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The Secret to Problem Solving, According to the Military

Nov 06, 2015
Ideas
Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

While I’m not all that interested in military doctrine and tactics in and of themselves, I am interested in complex systems, how the weak win wars, and the lessons military leaders offer (for example, see the lessons of William McRaven and Stanley McChrystal).

This is how I found myself flipping through The U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which was written to facilitate a common understanding of the problems inherent in counterinsurgency campaigns.

There was a fascinating section on the difference between designing and planning that caused me to pause and reflect.

While both activities seek to formulate ways to bring about preferable futures, they are cognitively different. Planning applies established procedures to solve a largely understood problem within an accepted framework. Design inquires into the nature of a problem to conceive a framework for solving that problem. In general, planning is problem solving, while design is problem setting. Where planning focuses on generating a plan—a series of executable actions—design focuses on learning about the nature of an unfamiliar problem.

When situations do not conform to established frames of reference — when the hardest part of the problem is figuring out what the problem is—planning alone is inadequate and design becomes essential. In these situations, absent a design process to engage the problem’s essential nature, planners default to doctrinal norms; they develop plans based on the familiar rather than an understanding of the real situation. Design provides a means to conceptualize and hypothesize about the underlying causes and dynamics that explain an unfamiliar problem. Design provides a means to gain understanding of a complex problem and insights towards achieving a workable solution.

To better understand the multifaceted problems many of us face today it helps to talk with people who have different perspectives. This helps achieve better situational understanding. At best this can point the way to solutions and at worst this should help with learning what to avoid.

Often we skip the information gathering phase because it’s a lot of work. A lot of conversations. However this process helps us become informed, rather than just opinionated.

The underlying premise is this: when participants achieve a level of understanding such that the situation no longer appears complex, they can exercise logic and intuition effectively. As a result, design focuses on framing the problem rather than developing courses of action.

Just as you can never step in the same river twice, design is not something you do once and walk away. It’s an ongoing inquiry into the nature of problems and the various factors and relationships to help improve understanding. Constantly assessing the situation from a design perspective, helps gauge the effectiveness of the planning and subsequent actions. If you don’t periodically reassess the situation, you might be solving a problem that no longer exists.

The U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual is full of other thought-provoking content.

Read next: 3 Things the Greatest Generals of History Can Teach You About Strategy

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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