effort to prevent an adversary from their goals. However, using convergence to influence actors provides a mechanism that can advantageously shape current and future strategic environments. Failure to comprehend when to emphasize divergence and convergence can result in unintended and potentially catastrophic consequences.

An example of this is the negotiations instructions delivered by Secretary of State Cordell Hull to Japan on November 26, 1941. This document, known as the “Hull note,” was in response to Japan’s occupation of Indochina on July 24, 1941. Prior to this, tension between the United States and Japan had been building since the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the subsequent invasion of China in 1937. The US response to Japanese aggression was to freeze Japanese assets in the US, embargo scrap metal shipments to Japan, close the Panama Canal to Japanese shipping, and initiate an oil embargo against Japan. The oil embargo was an extraordinarily pointed response because Japan imported more than 80% of its oil from the United States. Furthermore, section 2, point 3 of the proposal Hull delivered required Japan to withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and from Indo-China. The cumulative effect of US actions left Japan with three strategic options: acquiesce to essentially a US ultimatum, suffer the economic consequences of a stranglehold on natural resources, or fight. By the time Cordell Hull delivered the US proposal, the Japanese were already in the process of executing the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Although a military confrontation between the US and Japan was all but inevitable, the US may have leveraged points of convergence to either shape deterrence better or to gain positional advantage before a confrontation.

Understanding areas of convergence enhances the effectiveness of strategy in two other ways. The first is in returning to convergence during reconciliation. Accentuating the positives of pre and post conflict convergence offers a much more sophisticated approach to reaching the desired state of stability. The second is the internal convergence within the friendly goals. We typically think of affecting behavioral change within the human domain in terms of deter, coerce or compel. Strategies should also take into account suasion. The word suasion emanates from the middle ages and is slightly different from persuasion. Suasion means to appeal or influence through advising or counseling. An example of suasion would be leveraging advice to influence a reluctant international partner such India.

A common misperception in the dissection of friendly and adversary national interests and desired political end states involves the intricate nature of what an actor wants to do and what an actor is willing to do. A subtle but significant difference between these two contrasts affects the derivation of key planning assumptions, branches, and sequels. An illustration of this is China’s theory of unrestricted warfare. In February 1999 senior Chinese colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui published Unrestricted Warfare in response to perceptions about US global power projection. Unrestricted Warfare advocates going beyond traditional boundaries when necessary to achieve national political objectives. This text signals a willingness to use cyber warfare, information operations, and terrorism to attack both military and nonmilitary targets. These targets would include financial institutions, power grids, water supplies, and other key infrastructure components. In Qiao’s words, “The first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.”

As strategists deliberate aspects of what an adversary wants to do and is willing to do, they must be cognizant of time. The temporal dimension has an effect far beyond being a limited resource. Developing strategy in a time-compressed environment is extraordinarily difficult, but time is also crucial in determining how long it will take to achieve the desired political end state and how long the effects must last. When national or multinational authorities promulgate strategic direction, they must have an acute awareness of the “will” to achieve the end state and the conditions necessary to maintain that “will.”

Another aspect of time planners must consider is the relationship between the desired political end state and how long the conditions established will last. A phrase often used to describe political end state conditions is “long-term stability.” The problem is that long-term is never adequately defined. On 27 July 1953, an armistice terminated major hostilities on the Korean peninsula. The armistice created a 160-mile-long and 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the Republic of Korea and the DPRK. When the armistice was signed, North Korea was not able to bring significant effects on the Republic of Korea. However, by the early 1990s advances in artillery systems, surface-to-surface missiles, and the DPRK’s nuclear program drastically altered regional stability. It is crucial to grasp the fact that long-term stability does not necessarily constitute an indefinite state of being.

Just as time affects the desired system, other actors have a dynamic capability to influence the political end state. As planners develop the construct for the desired system, they should assess the possible effects— both positive and negative—of all actors on desired end-state conditions. Some actors will be allies, some overt adversaries, some neutral, and some neutral with the potential to intervene. It is absolutely imperative to map actor relationships, understand their systemic links, and develop actions that will set the conditions for achieving the political end state. Mapping actor relationships assists planners with identifying strategic and operational assumptions and guides the development of associated branches and sequels. Additionally, it provides the strategic-level vision for whole-of-government, inter-combatant command, and multinational coordination.

Any investigation of systemic actor relationships must also include an examination of how the actors make decisions. Decision-making theory is supported by many studies that include the rational actor, cognitive, cybernetic, polyheuristic, and reflexive control models. However, actors draw from a diverse set of frames of reference to make decisions, and there is no universal decision-making pattern. The key is recognizing the differences in the patterns and their impact on strategy. It is also important to highlight that an ally’s decision making can have just as dramatic an effect on a strategy as an adversary’s.

In March 2002, the planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom hinged on the creation of a northern front that would attack Iraq through Turkey. By early 2003, however, US equipment was sitting on ships circling in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, waiting for the outcome of negotiations with the Turkish government. On 1 March 2003, the Turkish Parliament decided in a 264–251 vote to veto the deployment of an estimated 62,000 US personnel onto Turkish soil to attack Iraq.

This demand probably seemed reasonable to most US military personnel because the United States was offering $30 billion in grants and loan guarantees and putting pressure on Europe to accept Turkey into the European Union. But without intimate knowledge of Turkey, its domestic politics, and its strategic concerns, this proposal was extraordinarily unrealistic. The outcome was not only a denial of using Turkey as a northern front, but also severely strained US-Turkish relations.

The last segment of analyzing the desired system is identifying barriers to the desired political end state and national interests. Determining barriers facilitates analysis of a critical aspect of planning that is often missing: expectation management. When a strategy is formulated or undergoes a major revision, political leaders must understand the full scope of the strategy’s capabilities and its limitations. This fosters a more realistic examination of assumptions and promotes better decision making and risk analysis. Barriers exist in many forms, including time, military capabilities, interagency disputes, intergovernmental organizations, and numerous other key factors. As planners identify barriers, they must conduct a thorough assessment of the barriers’ impacts on the desired political end-state conditions and raise critical issues to the political authorities for decisions. A realistic appraisal of barriers assists strategists with conveying an accurate depiction of what can and cannot be accomplished, and it frames expectation management for political leaders. It also provides a basis to make effective recommendations when political leaders direct changes in strategic or operational-level resources.

The process of examining barriers during the analysis of the desired system is directly linked to correctly identifying the problem sets requiring resolution. As obvious as it seems, strategic limitations significantly affect the ability to solve the problems identified by political leaders. Excessive limitations may not only prevent policy success but also precipitate a new set of problems that political leaders are unprepared to deal with or accept. Consequently, correctly identifying the core problems that actually require resolution and associated problem sets is a centrifugal component of the desired system analysis. Figure 3 represents a depiction of the desired system that sets the foundation for identifying critical problem sets.

Part II: Creating a Framework for Future Strategy and Policy Development


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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