Operational Design: An Introduction


How do military commanders and their staffs plan to solve problems which they haven’t yet defined, can’t yet know and have not prepared for?  What implications does this model have for business leaders?

My daughter sings an old English folk song about the “Grand Old Duke of York.”

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down…”

So, the Grand Old Duke may not have been a military genius.  Unless of course his goal was to improve the physical fitness of his men by forced marches uphill… But I’m sure that wasn’t what he intended to do with his 10,000 men. After all, 10,000-man armies aren’t cheap to just keep hanging around.  So, how do we begin to plan?  How do we create and communicate our intent?  What was the Duke missing?

You must start with vision. The boss is responsible for the vision. He defines the desired end state. This vision may be broad and general. It should leave room for individual initiative of subordinate leaders. The boss’s Operational Art and Design together form an Operational Approach – this is the planning guidance which translates his vision into specific and actionable plans much like an engineer’s blue prints convert a concept sketch into an actual car.  Begin with your end in mind. Here’s how it’s done.

Capital isn’t scarce; vision is.” 

                                                               – Sam Walton

First, we need to address some specific vocabulary: Operational Art is the application of creative imagination, supported by skill, knowledge, and experience to design strategies for solving problems. Operational Design is a framework for understanding an environment and a given problem and developing a vision for desired conditions. Operational Design produces guidance for planning and an Operational Approach to solve a given problem.  The process of Operational Design takes place after a military unit has received a mission, during the larger process called Mission Analysis prior to development, analysis, comparison and approval of courses of action and the production of written orders tasking subordinate units.  We will talk more about Mission Analysis in later posts.  For now, we just need to understand that Operational Design fits into a larger planning methodology.

The Essence of Operational Design is asking Four Questions:

  • What is going on here?
  • What do we want the environment to look like? (What is our desired End State?)
  • Where should we act to achieve our desired end state?
  • How do we get from our current state to our desired end state?

Let’s take each one in turn and dig a bit deeper.

  1. What is going on here? Understanding Your Operational Environment:

To gain understanding of a given problem, it helps to adopt a systems perspective. Operational Design is a way to think about the interactions of systems.  It facilitates an understanding of the constant, evolving and complex interaction of various systems and their implications on a given problem.  Military planners use the model represented by the acronym PMESII-PT (Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, Infrastructure, Physical Environment and Time Available) to identify and examine the systems interacting in a given area of operations.  Another conceptual model for examining the environment through a systems approach is RAFT (Ask yourself, “What is the Relationship between relevant Actors? What are their Functions and Tensions?). Each of these systems is interrelated and interacts with each of the others in complex and sometimes unexpected ways.  Gaining this perspective is the first step in understanding an environment.

Vision without action is a daydream. Action with without vision is a nightmare.”

                                                         – Japanese Proverb

    2. Define your desired End State: This is the part where Vision comes in… What do you want the environment to look like? How do you accomplish your boss’s intent?

   3.  Determine Where to act: Put simply, what in the current environment is preventing your organization from reaching the desired end state? What is the underlying or “root cause”?  Failure to think clearly at this stage results in a solution that treats symptoms while potentially failing to treat the “disease.”

Ask: What must change?  What doesn’t need to change?  What conditions are required for success?  What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various actors?  What opportunities and threats exist for each of the relative actors?

    4.  How do we get to our End State? What are our Objectives? What is our Center of Gravity?: Ask: What broad, general actions will produce those conditions that define our desired end state? How do we move from existing conditions to desired conditions? What tensions naturally exist between the two states? What risks exist?

A little more vocabulary clarification is needed here: 

Objectives are those things which MUST be achieved to reach the end state. These are our goals. Objectives are “the clearly defined, decisive, and attainable goals toward which every military operation should be directed.” Objectives, as defined in Joint Pub. 5-0, pg III-20, must meet the following criteria: 1) Establish a single desired result (goal); 2) Link directly or indirectly to one or more higher-level objectives (or end states); 3)Be prescriptive, specific, and unambiguous; 4)Not infer ways and means for their accomplishment. It is not written as a task.

Effects are behaviors caused by some action. Desired effects are conditions related to achieving our objectives. These must be measured.

Tasks are actions that create effects and may be objectives for subordinates.

Center of Gravity (COG). A CoG is “a source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action or will to act.” – JP 5-0 Clausewitz said it is “the hub of all power and movement on which everything depends.”   Regardless of the definition we use, selection of a correct CoG is crucial as it focuses our thinking and shapes our planning.  Note, there may be more than one CoG and a CoG may change during any given operation. You and your opponent each have a CoG – protect yours and attack the other guy’s!

     It all comes down to Ends, Ways and Means: The “Three Legged Stool of Strategy”

Ends = Ways + Means. Using our vision, we identify our desired End State or “End.” Next we should list the “Ways” that can achieve our desired “End.” Ways are usually (but not always) verbs.   They are the resource or thing that can accomplish, or keep us from accomplishing our End. Ways are methods, tactics, practices, strategies, or procedures. Each of these Ways will have certain requirements or needs without which it cannot function. These are the “Means.” Some examples are, troops, money, time, political capitol, weapons systems, and technology. List these out. Identify a Way that is the primary Way to achieve the End State. We call this a “Critical Capability.” Now, select from your lists of Means that resource or thing that has the inherent Critical Capability to perform the Way. This resource is the CoG. All other Means are called “Critical Requirements.”  We must focus our efforts on a CoG either directly targeting it or targeting something it needs in order to function.  Identifying the CoG allows planners to focus on what they should protect or attack, directly or indirectly, to accomplish their goal and realize their vision.

That’s it for our introduction to Operational Design.  Please, let us know what you think. What did we leave out?  What just didn’t make any sense? What would you like to know more about? In the next post on this topic we will discuss more detailed planning and tracking of results through Lines of Operation, Lines of Effort, Measures of Effectiveness, Measures of Performance, Key Performance Indicators, Branches and Sequels and Decisive Points.





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