The U.S. Army can teach you a lot about Design Thinking

The past six months have been a fascinating exploration into a new perspective on Design Thinking. I never thought I get it from the US Army as I learned about how they teach and use the Army Design Methodology. In this episode, we will go over the basics of the U.S. Army Design Methodology, look at how it is different and, I would even say, better than Design Thinking, and highlight some things they do differently that can make a huge difference in your team or company.

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Army Design Methodology textbook -July 2015

Army Design Methodology commanders resource -July 2015

FM 5-0 Planning and orders production -May 2022

A little background…

For me, the past six months have been a fascinating exploration into a new perspective on Design Thinking. It’s where that perspective came from that has been so surprising.

I can say with a pretty high degree of certainty that I never thought I would say that I learned a lot and got a new perspective on design from the U.S. Government. The U.S. Army specifically. The government is the people who have brought us million-dollar toilet seats and a daily masterclass in leadership paralysis and dysfunction.

So how could they hold the key to looking at Design Thinking in a whole new way? And how the hell did I end up falling down the rabbit hole and studying the Us Army’s Design Methodology anyway? All these answers and more in this episode, we will go over the basics of the US Army Design Methodology, look at how it is different and, I would even say, better than Design Thinking, and highlight some things they do differently that can make a huge difference in your team or company.

If you have followed the show for a while, you know that my father was in the U.S. Army. A centennial at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier specifically – you can listen to episode 108 for more information about him and his life. Since his passing last October, I have become a lot more familiar with the Army through my work as a legacy member of the Society of the Honor Guard. And somewhere in there, I started talking with Lieutenant Cornel from Fort Bragg, who is a part of the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies or SAMS.

In our talks, he started to tell me about ADM or the Army Design Methodology. I was a little upset with myself that I had never heard of ADM before but I was instantly fascinated to hear that someplace as hierarchical and disciplined as the Army used something as collaborative as Design Thinking. If I am honest it was probably also because I’ve spent too many years on in-house teams the idea of going through a process like this and having people follow what was decided without question or drama just seemed like some magical dream I wanted to hear more about. As we talked, I heard examples about how they used ADM from everything from figuring out how much gas a tank needs to cross the desert to figuring out how to get every person in Afghanistan the ability to vote.

These were not simple problems and this was a process that was not being run by trained designers. I wanted to know more, understand the methodology, how they taught it, and figure out what I could use for my own work. Plus, the inner spy thriller fan in me also loved getting emails with Declassified in all caps in the title. Let’s start by going through the basics parts of ADM and then we will look at what they are doing differently that could make a huge difference for you.

Some terms for this episode

This episode will assume that you know the basics of Design Thinking and if not go listen to episodes 33 – 35 which cover it in detail. Also, just a quick note that to be sure I am doing justice to the material I am going to be using some of their verbiages when I talk about ADM.

So I do that just swap out these three words in your head and it will line up more easily with your work.

Finally, for those who also want to go all the way down the rabbit hole, I will put a link in the show note to the 80+ page ADM PDF textbook that is publicly available if you know where to look and if the server is working that day.

The basics

ADM was developed by the United States Army School of Advanced Military Studies in partnership with the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences Ft. Leavenworth. In today’s operational environments, the U.S. Army is facing a range of problems and mission sets that are arguably more varied and complex than previously encountered. Their forces face an array of demands that encompass geopolitical, social, cultural, and military factors that interact in unpredictable ways, creating problems with more complexity, uncertainty, and risk.

More than anything, the Army wanted a methodology that would be an approach that promotes holistic thinking. In March 2010 in FM 5-0: The Operations Process, the Army incorporated the concept of Design into their operating doctrine.

Since the introduction of Design into Army doctrine, there has been a spirited debate about what design is and how it should be used which makes the Army sound like pretty much every company I have worked with. This debate has really centered around

Again all discussions I have had at previous companies…

Benefits of ADM

Unlike most companies, there are a lot of areas of agreement on the benefits of design. I honestly wish most companies could come to this level of agreement on these benefits, but some of what they have agreed on are:

I think that one of the reasons why they were able to find this alignment and have had such success is the stakes of their work are much more immediate and real than in the business world. I’ve found teams and businesses are at their best when there is a real threat to their future or a focusing event that puts everyone into a unified and action-oriented mindset that is similar to what you would find in the military.

Three parts of ADM

But let’s get more into the details where you will see what they are doing from the Design Thinking we all know. Their methodology is broken down into three phases

Framing the environment

Framing the environment is the first activity in the Army Design Methodology. This involves developing an in-depth understanding of the current operational environment and envisioning the desired one, both described through a graphic representation and a narrative. They develop that understanding by mapping out a number of variables such as key actors, circumstances, and relationships between the political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, and physical environment.

Most of the staff begin visualizing the current state by conducting a brainstorming session that focuses on each variable. Once brainstorming concludes, a designated team begins the process of mind mapping to categorize each actor or variable and combines similar items or remove insignificant actors. The staff then uses the results of mind mapping to create an illustration or diagram to depict the relationships between all significant actors.

Finally, they do an exercise called ‘How the Operational Environment May Trend’. This exercise looks at how the environment will trend without outside intervention which basically lets them see if this is a problem worth solving. All of this allows commanders and staff to set boundaries for their thinking and create a shared understanding and depict reality before developing ways to solve problems.

Framing the problem

The second activity of Army Design Methodology is framing the problem. The objective of framing the problem is to generate a narrative of the problem statement supported by graphics that generate a deeper understanding of the operational environment that was acquired in the environmental frame step.

Successful problem solving requires going beyond the linear cause-and-effect ways of addressing problems to understanding the interrelationships and interconnectivity within the parts of systems. Because identifying the correct problem becomes exponentially more difficult as the level of uncertainty increases, commanders and their staff continuously assess and reframe their results by conducting new experiments whenever new problems and solutions emerge.

Framing the solution

The third activity in the Army Design Methodology is framing the solution by exploiting the newfound understanding of the environmental frame, and the problem frame, and generating a broad operational approach including an initial commander’s intent and planning guidance. The operational approach identifies required resources and provides both focus and boundaries for the development of courses of action during the military decision-making process while also accounting for higher headquarters’ direction and risk acceptance.

Commanders describe their operational approach in a narrative supported by graphics. While doctrine does not provide a prescribed method for constructing an operational approach, it recommends that the design team consider the elements of operational art as a framework for guiding its development. By continuously reframing the solution, commanders and staff do not isolate their proposed solutions from the cumulative knowledge gained from the problem and its context.

What you can learn from it

Taking time to understand the environment before the problem

Get the right team size and roles

A rule of thumb offered by experienced Commanders and planners is to include six to nine people on the core team and bring in other subject-matter experts as needed. As the team forms, they are deliberate about the roles of the team members. While the Commander will decide which roles are most necessary, some have found it helpful to assign roles such as:

Some of these roles obviously exists on most teams but some do not. And for those that do exist rarely is a role like a devil’s advocate assigned to someone.

Complicated vs complex

One of the other things I liked was how I would hear the Army talk about problems as complicated vs complex. This is another small thing but understanding what each means, and what each of them meant to the problem trying to be solved.

I think this is a good framework for how to think about problems, resource them and put timelines against them.

Being deliberate and clear about leadership involvement

In ADM they are conscious of determining the level and nature of command involvement

They break this involvement into three different levels of engagement

Risks of Limited Involvement. Limited Commander engagement poses a risk that the potential benefits of ADM will go unrealized, and outcomes will have limited impact.

Risks of Too Much Involvement. Too much involvement from the Commander can also pose risk to effective ADM. An important issue to recognize is the influence the Commander has over his/her staff. The commander has the potential to dampen discourse by providing too many ideas and interpretations upfront.

Again this is something some leaders do but I have not seen any that are this deliberate about defining it.

Awareness vs Mastery versions

Everyone doesn’t have to be a part of everything

I think one of the benefits of the Army’s hierarchy is that it allows them to run more efficiently in some cases than most companies. This isn’t just because of their hierarchy but because of what that hierarchy creates – trust. I know this is a theme I come back to all the time but it is because it is the foundation of any great team

Final thought

You can always find inspiration in new places that will give you new perspectives. The fact that the Army is using Deign Thinking once again shows the power and impact of design to change any organization. Again, I will post all the textbooks and information I have about ADM in the show notes should you want to go deeper into all of this as there is a lot more detail and a lot more interesting insights to be found in there.

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