Explaining the Army Design Methodology

“But any method by which strategic plans are turned out ready-made, as if from some machine, must be totally rejected.”
- Carl von Clausewitz
On War

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps face operational environments that include a range of problems and missions that are extraordinarily complex. No two operational environments are the same, and each consists of multiple interrelated variables and sub-variables. It is difficult to determine the cause and effect relationships among the variables and sub-variables, which are often interdependent, non-linear, unstable, and inconsistent. An ambiguous and poorly understood operational environment severely challenges the human mind and the Army’s traditional military thinking. At times, the Army’s conventional planning methods have proven insufficient at solving complex problems. Commanders must find ways to navigate this complexity, gain greater understanding of the operational environment, and develop workable solutions to reach their desired end state. The Army design methodology (ADM) helps avoid the unimaginative and routine application of well-worn solutions that often do not fit the unique characteristics of each new situation. It provides commanders a means to develop a sophisticated understanding of complex or unfamiliar problems and creative approaches to solving them.1

We have poor thinking habits that limit our ability to grapple with complexity, and our mental models fail to account fully for the complexity of systems. We have difficulty understanding the interconnectedness of complex systems so we cut them up or reduce them to individual pieces for analytical convenience. By doing so, we place artificial limits on our understanding of the world around us. We also unknowingly limit our range of action by our tendency to act in accordance with known and recognizable patterns. However, when we reduce non-linear complex systems into an artificial linearity, we create intellectual blind spots. This makes us vulnerable to unforeseen events that we attribute to chance.2

One of the most common traps planners fall into is what Carl von Clausewitz called methodism. Methodism is the unthinking application of solutions that we know and have used successfully in the past. We become reliant on a few preferred responses to a given type of situation. We “de-conditionalize” actions and apply them to new situations that appear similar to past events but that often have important differences. Over time, we become less sensitive to features of new situations that appear anomalous, even experiencing occasional setbacks; nonetheless, we continue to apply the tried and true. Our thinking becomes clumsy and leads us to simplistic and unsophisticated conclusions about complex and nuanced problems.3

Another common planning trap is what Dietrich Dorner calls repair service mentality. Repair service is simply muddling through situations. We tend to fix only the immediate problems that we find first when we do not understand the complexity of problems or the complexity of the necessary objectives. An inadequate analysis of complex situations results in unclear goals and poor prioritization. Therefore, we end up fixing the wrong problems, or we only treat the symptoms and do not cure the disease. Small but important problems go unnoticed, grow, explode, and take us by surprise.4

We can develop cognitive processes that help us understand complexity and retrain our imaginations and thinking to make nonlinear interpretations of the world around us. We must avoid isolating the variables of a problem from their context. The use of holistic thinking can bridge the gap between the individual elements and the entirety of complex systems. In systems, we never do merely one thing because of their interconnectedness, and every solution creates a new problem. The Army design methodology can help re-shape our imaginations and our critical and creative thinking to tackle complexity more effectively.5

The ADM steers planners away from the cognitive traps described above and improves the quality of our thinking and planning. It uses “critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe problems and operational approaches to solving them.”6 The ADM is one of three planning methodologies (along with the military decision-making process [MDMP] and troop leading procedures [TLPs]) that are part of Army integrated planning. The key components of ADM are critical and creative thinking, collaboration and dialogue, framing, narrative construction, and visual modeling. On the continuum of planning activities ranging from conceptual to detailed, ADM is primarily associated with conceptual planning and operational art while MDMP is primarily concerned with detailed planning. Conceptual planning provides the framework for the entire plan while responding to the constraints of detailed planning (see Figure 1).7

The ADM uses a systems approach to problems in order to identify problems correctly, find workable solutions, and acquire better ways to adapt. A systems approach to thinking gives planners a framework for synthesizing and organizing complex and confusing information. Systems are interconnected, and changes in some elements or their relationships produce changes in other parts of the system. Systems also exhibit emergent behavior that is different from its individual parts. The systems approach is a discipline that synthesizes intuitive and analytical thinking in order to see the whole system and its interdependencies. Blending intuitive and analytical thinking helps commanders avoid methodism and the repair service mentality that often results from ordinary Army planning.8

Critical thinking is using reflective judgment about “what to believe and what to do in response to observations, experience, verbal or written expressions or arguments.”9 Critical thinking is about asking and answering critical questions to find and appreciate the differences that make each situation unique. What is different, how is it different, and why? The appreciation of differences is the most important aspect of critical thinking. Creative thinking is creating new and original ideas that lead to new insights, approaches, and perspectives. Critical and creative thinking are essential to developing the greatest possible range of options for accomplishing missions. They help us recognize the uniqueness of each situation and avoid the trap of methodism.10

In order for commanders and staffs to apply critical thinking effectively, they must have continuous collaboration and open dialogue. Collaboration and dialogue create a learning environment in which participants can think critically and creatively with a candid and open exchange of ideas. Dialogue is about collaborating in a manner in which participants exchange ideas or opinions and encourage a competition of ideas. The ADM methodology enhances learning and adaptation to the unique context of each individual situation. As planners learn to learn, they improve their thinking over time, produce better products, and maintain a relevant understanding of the operational environment.11

The understanding of an operational environment that comes from dialogue and critical thinking creates a frame of reference for developing solutions. Framing is selecting, organizing, and interpreting information in order to establish the context of an operational environment and the problem (see Figure 2). Framing the problem attempts to get at the root causes of a conflict and understand the things that impede progress toward the desired end state. How planners frame a problem will influence the possible solutions. For instance, it matters a great deal whether we consider the enemy to be terrorists, criminals, insurgents, some other type of combatant, or none or all of these.12

Narrative construction and visual modeling are central to framing. A narrative is a story created to give meaning to things and events. Narratives typically attempt to answer such questions as what is the meaning of what we see, where does the story begin and end, and what happened and why?

Graphically depicted information is stimulating, helps organize information, and can point to relationships not derived from the narrative alone. Narratives and visual models are important because they provoke creative thinking, help us think through problems, and reveal hidden meaning in information and facts. They are effective tools that assist planners to think through and understand complex problems, systems, and abstract concepts.13

The planners use the elements of operational art (see Chapter 4, Army Doctrinal Reference Publication [ADRP] 3-0, Unified Land Operations) and the understanding gained from the environment and problem frames to develop a feasible operational approach. The operational approach helps the commander visualize and describe the potential courses of action that overcome the problem(s) and achieve the desired end state. The ADM is a continuous process. The commander and staff assess progress toward the desired end state, test the validity of assumptions, and decide whether to reframe the environment or the problem. The key outputs of ADM, which become the framework for detailed planning in MDMP, are the problem statement, the initial commander’s intent, planning guidance, and the overall operational approach.14

French scientist and philosopher Henri Poincare said, “We cannot know all the facts, since they are practically infinite in number.” Since we cannot know all the facts, we must make a selection of which ones we need to know. The ADM helps us select and understand the relevant facts of complex situations and see the differences that make each one unique. However, ADM is not a panacea for all problems, and it will not eliminate errors in military decision making. Unimaginative and poor quality thinking will produce poor results regardless of the planning process used. Nonetheless, commanders and staffs must find ways to understand complex problems, avoid methodism, and find creative operational approaches to solving them. The Army design methodology provides a means for understanding and approximating complex systems and problems to a level that enables meaningful action to transform systems and maintain a position of continuous advantage.15


1ADRP 3-0, Unified Land Operations (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, October 2011), 1-1 to 1-2; ADRP 5-0, Operations Process (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, October 2011), 1-2; Anna Grome, Beth Crandall, Louise Rasmussen, and Heather Wolters, Army Design Methodology: Commanders Resource. Rep. (Arlington, VA: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, 2012), 4; Dietrich Dorner, The Logic Of Failure: Recognizing And Avoiding Error In Complex Situations (NY: Metropolitan Books, 1996), 5-7; Alan Beyerchin, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War,” International Security 17, No. 3 (Winter 1992/93), 61.

2Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, ed. Diana Wright (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), 86-87, 91; Dorner, 7, 185-90; Beyerchin, 80-81, 86

3John Shy, “The American Military Experience: History and Learning,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 1, No. 2 (Winter 1971): 208-09; Clausewitz, 151-55; Dorner, 170-72.

4Dorner, 58-64.

5U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), The Art of Design: SAMS Student Text 2.0 (Leavenworth, KS: Department of the Army, 2010), 26-28; Celestino Perez, “Army Design Methodology” (Morning 20 lecture, Seminar 1, Leavenworth, Kan., 13 February 2014); Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (NY: Doubleday, 2006), 3-5; Bryan Lawson, How Designers Think: The Design Process Demystified (NY: Elsevier, 2006), 15, 117-118; Robert Jervis, System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 10-12; Dorner, 10, 197-98; Meadows, 88-89, 169-70.

6ADRP 5-0, 2-4.

7ADRP 5-0, 2-3 to 2-5; SAMS, The Art of Design, 9-10.

8Everett C. Dolman, Pure Strategy: Power and Principle in the Space and Information Age (NY: Frank Cass, 2005), 94-95, 114-15; Wayne W. Grigsby et al., “Integrated Planning: The Operations Process, Design, and the Military Decision Making Process,” Military Review (January-February 2011), 31; Jamshid Gharajedaghi, Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity: A Platform for Designing Business Architecture (NY: Elsevier, 2006), 9, 15-16; SAMS, The Art of Design, 52-54; Jervis, 6, 12-13; Meadows, 5-6.

9ADRP 5-0, 1-10.

10Neil M. Browne and Stuart M. Keeley, Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007); 2-3; ADRP 5-0, 1-10; SAMS, The Art of Design, 48-49, 60-65.

11ADRP 5-0, 1-10 to 1-11, 2-5; SAMS, The Art of Design, 44-47, 77-80.

12ADRP 5-0, 2-5 to 2-11.

13Porter H. Abbot, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 10-11; ADRP 5-0, 2-5; SAMS, The Art of Design, 72-76, 114-16.

14ADRP 5-0, 2-6 to 2-11.

15Henri Poincare, Science and Method, trans. Francis Maitland (NY: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1914), 15; Grigsby, 29-30; SAMS, The Art of Design, 14-16; Grome et al., Army Design Methodology, 5-6; Meadows, 167-70; Gharajedaghi, 125-26, 130.

MAJ Raymond M. Longabaugh is currently serving as the Train Advise Assist Command-East G4 in Afghanistan. He previously served as a sustainment planner in the G5 of the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Millsaps College, a master’s degree in public administration from North Carolina State University, and a master’s in military art and sciences from the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies. During his career, MAJ Longabaugh served with the 101st Sustainment Brigade, the 82nd Airborne Division, the Defense Logistics Agency, and 3rd Army Headquarters.

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Figure 1

Figure 1 — Bradley ECP 1 & 2 Technologies