Abstract Network enabled capability (NEC) is a new form of command and control and this paper asks whether it is an end product or an initial condition. The traditional top-down approach to design in which ‘we, the designers, are designing something for you, the users’, tacitly assumes the former. Yet experience in the field amply demonstrates the inevitability of human adaptability, something that the commercial world is beginning to exploit under headings of ‘peer production’ or ‘mass collaboration’. This paper takes these insights and aims to advance an agenda for an evolutionary approach to NEC system design. A longitudinal study is presented to examine user adaptation when faced with two initial conditions: NEC and classic command and control. The results suggest that NEC does indeed fulfill its ambitions in terms of agility and coping with complexity, but in an unanticipated way. Despite having the facility for peer-to-peer interaction in the NEC condition, the team chose not to use it; in effect, they created a kind of high speed hierarchy. The outcomes and processes of adaptation are examined using the Event Analysis for Systemic Teamwork (EAST) method. An evolutionary approach to NEC system design presents itself as a promising avenue for future research. Relevance to industry Findings of this nature are much needed in the military domain, where the tenets of digitisation and the transformation to network centric operations, and moreover the role of humans within this transformation, require an empirical basis.