Big Ideas: Design thinking for national defense

Where do you begin when the stakes are high and there is not a lot of leeway to experiment?

Grant Holt, a Senior Analyst at the United States Air Force 363rd Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Wing (ISRW), works within an organization defined by traditions but operates in a field that did not exist until recently. If you work in an innovation group within any large organization, you can relate, but for Grant, the stakes are as high as ever.

Every day brings conflict, but skirmishes between countries look a lot different than they used to. They appear stealthily and by means that weren’t formulated mere decades ago — things like cyber warfare and electronic attack. Yet these are what Grant deals with every day.

Grant was his organization’s pilot participant in a Stanford Design Thinking Bootcamp. The 363d ISR Wing provides targeting solutions to deliver traditional kinetic intervention or non-kinetic (think of modern-day nation-to-nation opposition) solutions against adversaries. Non-kinetic options, which are the focus of Grant’s team, address the following question: how can we apply information operations, electronic attack, or cyber operations to provide effective options other than just kinetic strikes?

Leadership in the 363d ISR Wing saw design thinking as an opportunity to bring creativity and innovation into their work and push the bounds in a safe and effective way. By introducing and engaging the design thinking process, Grant invites his team to infuse traditional practices with innovative thinking or rethink those practices entirely.

“In the military, or any big bureaucracy really, we have the habit of falling into what have we always done — Is there a handbook for that? What is the standard operating procedure that we can fall back on?

We’ve been afraid at times to color outside of those lines. But instead of that mindset, maybe the answer is challenging if the standard operating procedure is even correct, and saying let’s reevaluate and ideate on this entire process, understand, and reframe the problem before we try to drive to a solution.”

Mr. Holt

Exploring new possibilities, embracing discomfort

In bringing design thinking to his Air Force team, Grant seeks to approach the following questions:

  • How can we professionally develop our analysts and continue to engage more creative and critical thinking?
  • How can we challenge our current targeting processes and the analytic methods we’ve traditionally implemented?
  • How can we cultivate an environment where it is ok to fail, especially when failure is not an option once we get off the practice field?

“Our leadership sought out education and workshops that could professionally develop our analysts. The design thinking process really appealed to leadership because it flips the script on how training has been conducted in the traditional sense of the Department of Defense. It’s the difference between — we’re going to give you this product and you’re going to like it, as opposed to thinking creatively about a product, process, or approach and then challenging those solutions.”

Mr. Holt

The answers to these questions won’t come immediately, and the work is ongoing. The process of slowing down and taking a closer look at methods and practices is often an uncomfortable one — especially when we are accustomed to a way that seemingly ‘works.’ However, the journey forward starts with thoughtful implementation of certain practices that shift our thinking and approach to addressing real problems and surfacing tangible solutions.

“Design thinking gave me a new structure and methodology to think about things from the granular day — to — day staff meetings and communication processes to the broader, more macro problems and solutions. Now I try to regularly take a step back and refocus on empathizing with the user and reframing the problem.”

Mr. Holt

Starting fresh

“It has been refreshing to introduce some of those ideation and brainstorming exercises to the team and teach our analysts to spend some time in those initial steps of the design thinking process. Those initial steps challenge us to pause and say — Are we having this meeting to get to a solution that’s going to fix a problem and if so, do we really understand what the problem is? Some healthy change will be driven from those types of exercises.”

Mr. Holt

The ability to gain a different vantage point both broadens our thinking and helps it become more precise. We are introduced to alternative perspectives and thus make room for alternative solutions.

Breaking down our current framework pushes us toward ambiguity. Still, we’re able to explore and discover the questions we truly seek to answer, and better understand the problems we seek to solve. As described by Grant and what he is already observing after bringing design thinking to his organization, incorporating what seems like even the smallest changes in how we brainstorm, ideate, or approach a problem leads to new, big ideas with large scale impact.

Balancing the new and the old

Grant is just one example of a change agent. Many others with a mindset to challenge and rethink the status quo and deliverables are starting to spread throughout the 363d ISR Wing.

Senior leaders realize that adversaries do not adhere to any playbook and consistently evolve the threat they may pose. Many of us have had our work and lives moved online in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, cyber-attacks like the foreign government backed SolarWinds data breach show that threats follow us to where we now spend most our lives.

To stay deft and resilient, 363d ISR Wing leaders continue to encourage creative thinking to design and tailor analysis and targeting solutions to modern needs. There’s value for design and creativity even for an organization that is almost synonymous with hierarchy.

At the Stanford, we continually strive to help organizations like the 363d ISR Wing improve the balance of creative expression while maintaining the advantages of hierarchical structure– like a clear cut chain of commands and alignment of all team members around the organization’s mission. Interactions like these between the Stanford and the 363d ISR Wing help provides tools to the Defense enterprise maintain this balance, and stay one step ahead of the next potential conflict or dispute.

Interested in reframing your own handbook and tried and true way of doing solving problems? Bring design thinking to your team.

This article is authored by Sundai Johnson. She’s a dynamic storyteller, Stanford Graduate, and friend of the Stanford

Stanford d.schooler and more. Researching the intersection of tech, policy, and society around the globe since being old enough to vote.