Changing change while it changes: The rise of disruptive military thinking (Part 3)

Militaries need to introduce design education as early as possible; cadets and privates need to experience design.

Approximate reading time: 19 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. In part two, published earlier this week, 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. In this final part of the interview Ben further dives into the vitality of military design for planning military operations that enable a commander to achieve a decisive advantage over an adversary.

In some of your published design work, you discuss design and swarm theory. How does swarm theory impact the military?
Our way of doing everything in the military is largely fixated on a centralized hierarchy of authority, control, and execution. Anything that threatens that or challenges it is immediately discarded or assimilated. Assimilation means that something new is pulled into the existing system and anything disruptive or offensive to the legacy architecture is discarded. This even includes design, as in 2009 the U.S. Army essentially assimilated select elements of the original Israeli Systemic Operational Design (SOD) and discarded those elements that it found disagreeable. The U.S. Army’s version of military design, now termed “Army Design Methodology (ADM)” ended up being entirely assimilated into reductionist linear planning for analytic optimization, with some random design terms sprinkled across it to produce a fanciful take on design. With ADM, the centralized military hierarchy dominated and won, dismantling and basically consuming the innovation and reflective practice qualities of the first design movement. The reason I raise this is because the larger military community has done the same with swarm theory.

We have assimilated swarm techniques but only if they obey the hierarchy. Nearly everything written for military audiences including an extensive study by the RAND Corporation took swarm theory and nested it in a technical or tactical sense while maintaining the centralized military hierarchy of command and control at operational and strategic levels. For example, an infantry platoon can disperse a swarm of drones on the battlefield, but they still work for that platoon leader, who works for the company commander, who works for the battalion commander, and so on and so forth. The technical level of drone employment may end up using local conditions and swarm maneuvers, but there is no fractal relationship beyond that technical or even tactical application. The swarm becomes a technical trick for the centralized legacy system to rely upon and maintain original forms.

In contrast, we can look at things like the Arab Spring where rival organizations used social media to help fuel crowd-source activities. Similarly, we can see that much of the eco-terrorist Earth Liberation Front’s activities appear to be swarm-like, relying on local conditions and decentralized actors seeking shared goals despite no strong chain of command in decision-making. In a civilian example, has transformed their entire management structure to meet their strategy of using a decentralized form instead of the legacy system of centralized hierarchical management. It’s not just one technical section or one area piloting this type of management, they put into motion a systemic transformation across their entire company. When you look at how militaries are exploring swarm, they do not have any interest in doing these sorts of things…just ways to harness swarm theory to maintain other dominant power structures and decision-making methodologies. There is no fractal aspect, merely assimilation into the centralized hierarchy structure.

The swarm is employed as a tool, but the manner in which the military operates isn’t adapted to achieve the full potential of swarm capabilities, at least not currently. From a design and innovation perspective, we should look to disrupt the centralized structure of the military and look at how we can actually operate in a decentralized or swarm way? By disrupt, I mean identify a useful and systemic way to employ organizational change which achieves an advantage. The challenge is that ‘disruption’ in military circles tends to get negative labels, particularly if sacred concepts and institutional rituals, which are nested in an organization’s identity, are threatened. One area in particular is the codification of our military decision-making models that are enshrined into military doctrine. Changing these methodologies goes against generations of institutional military processes, dating back into the influences of Industrial Design and schools of management like Taylorism. General officers today are just like general officers of hundreds of years ago, they are the general, and they are the top. This is not an attack on senior leadership, it is just a critical reflection on what the military system is designed to produce. There is a paradox in that when a military mechanical system of factory-style categorization moves batches of career groups through a rather rigid career timeline, we end up with the very best of convergent processes. Ideally the most effective of an organization’s freshman year group out-perform their peers and converge. Yet at senior levels, that is when those leaders are expected to ‘diverge’ and innovate ‘outside of the box,’ when likely they are conditioned in the opposite direction. This is also why swarm theory gets assimilated into the centralized hierarchy for military practices, and perhaps why the disruptive qualities of military design are also frequently assimilated into bolt-on additions to the set military planning process.

Do senior military leaders really need design for opening up opportunities for their organization to innovate?
Yes, and once again, this is not an either-or sort of situation. Senior leaders are ideally the top performers that have beaten out all other peers to advance to the top. That means they have consistently been highly successful, but their success is typically that of convergence and legacy system maintenance. After 25-30 years of service, their education and experiences have given them the tools to be CEOs. But, we as an institution have not given them the tools to organize their units as anything other than a centralized hierarchy because that reinforces their command and control. This is because creativity, innovation, and military design as an educational experience has not been featured in most military careers. Further, those that have taken some design education have either done it on their own initiative, or typically at the mid-career level. Meanwhile, civilian design occurs quite early and, in many companies, rather frequently.

And so, returning to the swarm question for a second, swarm is best executed in a decentralized organization. The way Wikipedia operates is an example of such decentralization; the website is based upon local conditions and user content. Aside from advertising, Facebook also operates in a decentralized way. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have control over what cat photos get uploaded today but there are going to be a lot of cat photos as well as people arguing over political memes and such. Uber is an example of decentralization in two ways; they use swarm to gain their drivers, and their drivers rely on the swarming of consumers seeking rides. There is an interesting tension between organizations that thrive on swarm activities and those that are predisposed to be quite skeptical or even hostile towards them.

The military is uncomfortable with some of the deeper organizational qualities of swarm (any other alternative to the centralized hierarchical form) because perhaps a general officer, right now on the ground in Syria, is expected to make high level strategic and operational decisions within their command and control. The general makes a decision at the top level, based on information flows from subordinate units at lower levels; the decision is then disseminated down to subordinate units for execution. These are broad statements, but a large majority of activities in military organizations really do follow these organizing forms. Truly implementing swarm applications would require disrupting this traditional and rigid structure. In a swarm organization, the general in the command post would be on the receiving end of information flow, from his subordinates. I do not mean receiving information; I mean reporting up the consequences of their own independent actions without reprisal or even much direction from above, while the top of the pyramid responds and receives instead of directing and controlling.

That is very disconcerting for a variety of reasons. The purpose of design is to question these traditional processes: which ones are valid, and which are part of an institutional resistance to alternatives? In true swarm entities that are also called supra organisms, the ‘queen bee’ does not know what any of the other bees are doing, nor does that information even matter to her. Scout bees, when reconnoitering new potential sites for a new colony, only go to one site while the other scouts only go to their own selected location…yet the entire colony makes a rather complex and highly accurate decision on the new location without any one bee going to more than just one of the choices. And the queen bee has no part in any of it. The bee colony is organized and functions in vastly different ways to our familiar centralized hierarchies.

Going back to the ‘drop your tools’ example, the organization that is unwilling to even consider why it does what it does is unable to drop a tool once it no longer helps…and potentially they will swing that tool around in search of a newer tool that does the same thing. Swarm is getting applied technologically only when it matches a familiar technological tool, and not when it threatens favorite tools of decision-making.

One example is the Anbar Awakening movement in Iraq back in 2005-2008. Subordinate military leaders were innovative and at the same time, they challenged and disrupted what their higher headquarters wanted them to do with respect to the local Sunni militant fighters. They did something differently, and suddenly those innovative military subordinate leaders had significantly less Sunni militia contact. Additionally, they were able to foster small bands of tribes that were willing to cooperate and purge foreign fighters out of the areas. Once they saw success, the larger organization started to pay attention and become less skeptical of diverging from the original strategic aims. Then the general officer at the top of the hierarchy was able to incorporate the innovative methodology into standard practice; “this is what we will all now do.”

The hierarchy once again reestablished itself as the authority, and everyone began implementing similar ‘Sons of Iraq’ techniques that met with initial and widespread success. So, in military activities, innovation breaks with the legacy system, and if successful the legacy form quickly adapts and even assimilates the change…yet frequently the larger legacy form is unable or unwilling to transform too far. The Sons of Iraq movement did not end well; the transition to a Shiite dominated government and efforts for subsequent disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration failed past 2009. In this example we see some design-like qualities followed by non-design activities as well as a resistance to organizational transformation beyond a certain point. I do have the luxury of saying this in hindsight and also as a veteran of that period in Iraq as well. Design does not work as a Silver Bullet, and the iterative aspect of military design requires that military organizations cannot simply bolt on ‘do design’ as step one of a detailed planning process. Design has to occur frequently and become nested in the way the organization makes sense of reality and acts within complex dynamic contexts.

True military design practitioners are interested in finding the barriers that are preventing us from thinking in ways that are different. Design is disruptive, for entirely productive and holistic reasons. Military design looks to not just influence change in the environment, but rather to examine how a military organization thinks about itself within a complex system, to include where the emergence may drift towards next, and how we might be carrying favorite tools that today are helping us, yesterday proved they were valuable, and still tomorrow they may end up being the very things that kill us.

How can military design help disrupt militaries?
Again, I do not mean that design is ‘disruptive’ in a negative way, the disruption must be employed to drive positive change. Everybody has heard the cliché that the military always prepares to win the last war, design is employed to disrupt this cycle. Militaries are quite effective at preparing to win previous wars instead of considering that coming up around the corner is something unlike anything we have previously encountered. We accept that paradox, often implicitly. But at the same time no one had offered a definitive way to think differently and structure organizations to increase divergent thinking, creativity, and innovation for transformation…not until the development of military design methodologies at the very end of the 20th century. Now, we of course have seen many brilliant, innovative, and highly creative military leaders throughout all of recorded human history. It is great to have great ideas, and they are great because they are uncommon and highly valuable, provided that the military is willing to embark on something transformative that is also ‘unproven.’ Remember, the innovators just before they prove their success are usually also called crackpots, mavericks, and madmen. Those that fail end up keeping those negative labels, but for those that succeed and usher in dramatic, dynamic transformation, they are seen as visionaries. People then study them and even establish schools to follow in their wake in the hopes that we might be able to manufacture or reproduce their innovative qualities. Militaries saw this in particular in the aftermath of Napoleon, when professional military academies and formalized military doctrine really took off across Europe and the West. It is great to be lucky enough to have that visionary that shows up in your company or your unit who is the next Napoleon or Bill Gates. So why do we tend to do the same sort of conventional things to foster greater innovation?

When you are talking about all these great thinkers, visionaries, innovators, and mavericks, how do you get the rest of your organization to think akin to them or at least foster the ideal conditions for innovation and creativity to prosper in a military context? Again, this is why military design matters.

That is really the essence of the formal military design education. How do we stimulate innovative thinking in a structured, educational way? How do we implement a culture of design at an institution, to get people to think differently? If we can do that, we can breed the next generation of novel thinkers, whom can experiment and trust in uncertainty. However, in order to really create the best conditions from which might spring not just one, but a general population of military practitioners that think reflectively, that are able to critically reflect beyond the limits of the dominant military paradigm, we cannot simply wait until the random visionary springs up unexpectedly. Nor can we assimilate design into our preferred linear planning methodologies and expect that the mere presence of design vocabulary is sufficient for a military design practitioner to be able to overcome the institutional resistance of the dominant system in order to foster change.

I argue, from a minority position, that militaries need to introduce design education as early as possible…that cadets and privates need to experience design. There are lots of competing tasks and things that privates and lieutenants need, so the amount and depth of that initial design education needs to be carefully considered. However, waiting until officers are at mid-career or even late in their careers to introduce design is problematic. Further, there are so many deep organizational aspects that foster brining design into the detailed linear planning structures, that I fear most military senior leadership is put at an extreme disadvantage by the larger institution. Some leaders are able to do break away from the structure just on pure talent and curiosity, others are lucky enough to receive design education during their career paths, but many are simply denied these concepts and tools entirely. And, their staffs are configured in such a way that design talent is likely not available or misused in ways that they are not even aware of.

So, at what point in the military education or the career progression should design education be offered?
The Australian design researcher Aaron Jackson and I just wrote an article on this topic called Teachers- leave them kids alone: Debating Two Approaches for Design Education in Military Organizations. In this article, Aaron argues that design should not be taught to any military professional until they reach the ripe age of field grade officer, which is mid-career—about the 10-to-15-year mark for a 20-to-30-year career. Most military programs offer design education this way, and I am a direct product of this type of model.

Some military academies, such as the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, The Canadian Armed Forces at the Royal Military Academy at Saint Jean in Montreal are starting to teach some design principles at a preliminary level. The Canadian military academy at Kingston has also begun to provide design education at the cadet and the young officer levels. For non-military, design education, in my own opinion, should be introduced at the youngest level possible. Human-centric design is taught to college students. And design has been taught to kindergartners—the concepts are universal. It’s about thinking differently.

Now, this is not to detract from my co-author and good friend Aaron Jackson’s position in our article, because he does provide some sound arguments that have essentially been adapted by most militaries currently experimenting with design education. Design education is expensive, it requires a commitment to develop military professionals across their entire career path…it cannot be achieved through a five day or three-week block of instruction at one point in an individual’s education. The expectation that a chapter of military doctrine and a step in the planning model is sufficient for an organization to suddenly be more creative and open to divergence and organizational change is simply unrealistic. The interesting thing is that militaries are legendary for career specialization- we identify, recruit, train and specialize people into Special Forces, military lawyers, doctors, even strategists using career designations, selection processes, and extensive schooling. However, there is no military design school. Nor is there a career designator or path for an officer or non-commissioned officer with exceptional design talent to progress in a meaningful and comprehensive manner. Military professionals that ‘do design’ are scattered about and operate akin to perhaps how specialized, self-trained sharpshooters in the 17th and 18th centuries might have ended up in a military force but often were issued a musket and told to march in formation. There are design modules offered in some schools, but there is no school that focuses exclusively on design. Paradoxically, the one thing senior leaders are looking for in their people are the very qualities that design education stimulates- innovation, divergent thinking, creativity, critical reflection, and ability to improvise and adapt.

Which service might be better suited for design thinking?
I would qualify that this is really as a domain question. Is military design, the process, and the effects it might accomplish best expressed through the land domain, the air domain, the maritime domain, space or cyberspace? For civilians unfamiliar with domains, our militaries traditionally categorize and frame complexity using physics-based, engineering friendly and geographically oriented metaphors such as domains. Historically, this reaches back into the origins of naval and land forces. The military denotes a land, maritime, air, and space domains. Most recently they added a cyber domain and potentially a ‘human domain,’ although that is still a hotly contested topic inside of the military. For classical war periods, the land-air-maritime combinations had clear distinctions, and militaries could specialize services directly within these clear domain boundaries. Things are no longer that clear today, particularly with the increased proliferation of social media, technology, globalization, and the rise of alternatives to the traditional nation state form.

The army has traditionally struggled with the most complex environment- that of the land domain. There is something uniquely complex about urban centers, and since humans biologically are land-dwelling creatures, we are most comfortable and have the strongest ties to the land, thus war started and is most commonly conducted with our feet solidly on the ground. At times, we could establish ‘ground’ on the sea, with naval forces waging in a distinct environment that is its own domain. Later, the rise of air machines led to the air and later still a space domain where war could occur or be prevented. In all of these, I happen to have a biased perspective that the land domain continues to be the most challenging of the physical domains, if only because that is where all of the people are.

By the nature of their domain, the Air Force and the Navy can operate in isolation within their respective domain. Aircrafts and naval vessels are more isolated, more controllable, and more predictable…although in warfare there are tremendous challenges in all domains and I do not want to imply that any Service ‘has it easier.’ Yet things have changed over the past hundred years. The lines between domains are blurring. In cyberspace, those lines might not even be discernible, at least not in a physical domain sense…yet our militaries prefer to apply physical domain concepts, language, metaphors, and decision-making methodologies to the cyber domain all the same. If we acknowledge a human domain, things are just as problematic there too.

To date, the land armies have developed most of the design models. Initially, the Israeli Army generated SOD, and subsequently the U.S. Army and the Australian Army implemented their own adaptations. The U.S. Marine Corps followed suite, and arguably they have many land-domain concerns. Over time, military design has crept outwards and other services are developing their version of the concept. However, for me, in terms of where I see the most design development as well as the most complex contexts where a military organization really need design thinking, I see the cyber domain as the next vast frontier.

Every military that has a cyber element must implement design at the highest level possible.  Because only in cyberspace do all the domains’ physical limitations disappear. It is completely different. Time and space do not have the same considerations in cyber as they do in the land and maritime domains. The ability to use swarm theory is vastly more sophisticated and intriguing in cyber, and if we were to agree to a ‘human domain,’ this domain blurs the lines between all of the physical domains directly into the cyber medium in a way that military design could greatly appreciate in terms of complexity, multi-domain synthesis, and divergent thinking. However, to do this at the level necessary for a military organization transforming within an emergent complex context, we will need to think quite disruptively about our doctrine, set practices, rituals, language (and the metaphors behind those words), and the deeper paradigms at work that shape our interpretation of reality.

Military design is still quite young in its development, so it really is anyone’s field of opportunity. I expect that as high technology companies such as IBM interact with militaries along these blurred lines and multiple domains where complex challenges cannot be neatly isolated or categorized, both the militaries and those companies will need a common design discipline to communicate and share ideas. It likely cannot be a single industrial design methodology or even a single human-centric design methodology as this complex system exceeds the purposes of those frames. I suspect that some version or evolution of military design, perhaps even a hybrid between industrial, human-centric, and military design might become a common ground for these advanced design engagements.

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.

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.

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