Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A new field of systems thinking has emerged with the potential to transform the U.S. Army and its professional military education system. This new field could create emergent and adaptive leaders by placing a high value on creative and critical thinkers. It offers a new way to view problems and build intuitive thinking. Essentially, it could be the next frontier for the Army to create a superior cognitive force or, more specifically, a metacognitive force.

This new approach is called Systems Thinking v2.0, and it has the potential to fundamentally change and improve how leaders can think through, identify and solve problems in the Army. It is a new approach to problem-solving and concept mapping that can help build a new metacognitive warfighter.

Systems Thinking v2.0 is predicated on new discoveries and ideas:

  • Systems thinking is the emergent property of four simple rules known as DSRP, an acronym for distinctions, systems, relationships and perspectives. That is, systems thinking itself is not a linear method or framework but an emergent property of the four simple rules from which systems thinking emerges. This is predicated on the idea that systems thinking is a complex adaptive system with underlying rules.
  • There are many systems thinking and design frameworks (System Dynamics, Soft Systems Methodology, Systems Engineering, Army Design Methodology, etc.) and still other nonsystems thinking frameworks (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats [SWOT]; Observe, Orient, Decide and Act [OODA]; etc.) but these frameworks are built on the common set of simple rules of DSRP.
  • The four rules of DSRP are a simple cognitive algorithm not only for how humans think and can think more systemically about any system but also for how we understand existing knowledge and create new knowledge.

As a field, systems thinking attempts to understand how to think better about real-world systems and real-world problems. For the past 100 years, but especially since the 1950s, the field of systems thinking has amassed specialized methods and frameworks to better understand the real world, what systems theorists call Systems Thinking v1.0. Systems Thinking v2.0 instead supplies universal rules that can be used to more closely align human mental models with the real world (i.e., the process of metacognition).


Sgt. 1st Class Keith Bandarii with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, endures the cold at Fort Bliss, Texas.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Sgt. Brandon M. Banzhaf)

Supporting Military Work

People across the military use Systems Thinking v2.0 to support their work. Systems Thinking v2.0 is taught at West Point within the systems engineering program to prepare future warfighters with necessary metacognitive skills. It also has been used to problem-solve during recent Army missions, and it should be examined as a way to transform professional military education across the Army.

Cornell University, N.Y., professors Derek and Laura Cabrera are the brains behind the Systems Thinking v2.0 model. They’ve also launched Plectica, a visual systems mapping software based on this approach. This free software (available at www.Plectica.com) allows you to do systems thinking and visualize, analyze and synthesize concepts to gain a greater understanding of ideas or concepts in their entirety.

Derek Cabrera, who teaches systems thinking, modeling and leadership at Cornell and is on the board of advisers for the Department of Systems Engineering at West Point, explained in an interview:

“The more we learn about systems thinking and how it works, the more it is clear that it dovetails with the field of metacognition. There is a growing research base in the interdisciplinary field of metacognition that demonstrates the far-ranging effects of increasing metacognition. … Metacognition sits at the crossroads of cognitive science, learning science, neuroscience, psychology, sociology and epistemology [the theory of knowledge]. Metacognition—meta equals self-referential plus cognition equals thinking—can be thought of as ‘thinking about thinking,’ or keeping a watchful eye on how one’s thinking affects how we feel, think further, and behave in the world. When we become aware of the simple underlying rules we use to think—DSRP—we are better able to use these patterned rules to think more systemically about any domain or problem.”

The world is increasingly more complex and uncertain than ever. Cabrera possesses a deep understanding of complexity and discovered four underlying patterns of metacognition universal to systemic thinking: making distinctions, organizing part/whole systems, recognizing relationships and taking perspectives—DSRP. These patterns of thought have successfully brought the field of systems thinking together and offer the building blocks of metacognition; hence, version 2.0. He has demonstrated that systemic thinking and metacognition are not only similar in their underlying structure and dynamics, but also their purpose. He said:

“Both physically and conceptually, we split whole things down into parts or alternatively lump things together to form a new whole. We sometimes say there are just two kinds of scientists, splitters and lumpers. Those who split stuff up and those who lump stuff together. In this new … volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, we need folks who can do both. We need a new kind of amphibious mind I call a splumper.”


Gen. John W. Nicholson, then-commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the Resolute Support mission, speaks in Afghanistan.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Sgt. 1st Class Randall Pike)

A Better HQ

An element of a NATO-led mission in Afghanistan demonstrates Systems Thinking v2.0 at work. This element involved moving Resolute Support headquarters to a more resilient structure fit to handle emerging strategic requirements—force manning, Mission Command and flexibility for future missions. While the Napoleonic organizational model that reorganized the military corps remains relevant, Gen. John W. Nicholson, then-commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the Resolute Support mission, realized that the Resolute Support headquarters no longer fit the purpose of sustained multinational stability operations. He wanted to adapt the headquarters to be able to address emerging localized strategic requirements.

Resolute Support was launched after NATO’s International Security Assistance Force ended in 2014. Its mission is to focus on training, advising and assisting at the security-related ministries in Afghanistan’s institutions, and among the senior ranks of the Afghan army and police. 

After a recent shift in U.S. South Asia policy, as well as an enduring commitment from NATO and its partnering nations, changes have been made to the force manning-level constraints of Resolute Support headquarters. Under Nicholson’s guidance, these changes afforded Resolute Support headquarters an opportunity to reorganize staff and subordinate commands into a three-pillar functional headquarters that delivers capability to the operational, institutional and strategic areas. The new structure emphasizes perspectives of force generation and functional allocation (work processes and battle rhythm) and codifies these changes by amending existing organizational documentation.

To support the reorganization effort, Systems Thinking v2.0 was used to perform a functional and requirements analysis, and to identify potential measures of effectiveness for the final headquarters structure. Without Systems Thinking v2.0 and Plectica software to map out the current system, it would have been difficult to isolate the systems, relationships and perspectives requiring attention. The DSRP approach to systems thinking helped create a shared understanding that transcended personalities within the greater Resolute Support headquarters as documents were amended and people communicated through mission orders.

Anyone with military experience understands that reorganizing is nothing new; however, Resolute Support did something innovative. Executing such a reorganization is a monumental task and Resolute Support headquarters is expected to maintain a level of workflow that supports train-advise-assist down to the multiple commands, and to continue to plan, assess and coordinate with superior headquarters. This simultaneous effort can sometimes create opportunities to leverage the capacity of other organizations such as the U.S. Military Academy or the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, or any of the intellectual capital throughout the military. These consulting opportunities afford a fresh perspective, can be unbiased and allow for operations to be minimally disrupted.

Improving PME

Using and understanding Systems Thinking v2.0 would also allow professional military education to adapt quickly to the changing environment. In essence, it would provide a complex adaptive curriculum allowing us to see learning for what it is: the process of making sense of information and connecting knowledge, leading to a better understanding of our environment. It offers simple rules—DSRP—that could bring about emergent learning.

Systems Thinking v2.0 would move the U.S. military past simple drill and rote memorization and allow it to learn by forming connections between ideas. It would allow the military to analyze and synthesize concepts bringing about emergent learning. In physics, the mass of an object does not equal the mass of all its parts as it also requires energy to bind it together. Here we can think of energy as intelligent thinking.

For example, if we break apart the principles of Mission Command, we cannot gain an understanding by simply putting the pieces back together. We must insert “thinking,” which is essentially the binding energy allowing us to truly understand a concept. By using DSRP, we can insert “thinking” into the equation. The sum of its parts does not provide an understanding of Mission Command, but the sum of its parts plus DSRP does.

The Army is a superior fighting force. However, to remain superior, it must evolve and adapt. It must create a superior cognitive and metacognitive force. To do this, the service must build knowledge in order to possess it. Systems Thinking v2.0 helps do this by structuring, organizing and making meaning out of information. By thinking metacognitively (thinking about thinking) and visually mapping our thinking, Systems Thinking v2.0 in concert with proven Army methods—Army design methodology, the Military Decision Making Process and Mission Command—will yield far greater results that are more holistic, traceable and implementable. In the case of Resolute Support, Systems Thinking v2.0 helped elucidate the structure of the complex Resolute Support headquarters system and enabled innovation and a shared understanding. 

Systems Thinking v2.0 provides the Army warfighter a better way to identify and solve any problem. Systems Thinking v2.0 allows warfighters to transform information into meaning by adding deliberate thinking (information plus thinking equals knowledge) into the existing processes. Army warfighters who think about their thinking are better prepared to solve any problem that comes their way.

Essentially, Systems Thinking v2.0 plus U.S. Army equals metacognitive force.