Military design is about constantly changing, transforming, challenging, and disrupting.
Approximate reading time: 18 minutes
An interview with Ben Zweibelson
Editor’s Note: Mr. John Sarubbi, Product Marketing Management Leader at IBM, sat down to interview Ben about his upcoming keynote speaking engagement at IBM’s Stream Processing Application Declarative Engine (SPADE) Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark on June 18-21, 2018. SPADE is IBM’s invite-only, signature event for defense and intelligence. This year’s theme is Re-Thinking Defense and Security in the Digital Age. This interview is broken into a 3-part series. Part one, published last week, focused on the definition and utility of military design. Below is part two. Here Ben explains the evolution and application of military design as well as how it relates to other forms of design such as industry design and civilian design.
Can you give us another more contemporary example of when the military applied design thinking?
The military can definitely examine something and then take pause to understand the reasoning behind the process. Why am I doing this in this way? Is it because I was told to? Is there another way? How can I think about this differently? We are able to think critically as well as creatively, and there are many excellent historical examples across our militaries. Yet with innovation, there usually are a series of barriers within an institution that protest development, ignore it, or actively battle it for a variety of reasons that military design gets into.
For a recent example, we can look to the first innovators of a formal military design methodology, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Even here, we must look to specific groups and individual mavericks within the organization, because as a whole the IDF had dominant organizational barriers that resisted and later banished this design innovative methodology from their military.
In the 1990s, as many western militaries underwent significant transformation and institutional soul-searching, between the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9-11, the Israelis had a very unique context. They had military leaders within their organization that were growing increasingly skeptical of traditional military methods and decision-making. This transformational thinking was in part due to enemy adaptation and partially because greater demands were placed upon the IDF by their nation as well as the international community.
During this time, Brigadier General Shimon Naveh led a small revolution in military thinking within the IDF, as part of that he helped form a ‘think tank’ for innovation called the Operational Theory Research Institute or OTRI. I consider Naveh the ‘father’ of the military design movement because he was the first to spearhead an entire new methodology that was intended for the military to replace traditional military planning. I know several military researchers (myself included) see innovators such as the U.S. Air Force’s Colonel John Boyd as an earlier (perhaps first) military postmodern theorist, but unlike Boyd, Naveh developed and implemented an entire decision-making methodology oriented towards complex military contexts.
In April 2002 the IDF was conducting an urban operation in the old city of Nablus, part of a larger ‘Operation Defensive Shield.’ Of the specific groups and mavericks most interested in this new way of thinking about military activities, the Israeli paratroop infantry organizations were brimming with disruptive thinkers and innovative leaders. The commander of that paratroop brigade was Aviv Kokhavi; he learned this new way of military design methodology from Naveh.
As a ‘disciple’ of Naveh’s theory, Kokhavi gives us an example of military design in practice. Kokhavi was directed to enter a heavily fortified enemy area filled with civilians and the Palestinian resistance. There were extensive humanitarian and political concerns piled atop this challenge. All IDF training, doctrine, and operational planning methods propelled the brigade to “do things by the books.” Kokhavi rejected that and applied what he called “inverse geometry” to approach the cityscape as a worm would approach an apple- tunneling within and interpreting the space completely differently. I am oversimplifying this to keep it brief, but there is an excellent chapter on this in Eyal Weizman’s book Hollow Land. Kokhavi had his forces tunnel into the buildings and maneuver down them, worming through apartments, avoiding the street avenues and corners that were expected to be their maneuver areas. The IDF were able to ‘reorganize’ their understanding of space, movement, and relationships within a complex system to their advantage, which allowed them to keep friendly casualty rates astoundingly low for such a deadly environment and also accomplish their tactical objectives of capturing, defeating, and disrupting the Palestinian armed resistance forces.
Now, breaching walls in an urban environment is not anything new; in fact, it was done in World War II and well into classical military siege campaigns. What is significant here as the design example is that the Israeli forces began to critically challenge many of the existing IDF procedures, training, language, and understanding of seemingly unquestionable things about warfare. They reinterpreted how they understood space, to envision novel combinations of politics, society, the application of violence, the ability to experiment and disrupt the current system to generate transformation…this was new. This became the ‘baptism by fire’ of the military design movement. Following 9-11, as western militaries were presented with increasing emergent complexities, the demand for thinking differently only increased.
So, how did Kokhavi learn about this military design, and how did the Israelis implement it?
Shimon Naveh introduced what he termed ‘systemic operational design (SOD),’ which was a whole set of language processes and a new way of looking at problems and possible solutions. It was trans-disciplinary, in that one could simultaneously consider two entirely distinct disciplines concerning war. Additionally, SOD did not apply institutional rulings, instead of saying “no, you can never do that,” the SOD methodology advocated for asking “why” and “why not?” Essentially, SOD challenged nearly everything within western traditional military practices, and therefore was quite disruptive, as well as controversial. Naveh pulled from architecture, systems theory, postmodern philosophy, eastern philosophy, and Soviet operational planning methods originating in World War II. SOD was a strange brew, it represented a highly sophisticated and creative way of reconfiguring how a military makes sense of war as well as themselves in war.
So, SOD was quite practical and useful in this initial Israeli context partially because the Israelis don’t have a lot of military doctrine. They are not as structured as the US military or other western militaries.
In that context, at that particular moment in time, the Israeli military seemed more willing to experiment, which might be a cultural thing and stem from where they have been for the past 40 years. But SOD was so dense with philosophical language and these very abstract concepts, it was hard to translate and to disseminate to lower level forces. Further, it was only taught to senior leaders, and even then, only self-selecting leaders took it upon themselves to study it. Eventually, traditional IDF leaders, who wanted to protect the legacy system, took action to purge SOD from the military; they largely eliminated the majority of SOD practitioners from their ranks, with Naveh himself excommunicated and OTRI disbanded. This transpired just before the 2005 Hezbollah War which ended up being a political and military failure. Yet the genie was out of the bottle, and Naveh is distinctly credited with uncorking it for militaries in the 21st century. To this day he remains influential, controversial, and experimental as a military design educator and theorist.
SOD was the first military design process that was distinct, self-contained, and complete. It inspired a military design movement across what could be termed the “Anglosphere.” Naveh inspired design in the U.S. Army by 2005, as well as design interest in the Australian military around the same period. The Australians developed their own hybrid design concept, blending complexity theory with traditional military campaign design while also sampling from John Boyd; this resulted in what they termed ‘Adaptive Campaigning.’
After 2005, the U.S. Army created ‘Design’ which they later re-branded ‘Army Design Methodology;’ it continues to be plagued with institutional disagreements on the methodological form, function, and content. The British have provided doctrine to their military that expresses many design concepts while avoiding the word ‘design’ entirely. The Canadian Forces have experimented with various design methodologies to include industrial design, human centric design, and military design in their officer education and practice since 2013. More recently, the Polish Army added design education to their field grade officer education in Warsaw, and design movements are in nascent stages in Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Hungary, Colombia, NATO, and elsewhere. Each nation or organization implements their own cultural nuances and perspectives, making each design process unique, akin to different ways of preparing meals with similar ingredients. All of these different design cuisines are akin to the French food philosopher, Briliat Salvarin’s saying: “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”
How could leaders incorporate new tech like AI or the Internet of Things (IoT) with new design to gain a competitive advantage?
That makes me remember a quote by sociologist Karl Weick: “We imagine the past to remember the future.” Normally, we would say “we remember the past to imagine the future.” This is where an organization looks back upon historical patterns and applies analytical processes in order to anticipate future events. Nassim Taleb in Black Swan used the story of the turkey to express this tension. The turkey is fed by the farmer every morning for a year, and one day in November the farmer walks out with an ax. The turkey runs up, because it knows that today is like every previous day, and he will be fed. When we remember the past to imagine the future, we fall into traps like this one, where we are prone to ignoring emergence and we begin to insist reality conform to what we imagine reality must be, not what it actually is becoming. Turkeys lose their heads, while militaries tend to execute operations with an ends-ways-means expectation that previously successful missions should indicate repeatable success in future applications.
Karl Weick flips the maxim, he says that what we really do in this social construction of reality—with social media, the global commons, massive technological developments, swirling debates on meanings, symbols, values…even ‘fake news’—is that we imagine the past to remember how the future is supposed to be. We apply what we imagine is an objective and analytic process to account for our interpretation of history within our organization, and then we subsequently project those structures upon the future. Weick offers that we “remember how the future is supposed to be,” or in other words we demand the farmer continue to feed us, without realizing things are about to radically change.
Only after that change has passed will an organization (at least, one that survives) gain the 20/20 hindsight and say, “of course Blockbuster was going to go bust…of course Myspace did not see the rise of Facebook…of course the taxi industry failed to see the arrival of Uber…” but that hindsight vanishes when we consider current issues that have not matured yet. What about 3D printers, AI, cryptocurrencies, driverless technology, or virtual reality in terms of radical societal changes? I don’t mean the gradual arrival of driverless tech in slow, predictable drips into reality; what happens to car insurance companies when a radical development in driverless car technology renders car accidents a statistical impossibility? Or 3D printers transform international economies and supply chains so quickly that very few can keep pace? These things are all easier to justify in hindsight. With his expression of “we imagine the past so that we remember how the future is supposed to be,” Weick provides as a useful design metaphor for what organizations tend to do in complexity.
If we are socially constructing our reality to reinforce the rituals and institutionalisms that our organization uses not only to solve problems but to define itself, we do indeed become the turkey. A lot of it has to do with rituals, beliefs, and philosophical choices. Some of those systems are required for an organization to run, however some of them work against it, depending on the context. Can an organization be reflective to recognize when these things are occurring? Can we find the tensions in the system as they arise? The future system versus the legacy system…this is the purpose of military design thinking.
Once again military design is about constantly changing, transforming, challenging, and disrupting. As soon as you do something new in the military, something that is disruptive and effective, everybody pays attention. Everybody looks and goes wait a minute, what did they just do there? How do they do that? How does that work? Now, the innovation may at first be ignored or resisted, but once there is success, the organization spins around and does pay attention. However, that is actually when the innovation period is complete. We cannot be innovative after the innovation has occurred, because we are then merely adapting. Innovation is about changing the system and gaining an advantage in the new system that simply did not exist in the legacy one. Adaptation is about realizing your system has changed, and that in order to survive in this new and transformed system, you now must adapt somehow. Ideally, to adapt you must find the successful innovator and copy them. Militaries are great adapters, but not necessarily very good at innovating. The innovation/adaptation game applies to both sides; when the enemy does something spectacular everybody pays attention to what is different and what is successful.
The other side of that is that as soon as somebody creates an advantage we realize what they did and that now we need to find a way to counter that innovation. It is a constant rat race. With design, you can’t just say, “we figured out how to do urban operations, we are going to go through the buildings.” That works once and once only. Design is continuous. Our enemy is a thinking enemy who is learning and moving with us. The system is changing with us. How are we going to continue to do design?
Innovation requires quite a bit of failure, as well as a different way of considering risk and trust within military contexts. I think this is a key reason for why militaries struggle with design applications- they continue to insist that legacy system processes and analytic-based planning methodologies should continue to seek risk reduction, process optimizations, and maintain the centralized hierarchical form where trust operates expressly through a military hierarchy of position, status, skill, and rank.
Design challenges so much of this because it requires systemic thinking over analytic processes; perpetual transformation over ‘stability’ and legacy system expectations. The centralized hierarchy is displaced by alternatives such as decentralization, hybrids, swarms, and emergent forms. Power is disrupted and transformed into novel ways that are largely unrecognizable using legacy interpretations. Innovation, when it transforms a system into an emergent one, features nonlinear qualities. These are troubling for organizations that desire objectivity, stability, and universal principles to work within complex and dynamic conditions.
Is the military design movement stove piped or insular?
To answer this question, we ought to first talk about some differences between what we in the military would call ‘civilian design’ and how military organizations differ from businesses. Civilian design includes ‘human centric design,’ which most military professionals are unfamiliar with. Civilians using human centric design might simply call it ‘design’ and find the ‘civilian’ prefix a decidedly military position on what must be ‘design.’ Alternatively, some inside the military might find that the human centric design methodology, designed originally for user experience and product development in capitalistic-based economies, as something inappropriate for use within a military setting (beyond the obvious application to military users and the sale of products for military use). So, we have quite a bit of confusion on where we stand with the definition of the term ‘design’ depending on where you sit, a company, an academic institution, or the military.
Civilian design or human centric design processes are quite prolific in the business world and outside of the militaries. Additionally, they are used in militaries for military deliverables, and sometimes they are even applied directly to military problem solving, although I find those applications a bit misunderstood and problematic. Design saturates military activities despite our general lack of awareness about the different design processes afoot. Virtually every item used by the military is nested in industrial design or human centric design, whether it is a user experience, a new weapon system optic, or a new military requirement. In part, the term ‘design’ becomes as muddled and confusing as many ‘planning terms’ used by our militaries.
We have some of examples of industrial design and human centric design used within military contexts, but military design isn’t really used anywhere outside the military. This likely because most organizations outside the military don’t find themselves confronting complexities that involve armed conflict or security considerations that exceed traditional economic activities. I am not suggesting that a business that uses design is dealing with a less complex operating environment than the military, but I draw a distinction between the two environments for content and the form of design each entity requires. Only a military organization and their rivals require a military form of design to address the complexity of armed conflict. Those groups also need human centric and industrial design for applications within that same complexity…so all forms of design continue to overlap, be in tension, and interplay together.
Militaries are not very clear about what they see as military design, while civilian industry and academia do not readily differentiate between the different types of design. Specific to its unique mission, the military must consider how, as an organization, it can reflectively operate and critically transform through necessary innovation, while maintaining a decisive advantage over adversaries. Furthermore, military organizations must address how to share design concepts and experimentation across the international community, as well as across design disciplines into industrial design settings and human-centric design settings.
Currently, all organizations lean to single-discipline stove piping, where design for sociology ends up largely in sociological circles, design for postmodernism ends up in a postmodern philosophical stove pipe, human centric design (HCD) for business applications gets stove piped in development of education and academia, and the actual business practices of HCD tend to get stove piped within company intellectual property concerns. Subsequently, the lack of trans-disciplinary design across military, industrial, and human centric methodologies becomes sort of a design ‘tower of Babel’ situation, where even if different designers encounter each other at a conference or engagement, they talk past one another, not realizing key differences in perspectives and definitions. I always start with, “what does design mean to you?” as a critical initial question to help me orient where I am, and where the other person is in this complex design world.
The other more interesting thing about stove piping is that in industry and academia the military is often cast as ‘the giant state machine’ or the ‘vast assemblage of legacy power’ and so-on. The purest practitioners, and therefore usually the most stove piped people of those disciplines, are often horrified that the military is even considering using some of their concepts. We might be considered heretics or at least incompetent to use their tools, because we are not from within their established order. The irony is not lost on me. For example, systems theorists demand that the military, if we are to use systems theory, subscribe to systems theory and disregard those outside the discipline, such as postmodernists. The same is true of sociologists. As a military design practitioner, at the end of a busy day, I may be called a heretic from all of these different design discipline groups, because all design is supposed to be in accordance with their own single-discipline interpretation of what design ought to be. So, we are all contributing a bit to the stove pipes, but recently I have seen quite a bit of effort across the disciplines for some “breaking of these silos,” to borrow the title of a recent military design conference hosted this past January in Ottawa by the Canadian military and their academia.
Ben Zweibelson will be speaking at SPADE 2018, IBM’s invite-only, signature event for defense and intelligence. This year’s theme is Re-Thinking Defense and Security in the Digital Age. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this design interview.
Ben Zweibelson is a retired US Army Infantry officer. He is currently a doctoral student at the Australian National University and Program Director of Joint Special Operations University, under the U.S. Special Operations Commander (SOCOM).
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Special Operations Command, the Joint Special Operations University, the United States Government or the Australian National University.