John Boyd’s OODA loop
John Boyd was a US Air Force pilot, later assigned to the training US Air Force pilots, where he became known as ’40-second Boyd’ because of a standing bet that he could beat anyone in an aerial dogfight within 40 seconds, starting from a position of disadvantage. He was also one of the top military strategists of the twentieth century, called back by Dick Cheney to help engineer the strategy behind the devastating US action in Iraq after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In part his expertise came from his thorough examination of past military engagements through his study “Patterns of Conflict.” A key focus of his strategic thinking was about how to use time – and particularly the decision-action cycle time – to your advantage and to the active disadvantage of your competitor.
Boyd was a modeller, appreciating all the value of having a model of a situation or an actor in its environment. Part of that value is to recognise that it is always incomplete and always wrong in part, and so can be used as a touchstone or reference model, looking for where it doesn’t match the thing of which it is a model. Actively looking for mismatches between your expectation and reality is a key way to improve the quality of your understanding of a situation. This may all seem a bit theoretical but it defines the core elements for his OODA loop.
His OODA loop has four key elements: Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act. The Decide-Act is the decision-action cycle time mentioned earlier. The OODA loop hard-wires the need to keep interacting with your environment, to keep comparing what you know of it (or thought you knew) with what is actually showing up. It will be changing on a continuous basis, and for you to have a good grip on what those changes are and what they could mean for you, you need to keep checking in and revising your models as a result. The better you understand the environment, both in absolute terms and relative to your competitor, the more insight you have for your decision taking, and the faster you can enact your decision-action cycle time. It’s a massive form of competitive advantage, and looking for those mismatches is also a source of potential new ideas and innovations.
So exactly what is the OODA loop? Boyd saw that making decisions, appropriate decisions, more effectively than your competitor is key for success. This is because the organisation that goes through their decision-action cycle faster than their competitors can effectively destabilise them, because meantime the competitor is busily reacting to a situation which has already changed. The Orientate is about the model you hold about your environment and how it is changing. That shapes what you Observe and what you interpret from what you observe. And in turn it affects what you Decide and how you Act as a consequence. So the quality of your model of the environment – your Orientate – affects the quality of your decision taking. So the Orientation is crucial, as you capture and structure what you know about your environment, and then update your Orientation, when there is a mismatch between your model and the feedback you get through interaction with your environment.
It’s important to note that Observe isn’t a passive ‘watch from the sidelines’ activity. It’s a purposeful and active search for intelligence and in particular looking for evidence that the model you hold in Orientate needs to be updated. It’s difficult as most people give weight to evidence which reconfirms their current model of the world, but actually it’s more important to look for evidence that your model of the world is flawed. Remember that your Orientate is feeding all the strategic decisions you make – it’s worth investing in it.