Changing change while it changes: The rise of disruptive military thinking (Part 1 of 3)

Editors Note: This article is first in a 3-Part series we will be reposting this week. We felt that it continued to drive the conversation forward and we wanted to revisit the topic for our readers. As always, please comment, share, like, and retweet anything you feel continues to advance the conversation.

Many of the seemingly successful mechanical planning processes of the last two centuries are now holding us back. We lack critically thinking about our methodologies; the military must incorporate reflective practices and an ability to transform processes towards a more flexible and dynamic form of sensemaking and acting in a complex reality.

Approximate reading time: 17 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. Below is the first part.  

Can you briefly introduce yourself and give us your background in design?
As I am completing a doctorate in philosophy through the Australian National University focusing on military doctrinal developments across the Anglosphere, I am focused on the theory, practice, and history of what is termed the ‘military design movement.’ My work for the Joint Special Operations University centers on military design and creative innovation, as well as organizational change for the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) enterprise and the larger international military community of practice. My design background features an undergraduate degree in graphic design and is coupled with my 22-year active duty military career in the U.S. Army Infantry. This makes for a rather unusual mix of disciplines that include quite different perspectives on this whole ‘design’ thing. For military design, I studied this emerging field intensely under some of the best military experts available at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies as a Field Grade Officer in 2010. This was where I first started exploring the interplay, tensions, and overlap between various civilian and military design methodologies. Design thinking seeks empathy, understanding other perspectives, and realizing that with complex systems, simple solutions don’t necessarily become the ideal solutions. As I have practiced military design through various methodologies in a variety of real-world and combat applications from the tactical up to the strategic level, I have some rather unique and interesting experiences concerning military design.

What is ‘Military Design?’
Military design is a post-modern development process that employs multiple disciplines and fields. U.S. Special Operations Command and many other military forces around the world including NATO have been using different variations and combinations of what they see as a military design process. There are many different methodologies and cultural identities assigned to these design processes. The Polish military, U.S. Air Force, Canadian Forces, and the Israelis all have their own different elements that make them unique. By ‘post-modern’ I mean that we are in a ‘post-Industrial’ period, and militaries are now deeply questioning many of the Industrial Era decision-making and problem-solving methodologies. The ‘post-modern’ development is one of not only critically reflection upon the content, but also the form of military activities; it is questioning and ‘thinking about our thinking’ in deep, often disruptive manners.

There also ought to be some explanation about why there are many different military design methodologies brewing up from different Armed Forces, nations and hybrid collaborations with academia and businesses. I attribute it to humanity’s diversity of consuming food for more than purely sustenance requirements. Consider for example that all food is “still food” but there are different recipes, cultural aspects, different ways to prepare meals, and even rules for how and when to eat the food. There are set recipes and some cooks can specifically follow them to produce what is acceptable or even popular, while there also are mavericks and innovators on the fringe that throw out the cookbooks and challenge the status quo with inventive or even disruptive new combinations. Meanwhile, everyone still eats because we must do so to live, but we also have an increasingly complex reality where we want our food to be more than a bunch of calories for our diet…we demand more.

So, we have lots of cooks, different styles of “food” for military design, with many absorbing cultural and sociological aspects of particular nations, services, ethnic groups, or ideologies. Yet all militaries still share the same context for dealing with astoundingly complex security challenges. Thus, all variations of military design still have a lot of things in common…common ingredients if you will.  Design enables an organization to change and innovate; that which the organization needs but does not yet exist. The tricky thing about an organization needing something that does not yet exist is that because it is novel, we lack a frame of reference. If the new thing is an idea instead of a tangible object or action, it is increasingly harder to induce change, because now we are talking about organizational transformation without historical precedent, which all innovations are in a pure sense. Design thinking can help defense and intelligence agencies transform themselves in this digital age, in which everything is constantly changing, and we as organizations tend to struggle to keep up with that change, make sense of it, and anticipate what future options might be opening up or closing.

How should the military use design thinking to shift data processes to be more user centric?
The military, generally speaking, currently has two different perspectives on complexity. There are two camps, one we might call ‘big data’ and the other ‘weeding in the expanding garden,’ for simplification purposes. The ‘big data’ perspective is that complex systems have a lot of interrelated parts through which we can use technology to gain more information about the content, the network, and all the participants. And if we can speed up how much of that information is processed and analyzed, then we should be able to reduce the complexity and gain better awareness about how to more effectively make predictive solutions. The ‘big data’ position is that not all complex systems can be reduced, termed ‘positivism,’ this type of thinking has fallen out of favor in the 20th century. Yet the ‘big data’ group flies dangerously close to positivism, offering that with more access to data, coupled with vastly increasing computing algorithms, as well as potentially using emergent AI in new ways, complexity can in many ways be reduced or controlled. With ‘big data’ larger groups and demographics become increasingly predictive, while individuals and outliers will always continue to defy the odds… for militaries facing increasingly complex security challenges, the opportunity to use ‘big data’ options to slightly increase odds involving a conflict environment filled with millions of people is understandably attractive.

Let’s now turn to the ‘weeding in the expanding garden’ side. This is a metaphor that addresses complexity using a combination of systems theory and a dose of post-modern philosophy. Weeds are unlike trees, in that the ‘tree form’ has branches and a centralized hierarchical structure…you can kill a tree in very specific ways that the tree cannot recover from. In traditional military decision-making strategies, these are often called ‘centers of gravity.’ Weeds spread in any direction. Post-modernists take the biological term ‘rhizome’ from this and apply it to complexity and organizational forms. The rhizome is the weed- it has no ‘center of gravity,’ meaning you cannot render a decisive strike to it and kill it…it is resistant to any sort of isolation or linear cause-effect targeting that generally proliferate the modern military decision-making methodologies. The garden is also emergent, in that it expands as the gardener is attempting to weed it. So, this camp is quite different than the ‘big data’ group in that complex systems continue to change as you attempt to frame and seek ways to control or even make sense of them. Gardeners here see those in ‘big data’ as only endlessly describing a complex system, always trailing behind it and frequently misinterpreting the future because their framing of the past is deeply flawed with too many cognitive biases.

The ‘garden weeding’ group says that, with the emergence of novel learning systems, complexity is so tangled up with us that we can’t isolate it to a lab. Laboratories are all about creating sterile environments within which we can place a chunk of a larger complex system in order to reduce it and experiment with it using inductive logic. The ‘garden weeding’ seeks abductive logic over the ‘big data’ group’s emphasis on inductive logic; no matter how much data you get and how fast your data processes are, it is still not going to be relevant because the system is going to change in an emergent, non-linear way. It is also important to note that some military design methodologies, in practice exclusively, cater to one or the other camp concerning complexity. That tends to become a liability, largely due to military institutionalisms where codified doctrine and ‘best practices’ squeeze out divergent thinking and multiple theories in favor of betting on one single concept to improve uniformity and reliability of performance.

Military organizations must not only seek ‘big data,’ analysis, and better algorithms, but they must also think about how they are thinking. In a complex environment, the design experience should be a reflective, intimate, and often a highly subjective aspect of human society. And so those two different perspectives offer different proposals on how militaries ought to respond, organize, and change in these environments.

If a military organization jumps into only one perspective, which is usually the analytic optimization camp, innovation and creative thinking quickly evaporates out of the organization. What if the military organization is blinding itself by selecting the wrong perspective? What if the system isn’t like that?  What if investing in a single approach is insufficient for future challenges? We have to think about multiple disciplines and perspectives. Most of all, we have to reflect on why we do what we do at an institutional level.

Also, militaries tend to be quite skeptical of these types of discussions, particularly if they are disruptive or challenge the status quo: “This is how we do it. This is our doctrine. This is our set practices. These are our rituals, and anyone questioning them is either a threat, an outsider, or potentially disloyal if they are inside the organization.” Military philosophy and design requires us to question that which cannot be questioned because that is where we might have some serious blinders on that prevent us from realizing opportunities in complex environments. I think this is where military design offers the most potential for the larger military institution in the 21st century.

What are common challenges in the military that good design can remedy?
The term ‘good’ usually indicates a value, which is then going to be nested in our own paradigm on framing and making sense of reality. For much of the military, our paradigm is such: we need to understand the problem and gather information, we then conduct analysis towards optimization (best course of action, most desired end-state, most dangerous/likely enemy option, etc) based on our established paradigm of what reality is and how it is supposed to function. We then generate solutions and rank them using our own value system (including things like ‘good’). Next, we run simulations to determining which solution should be tested. Finally, we test the solution, determine our actions, conduct those planned activities and then implement feedback.

Those processes work in certain environments but they fall apart in complex dynamic environments. Yet much of our professional military discussion on critical thinking involves questioning the content and output of our methodologies, and not the method itself. We question the ‘what’ but not the ‘why’, and we tend to distort the ‘how’ into supporting what we really wanted to do in the first place before the problem even came along. So, this is our biggest challenge today- not specific enemies or new threats; our biggest challenge that design can help us with is our lack of real critical thinking, reflective practice and ability to transform ourselves towards a more flexible and dynamic form for sensemaking and acting in complex reality.

For complex problems, there is no “end state” other than we either run out of time, money, interest, or patience, to paraphrase design pioneer Horst Rittel. We establish the end state based upon the political ends and then we assign our decision-making logic based on our systems, processes, resources, and time. This is artificial, but really any decision-making methodology is going to involve taking a complex reality and framing essential parts of it so that we can comprehend it and communicate ideas on how to act on it collectively in some way that gives us advantage over rivals. However, traditionally, militaries approach complexity by seeking control to enable prediction in places that this is just not possible. Instead of changing our thinking to how complex systems act, we continue to wrestle with the impossible, demanding that complex systems obey our linear logics and mechanical decision-making models. In the 21st century, this is becoming untenable for militaries.

So, does that cycle of thinking in a way cause already difficult challenges to become more cumbersome?
Certainly, and I don’t take any personal pleasure in seeing military organizations make the same methodological errors repeatedly. It largely is a result of our own institutional conditioning and how many of the seemingly successful mechanical processes of the last two centuries are now holding us back. We are locked into a structure that defines how we develop a strategy or an operation in this rather mechanical model for making sense of reality. That brings us to some of the concerns and warnings that design thinkers and post-modernists warn us about when they say, “That is not really how you ought to go about doing that.” At the same time, many traditionalists in military organizations are unwilling to entertain any alternatives that challenge or disrupt their own self-relevance. So, we end up with a lack of discussion and mostly groups ignoring one another with contempt, or the manipulation of the centralized hierarchical form to control the conversation and prevent the opposition from transforming it very much.

Some of the challenges that many militaries face today is this adherence to these older, more traditional problem setting and problem-solving methodologies that are tied to processes and may have worked better in the past, or we believe they did. But we continue to return to them in an attempt to apply them today. It is hard to let go of favorite tools, to quote sociologist Karl Weick, because we often don’t realize we are clutching so hard at them. Not only can we not let go of them, but we have tied our identities to the tools themselves so much that we even prefer to fail while holding on to them, and if we were to put them down, we would only search for new tools that are exactly like the favorite older ones…we would not recognize something novel. Thus, we are not prepared to accept ‘that which the organization needs but does not yet exist’ even if the innovator or change agent is waving it in our faces.

In today’s environment, not only do we have much more technology, we have much more information being processed so much faster. Our children have access to so much more on a smartphone than any of us did in the past. We are in a new period unlike anything in the history of humanity, and while that is nearly a cliché, it really is not. In today’s globally connected and socially online world, the exchange of information and the building of relationships and networks are so much more diverse, and things can change so quickly.  It is very different, so shouldn’t we be skeptical of some of the traditional processes and question them? Surprisingly, we are not. For militaries, we are quick to drop a favorite tool such as an outdated fighter plane or rifle, if only to replace it with a newer, faster, better, more capable system that is really just the same tool. We are not at all good at experimenting with disruptive thinking as the tools themselves and our proclivity towards using them. We are exceptionally bad at going beyond the tools, and considering our frames on how reality is, and how we understand organizationally how to act within this complex reality in order to be competitive and relevant as it changes.

You already touched on this somewhat, how does the military culture clash with some elements of design thinking?
Let’s go back to an interwar period example to explain this. In between World War I and World War II, you had this massive explosion in technology, which is typical between major conflict periods. During the First War, you had artillery that was previously pulled by horses. And in the 1920s and 30s, suddenly you have the ability to motorize them and move them around the battlefield much faster. There is a great story about a French general observing a demonstration of the latest technology concerning mobilized artillery systems. In this story, the general is standing at the military range awaiting the system to be showcased and fired.

The unit pulls up in their vehicles and sets up the artillery system and fires it. They jump out after the truck roars up to the firing point, and immediately they position the artillery piece and fire it. Their firing rate is much faster and more accurate, and the vehicle is able to traverse terrain much faster than horses. The general watches all this and he is quite impressed. He notices two men standing at attention by themselves behind the artillery. The general asks the officer in charge why those two men are standing there during the firing drill, seemingly doing nothing at all. The officer says those two men are supposed to hold the horses because the firing cannon scares the horses. The general says, ‘but you don’t have any horses anymore!’

The military tends to be guilty of this frequently. Now, this example is a physical one and should not be overdone; most of the issues our militaries face are not as obvious as a soldier standing without a horse during a drill. The missing horse is often the thing that our military is intent on pursuing that keeps our organization ‘using horses’ even when the horse is no longer necessary or actually impeding our development. Complexity theorist Russell Ackoff famously said, “We tend to do the wrong things right, which leads to us being more wrong.” So, we often end up doing the wrong things and getting really, really good at doing them the right way…which leads not only to us doing wrong things with greater efficiency, but there is also an institutional loop that ritualizes the wrong thing so that any critical thinking done on the process is only focused on analytic optimization…or doing the wrong thing even better.

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 parts 2 and 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.

One thought on “Changing change while it changes: The rise of disruptive military thinking (Part 1 of 3)

Leave a Reply