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The OODA Loop — Getting ahead of your competition

A classic decision making technique

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The OODA loop is a concept develop by John Boyd, a US Airforce pilot who was in the airforce from the late 40’s through through to the 60’s. He is famous for many innovations in fighter plane design and tactics, heavily influencing the tactical deployment of both the Airforce and Marines. Central to his concept of battle is that of the OODA loop, which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It is a simple philosophy for how to face your opponent and ensure that you come out on top. It works like this:

O: Observe: collect the data. Figure out exactly where you are, what’s happening.

O: Orient: analyze/synthesize the data to form an accurate picture.

D: Decide: select an action from possible options

A: Action: execute the action, and return to step (1)

The genius of Boyd’s idea is that it shows that speed and agility are not about physical reflexes — they’re really about information processing. They’re about building more/better feedback loops. The more high-quality OODA loops you make, the faster you get.

Brett and Kate Mckay make the point in their excellent OODA loop summary

rapid OODA Looping on your part “resets” your opponent’s OODA Loop by causing confusion — it sends them back to square one; back to the observation phase; back to figuring out how to proceed. This delay provides you more time to complete your OODA Loop before your opponent does…. Speed is relative in the OODA Loop. You just have to be faster than the person you’re competing against.

Toyota provides an example of the use of the OODA loop in industry. Hammonds describes how,

Toyota, … designed its organisation to speed information, decisions, and materials through four interrelated cycles: product development, ordering, plant scheduling, and production. …

Systems like Toyota’s worked so well, Boyd argued, because of schwerpunkt, a German term meaning organisational focus. Schwerpunkt, Boyd wrote, “represents a unifying medium that provides a directed way to tie initiative of many subordinate actions with superior intent as a basis to diminish friction and compress time.” That is, employees decide and act locally, but they are guided by a keen understanding of the bigger picture.

In effective organisations, schwerpunkt connects vibrant OODA loops that are operating concurrently at several levels. Workers close to the action stick to tactical loops, and their supervisors travel in operational loops, while leaders navigate much broader strategic and political loops. The loops inform each other: If everything is clicking, feedback from the tactical loops will guide decisions at higher loops and vice versa.

A final summary of the power of the loop comes from Robert Coram’s biography — Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

Human differences make the Loop unpredictable. In addition, the orientation phase is a nonlinear feedback system, which, by its very nature, means this is a pathway into the unknown. The unpredictability is crucial to the success of the OODA Loop.

It is this adaptability that gives the OODA Loop its awesome power. Understanding the OODA Loop enables a commander to compress time — that is, the time between observing a situation and taking an action. A commander can use this temporal discrepancy (a form of fast transient) to select the least-expected action rather than what is predicted to be the most-effective action. The enemy can also figure out what might be the most effective. To take the least-expected action disorients the enemy. It causes him to pause, to wonder, to question. This means that as the commander compresses his own time, he causes time to be stretched out for his opponent. The enemy falls farther and farther behind in making relevant decisions. It hastens the unraveling process.

How does a commander harmonize the numerous individual thrusts of a Blitzkrieg attack and maintain the cohesion of his larger effort? The answer is that the Blitzkrieg is far more than the lightning thrusts that most people think of when they hear the term; rather it was all about high operational tempo and the rapid exploitation of opportunity.

In a Blitzkrieg situation, the commander is able to maintain a high operational tempo and rapidly exploit opportunity because he makes sure his subordinates know his intent, his Schwerpunkt. They are not micromanaged, that is, they are not told to seize and hold a certain hill; instead they are given “mission orders.”

This means that they understand their commander’s overall intent and they know their job is to do whatever is necessary to fulfill that intent. The subordinate and the commander share a common outlook. They trust each other, and this trust is the glue that holds the apparently formless effort together. Trust emphasizes implicit over explicit communications. Trust is the unifying concept. This gives the subordinate great freedom of action. Trust is an example of a moral force that helps bind groups together in what Boyd called an “organic whole.”

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Tom Connor

Always curious - curating knowledge to solve problems and create change