On March 11 I participated in a workshop in Washington, - Design Unbound, - organized by The Highlands Forum. The workshop explored how design-oriented approaches can help us better understand and deal with the very complex problems we are increasingly encountering in all aspects of business, economies, government, public policy, military operations and society in general.
The Highlands Forum is an informal, cross-disciplinary group sponsored by the Office of the US Secretary of Defense. Its mission is to explore new ideas and emerging trends that will help support high-level Department of Defense (DoD) policy and strategy. It was organized in 1994 by retired US Navy captain Richard O’Neill, who continues to serve as its leader.
The Forum holds several meetings a year, each centered on a specific topic, mostly related to information technologies and their impact on society. Experts from government, industry, academia, and a variety of professions are invited to discuss their ideas on the subject - to be part of a kind of strategic conversation. Some of the areas explored by the Forum are emerging technologies, organizational development, economic competition, and the changing concept of security.
Over the past few meetings the Forum has focused on various topics related to complex systems, - how to best understand and manage them in the present, as well as predict and shape their future directions. In this recent meeting we discussed how to apply the concept of design to address such complex systems and problems.
Analysis involves a relatively linear set of steps. First you seek to define a clear objective based on the best available information. Then you pull together the needed resources - human, financial, technical, tools, equipment, etc - and organize a project to achieve the objectives. The problem is divided into a series of discrete components assigned to different parts of the organization, and the solution is then obtained by bringing all the components together as quickly and efficiently as possible.
This approach works quite well when dealing with well defined problems. But it does not work when dealing with highly complex problems, where it is much less clear what is going on in the present, let alone how things will evolve into the future. We need very different processes to address this class of highly complex problems. Some are starting to turn to design to help us deal with the increasingly complex problems all around us.
Unlike the analytical approaches used in engineering and management, design feels more like physics. Design attempts to understand a highly complex world based on the best available information we can gather, so you can start framing and solving the problems iteratively, over time. Decisions are coupled with actions, that is, you do something, assess it, and based on the feedback, decide what to do next. You go back and forth between actions and the assessments that guide your next set of actions. You may start out not knowing all the resources you need to address the problem, but as a result of the constant assessments, you learn what resources and skills you actually need.
In the past few yeas, we have seen such holistic, design approaches used in business, such as in IBM’s Smarter Cities initiatives which looks at cities as systems of systems. Universities have started to use design concepts in the study of highly complex systems, as exemplified by MIT’s Systems Design and Management program and its recent Systems Thinking Conference for Contemporary Challenges. And so has the US Department of Defense, which is why The Highlands Forum has been devoting more attention to complex systems topics, including the Design Unbound meeting earlier in March.
The need for a different approach to address DOD’s operational problems is particularly well articulated in this excellent document - The U.S. Army Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design (CACD):
“The complexity of warfare in the early twenty-first century poses special challenges to the United States (U.S.) Armed Forces. The services developed much of their doctrine, organizations, and equipment during the Cold War in preparation for war between states. At the time, this type of war was the most dangerous threat to our Nation’s survival, but it was not the most likely form of conflict - then or now. In fact, throughout the Cold War and the period that followed, war between states has been the rarest form of conflict in which the United States engaged. U.S. joint and service doctrine must advance beyond the old paradigm of war between states and between armies of regulars that are organized, trained, and equipped according to a similar logic.”
“Future violent conflicts are more likely to reflect what British General Rupert Smith has called war amongst the people. These are conflicts in which some or all of the participants are irregulars and military operations cannot deliver a conclusive political result. Rather, political and military activities intermingle throughout these conflicts, requiring cohesive unified action. Fighting is frequently conducted among the people in villages and cities. In some cases, the people themselves are the adversary or the objective - or both. The Internet and cable television shape the perceptions of a global audience in near real time. Every action conveys a message, and the interpretation of that message often varies from one audience to another in unintended and unpredictable ways.”
“In such a conflict, adversaries still seek to establish favorable political and social conditions. However, rather than the firm absolute objectives that political leaders traditionally resolved in treaties, these conditions are malleable, requiring acceptance by individuals and societies. As a consequence, campaigns in the future will be prolonged and have dynamics more complex than those of traditional nation state wars.”
“Traditional planning processes implicitly assume that plans and orders from higher headquarters have framed the problem for their subordinates. CACD [the U.S. Army Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design] recognizes that orders flow from higher to lower, but understanding often flows from lower to higher, especially when operational problems are complex. In these cases, a commander is often in a better position than his superiors to understand the full scope of a complex operational problem. Thus, it is more likely that commanders at all levels will frame the problem themselves and then share their understanding with their superiors and subordinates. However, this does not mean that understanding will only flow upwards. Superiors usually have a wider perspective, which any understanding of an operational problem must take into account: where does this campaign or operation fit within the larger strategy? A significant goal of CACD is a shared understanding of complex problems. This requires battlefield circulation by higher commanders; candid discourse with superiors, subordinates, peers, and staff; and strategic thinking at all levels.”
The CACD document further explains the difference between engineering, which is the way we solve well defined problems within existing paradigms and established procedures; and design, which we use to frame new problems which do not fit within the limits of existing knowledge, assumptions and methods.
“ . . . it is useful to consider the conceptual distinctions between designing and engineering as these terms are used in industry and business. Both activities devise ways to bring about a desired future, but they are cognitively different. This dichotomy provides useful insights for improving problem solving within the military.”
“Designing. Designing focuses on learning about an unfamiliar problem and exploits that understanding to create a broad approach to problem solving. Starting with a blank sheet, designers frame the problem and give it structure. An architect or industrial designer has a client, but often they are not aware what the client truly wants. The client may have provided a statement of work, but this is often incomplete—there are things he wants but either forgot to ask or did not know what to ask for. If the client is a committee, say for the construction of a new hospital or the design of a new freeway, there are often disparate needs that must be taken into account in the final design. Designers learn about the problem through discourse with the client in which the designer is constantly questioning his assumptions and probing the limits of his knowledge. Designers simultaneously build an understanding of the problem through the creation of a conceptual solution or design. In each field, designers usually record their design in some kind of graphic representation. The designer can use graphic models to explain the structure of non-visual problems and solutions as well.”
“Engineering. The work of the designer complements the work of the engineer in that it establishes the conceptual approach, or paradigm, for the solution to the problem. The engineer usually starts work with a design and - operating within this existing paradigm - follows established procedures to create blueprints, which are a detailed plan of action. The engineer’s work is very detailed and physical whereas the designer’s is more conceptual. The designer may use heuristics, such as rules of thumb, to estimate the size of a steel joist, but the engineer must calculate the size precisely, using detailed analytical problem solving methods. The engineer’s blueprints are detailed plans that translate a design into execution.”
“Military planners perform the cognitive functions of both designers and engineers. Military planning normally includes some elements of both, but the degree of one or the other depends upon the complexity and structure of the problem. Thus, the application of operational art to solving complex problems contains more of the cognitive elements of design, whereas the detailed planning for execution relies more heavily on the cognitive functions of engineering.”
The combination of advanced technologies, scientific understanding and transformative innovations are now enabling us to find solutions to problems that were once beyond our grasp. But, as we have been learning, classic engineering and management approaches are no longer enough to deal with such problems. We have to embrace design concepts to help us frame the problems and begin the evolutionary and iterative journey toward their eventual solution. I am very hopeful that in the coming years, we will see major breakthroughs as we combine these two approaches to help us address these highly complex problems.