27. The Real Question is Not ‘Adapt or Die’

Marcus Guest
Oct 25, 2017 · 5 min read

Colonel John Boyd, the creator of the OODA Loop — perhaps the best model for adaptive change you’ve never heard of⁠ [1] — appeared to be pretty disdainful about Decision-making (the D⁠ [2] of the OODA Loop) judging by how little he focused on it compared to the final letter of the OODA — A for action.

Action is the real-life testing of hypotheses (which is all Decisions really are)

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science” — Richard Feynman

Boyd considered strategy to be an “adaptive process” where many, small decisions are taken over time that feed back into the mental models of decision-makers by way of constant Observation.[⁠3] It’s this rapid feedback loop — free of delay and distortion — where our observations, mindsets and decisions are validated (or not).

Learning to adapt in a volatile and uncertain world is strategy

What we must always realise is that we’re never acting independently of others — the actions of others affects our context as our actions affect theirs. We’re also never operating on a greenfield site — an untouched wilderness, where we can break land and build whatever we like — but always operating on a brownfield site, where historical influences, climatic conditions and the actions of others invisibly shape what’s happening.

In a competitive landscape populated with rivals Boyd has one simple piece of strategic advice for those who which to outcompete others — ‘operate inside your opponent’s OODA Loop’.

Operating Inside Your Opponent’s OODA Loop

This part of Boyd’s advice tends to be the extent of people’s understanding of the usefulness of the OODA Loop as a strategic tool. While previous blogs have attempted to explain it’s other, myriad applications it’s now time to turn to this insight, that’s no less useful despite often being over-simplified.

Boyd describes how the competitor navigating his/her Loop quicker than their rival starts to shape the situation to their advantage, rather than being shaped by it: instead of ‘adapt or die’ Boyd’s great insight is that you can ‘shape’ your circumstances to your own advantage instead by making rivals react to your moves; creating control of the situation. Those acting quicker than rivals create an opportunity to capitalise on the effects of consciously made moves (e.g. learning how customers respond to a new variation) before slower-moving opponents even understand what you’ve done.

Maintaining this speed advantage over time enables a mismatch to emerge: your opponent becomes increasingly disconnected from the environment as they over-focus on your moves; their actions driven by perception (of what you’re doing) rather than reality. Their own OODA Loop (the way they make sense of the world and act in it) gets clogged up by increasingly irrelevant Observations, clouding their perceptions, leading to disconnected Decisions — the effectiveness of their OODA Loop shuts down and they “degenerate into chaos, panic and collapse.”⁠ (Shaping and Adapting. Unlocking the power of Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop. Major Paul Tremblay Jr. 2015)

When action flows nearly instantaneously from Orientation we compress time — forcing our adversaries to re-Orient to how we’re shaping the environment

(Some — perhaps charitable? — commentators suggest President Trump’s tweets perform this role for his administration — focusing opponents (i.e. the media, Congress) on his actions rather than the wider context, which they become increasingly divorced from, thereby undermining their legitimacy with the voting public).

Incestuous Amplification — the Death Spiral

Poor Orientation [⁠4] is one of the biggest ailments organisations suffer from — failing to see relevant signals hinders their ability to understand the relevant patterns revealing the bigger picture. As pressure mounts from external volatility Executives fill the vacuum of situational awareness by meme-copying (let’s go Agile!) or fixating on whatever’s current in the HBR (Digital Transformation!), without any real understanding as to why these might (or might not) will work for them (the truly desperate ones call in highly-paid — but equally unaware — consultants, not only often leaving them as much in the dark as they were before but now significantly more out of pocket too).

When the wheels of the OODA Loop comes off decision-makers become increasingly disconnected and overwhelmed by their environment — a ‘phenomena psychologists call cognitive dissonance exacerbated by confirmation bias — where one can’t make sense of the things being Observed, or whether theses things are the ‘right’ ones to be looking at. “The brain starts to synthesis cues and overrides actual observations by inducing the individual to perceive and act on what s/he wants to see rather than what is.”

Such mutations — amplified multiple times by a distorted feedback loop — creates internal entropy: a gradual decline into disorder; a death spiral from which its hard to pull up from.

“Incestuous amplification has the effect of closing off the system from its environment, and any activity in a closed system always generates entropy, thereby making it impossible to maintain that system’s coherence. Therefore, without a correction or change that opens the decider’s OODA loop to an effective communication with the real world, the only uncertainty in the outcome is how long an OODA loop driven mad by incestuous amplification can last before it degenerates into chaos, confusion, and disorder.”⁠ [5]

Organisations don’t die because they’re unlucky — they perish when Executives lead them into blind alleys chasing the shadows of those who are navigating their OODA Loops effectively and shaping reality rather than trying and failing to adapt to it. The question is not ‘adapt or die’ it’s ‘shape or die’ and a deeper awareness of the power of the OODA Loop is your first step to taking back control.

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Narrative Insights is part of a global network developing strategies for succeeding in a complex world. To learn more about our work visit narrativeinsights.com or get in touch marcusguest@narrativeinsights.com

Marcus Guest

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If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old — Drucker