Small Wars Journal

Design: Thinking not Process

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Senior officers capable of critical and creative thinking are needed more than ever to plan and conduct operations in strategic and operational environments that offer ever-changing uncertainties in increasingly complex conditions.  Officers who have a broad body of knowledge gained through experience and extensive study and capable of identifying and evaluating potential military response options within the context of a grand strategy are necessary to achieve the goals of the nation.  The development of such officers requires a shift in their extensive focus from the operational and tactical environments to the strategic environment.  This is a tremendous undertaking given that by far one spends the majority of one’s career at those lower levels of war and promotion to senior ranks relies upon excellence in tactical thinking and execution.  The aim of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, is to educate strategically minded officers with the ability to view military affairs in the broadest context.            

This essay posits that integrating design as a process within JOPP is a shortsighted attempt to legislate thinking whereas the more appropriate option would be to develop officers capable of design thinking.  To develop senior officers who possess the requisite worldview, critical and creative thinking must underpin the concept of design.  Senior officers must understand the role constraints play within design and how the strategic environment is affected.   Two accepted approaches in design thinking, analysis/synthesis and conjecture/analysis, could provide senior officers with the unique perspectives necessary for planning at all levels of war.  In addition, the unique skills that specific personality types possess that make strategic-thinking and design thinking more inherently natural must be recognized and promoted. 

Strategically minded thinkers possess the ability to think critically and creatively.  To think critically, one needs the ability to break concepts or objects into simpler parts and understand the relationship and organization of the parts relative to the whole.   To think creatively, one needs the ability to rearrange the components or ideas into a new whole; in other words, to produce something through imaginative skill.   Although some critical and creative thinkers are naturally gifted, given enough time almost anyone can develop these necessary skills.   Unfortunately, for the majority of senior military leaders, time is something that is not in vast supply.  In fact, given the relatively short duration of time that senior officers spend operating in the strategic environment and the even shorter periods they serve in any one position, it is a natural desire to attempt to develop a checklist or shortcut that will guide these officers through the wicked problems rife within complex environments. 

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About the Author(s)

Dan McCauley is a National Defense University assistant professor at the Joint Forces Staff College located in Norfolk, VA.  Prof McCauley is a retired United States Air Force  pilot and has served in various course director capacities such as air operations, strategy, and theater campaign planning.



Wed, 10/19/2011 - 8:18am

In reply to by slapout9


Design is certainly a new way of thinking for some, but design, EBO, netcentric operations, and other methods of inquiry are all expressions of critical and creative thinking. Each concept is unique and offers different insights and perspectives, and each requires two things to be effective: hard work and time. Our current processes are more than adequate to develop outstanding plans, but if the thinking that goes into them is superficial or inflexible for any number of reasons, then the result will always be less than satisfactory. And as we all know, the best theory or process can be easily undermined by one individual.

Everyone thinks differently and every situation is unique, so why limit ourselves to a single method of inquiry? It is with this in mind that I advocate thinking and thinkers over process or specific method.


Mon, 10/17/2011 - 12:42pm

What if you thought of Design as a protest movement against the way planning is done today. What if Design is nothing but a mental Insurgency that challenges the prevailing concepts that we thought were correct but instead turned out to be wrong or at not so right all along.

Hubba Bubba

Sun, 10/16/2011 - 2:31am

"As expressed earlier in the paper, the focus on developing a process that encapsulates all of the design constraints and concepts is difficult at best. Instead, the primary effort should be on identifying and training individuals who have the capability and capacity for design thinking."

- What a great quote here. This covers the two big issues I see over and over and over in the design articles at Small Wars Journal.

1. Folks really want to get all of design neatly packaged in some form- a book, a slide deck, and for some, a paragraph or check-list. There is quite a bit of frustration from consumers and the design advocates about whether one can do this. Dan seems to side with many of the design advocates here that use 'adaptive' and 'dynamic' as words to describe design- one can put many animals in the zoo except for those that cannot be caged.

2. The other huge problem the military appears to struggle with, but looking at Dan's bio there is some progress here- has to do with professional military education and design. How do we generate design thinkers in the military? Are they more akin to artists- some folks are adapt at becoming creative artists while the vast majority stick to stick figures (pun intended); or can we mass-produce some quasi-artists that can paint by numbers? How do we shape our education system to adapt design? Do we start early? Or is it mid-level career schools? Is SAMs going to be the main hub for producing design folks, or can we diversify it more across the board? While I would cringe at a Ranger student mentioning cognitive tensions during a patrol in Darby...where do we fit it in, and how?

I just chew the gum...

Hubba Bubba

Bill M.

Thu, 10/20/2011 - 1:15am

In reply to by DanMc


Obviously easier said than done, and this is one reason EBO was a failure in my view. EBO also brought us PMESII, and one challenge my organization is wrestling with is finding better ways to integrate these some what stoved piple analysis and better integrate the political, social and economic in ways that show how they effect each other. Conceptually we get it, but putting into product where others can visualize it is still a work in progress. Most people who are senior enough and well read are capable of connecting the dots in their mind if they have the data available, so it won't be mission failure if we can't do this, but it will definitely facilitate better strategy discussions if we can.


Wed, 10/19/2011 - 7:42am

In reply to by Bill M.


Thanks for your comments. Your point about artificially isolating components and the potential for misunderstanding is right on the mark. I espouse the Boyd theory of destruction and reconstruction to facilitate understanding and action, but a key component of this approach must incorporate analysis and assessment of the combined subsystems at the macro level for the very reasons you mention. One method we are incorporating in the classroom to enhance understanding is the use of visual tools such as mind maps (or good old fashioned white boarding) to better understand the relationships, gaps, dynamics, and overlapping aspects of the individual parts in relation to the whole. Although we do a great job of understanding the individual components of a system, we need to spend as much time, if not more, studying the dynamics of the integrated system(s).

Bill M.

Sat, 10/15/2011 - 11:42pm


After reading your excellent paper and the article on MDMP I believe the community is finally starting to clean up their thinking process on design thinking and how it is integral to planning.

One point you made that I'm not sure I concur with, and it also seems a bit prescriptive. You wrote,

"To think critically, one needs the ability to break concepts or objects into simpler parts and understand the relationship and organization of the parts relative to the whole.2 To think creatively, one needs the ability to rearrange the components or ideas into a new whole; in other words, to produce something through imaginative skill."

While this definitely one method, I also think there is a risk to breaking concepts/objectives into simpler parts, because they often behave differently as part of the whole. We traditionally take this approach when studying a criminal group or an insurgency. We artifically lift it from its environment and study it as a system of systems, but in looking at it that way we often miss the real enablers, drivers, etc. I offer the war on drugs as an example of using this methodology, and it has resulted in a rigid view of the problem and or war on drugs has made little progress because of it.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 10/15/2011 - 12:25pm

Critical thinking is … well… critical!!

But I guess we cannot legislate critical thinking any more than we can legislate morality!! :-)

A paper (like so many on Small Wars Journal) that contributes to the debate (and critical thought) and I concur with slapout worth the read.


Sat, 10/15/2011 - 10:17am

Absolutely fantastic paper! I am going to read it 2 or 3 more times before I comment some more but all the people interested in Design should read this.