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Submitted by Colonel (Ret.) Rick Swain, PhD, former Professor at the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic at West Point:

Although I was trained as a historian and taught military history at the Military Academy and Command and General Staff College, I found myself at the end of the Cold War wondering if I knew anything about strategy at all.  I began reading everything I could get my hands on in the traditional corpus and discovered the works of a number of contemporary Brits that were particularly useful.  However, the most helpful experience I have had in my strategic self-education involved participating for a number of years as a civilian consultant in the training of midgrade military students and higher level military staffs in the application of the procedure Joint Publication 5-0 calls Operational Design, and Army ADRP 5-0, The Army Design Methodology.

The design approach to problem solving or design thinking, as it is sometimes called, helped me translate the speculations of abstract strategic theory, into practical conceptual actions according to a logical sequence of inquiry; a progression self-consciously sensitive to the consideration that strategic systems are open and non-linear, and that the execution of strategy is a continuous and interactive process, involving goal oriented adaptation to  initiatives and responses of multiple interested and independent actors, some of whom are generally helpful, others decidedly resistant to whatever the strategist seeks to accomplish.  Further, problems of strategy arise in complex human systems, where the responses of interested, and potentially interested, actors is complicated by shifting values and multiple, sometimes conflicting identities, all manifesting themselves in often unpredictable, or at least inconsistent, actions.

The logic of design requires that the strategist first seek a deep understanding of the purpose, motivation, and intent underlying his assigned or desired task.  This understanding is required to bound, or frame the system of actors whose behavior has created, in the policy maker, a desire or requirement to respond in some fashion, to some unsatisfactory condition or circumstance, in hope of creating a better one.  The second requirement, logically following the first, is to develop a deep understanding of the circumstances or conditions that define the undesirable situation.  This requires identification of the array of interested actors (and those who might become interested based on the outcome of any change in the situation), identifying the relationships that bind them as a system.  The representation of this inquiry is a graphic and narrative account of how the current political-diplomatic system is constituted.  The representation is acknowledged as no more than a hypothesis (subject to testing) about how the system behaves.  Inquiry must be multidisciplinary and multilevel, if it is likely to produce sufficient understanding to generate an effective basis to transform the existing state into one more desirable.

The next logical step, then, is to inquire into feasible systemic changes that might be effected to the existing system to make system behavior more satisfactory, and to identify actions that might bring these about, considering all means or instruments available.  These systemic changes identified, the designer speculates on the likely response to any initiatives by the system actors, individual and collective.  Each interested actor, friendly and opposed, is examined for characteristics or qualities that might impede or favor reaching a favorable transformation.  Logically, these must be acknowledged, overcome, or exploited.  Rough estimation of the resources required and likely sources of support are also essential, as are any organizational issues that might facilitate or limit friendly collaboration.  The result of all this analysis is a theory of action and a notion, as Lenin wrote, of What is to be Done?  This inventory of actions is not yet a strategy, until the necessary actions are prioritized and sequenced.  The strategist must formulate a comprehensive pattern of actions, prioritized and sequenced, deemed likely to achieve the desired ends at the least cost.  This pattern of actions, expressed as a narrative, is the resulting strategy.  It should be expressed in sufficient detail so that a family of plans can be created to realize its fulfillment.

Strategy is employed in fluid environments that are always in flux.  When an actor injects energy, the old system is changed.  Systemic Operational Design, a variation of operational design created by BG (Res) Shimon Naveh (Israel), requires one important additional step, continuous observation to determine whether the system responds as expected (Is the original understanding valid?) and, if not, is a new design, based on a revised understanding called for.  Strategy must continuously evolve.  Success or failure in any particular endeavor inevitably presents a new set of conditions, which must be addressed on their own terms with revised policies and corresponding strategies.

The developmental advantage of attending to the design process is that it is entirely prospective, and indeed, speculative in its expectations.  Campaign histories tend to obscure the fact that knowing what was done often conceals alternative futures that might have happened but do not.  History is written retrospectively but it occurs prospectively – directed toward an unknown and largely unknowable future.  Historians try to accommodate this but never quite escape the paradox.   The design process is intended to accommodate the brute fact of unknowability by the rigorous collaborative application of a compelling logic:

  • that one must understand where one wants to go, before one can formulate a strategy to get there;
  • that you must understand the context in which you are located before you can plot an informed course into the future;
  • that strategic actions will take place within a system of independent actors, each with their own agenda;
  • that the future will be the sum not only of your initiatives, but of the various responses to them by other interested parties – some of whom are probably largely opposed to your ends;
  • that a list of things that must be done is not a strategy until actions are resourced and prioritized – normally at the expense of other competing goals; and finally;
  • that strategy is almost always provisional, save where the outcome is guaranteed by overwhelming force majeure, therefore strategists must continually assess system responses to strategic initiatives and be ready to revise both their understanding and approach when their understanding proves flawed, or no longer relevant to the emerging situation in which they find themselves.


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