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The genius of the crazy brave: one simple model from a brazen ex-fighter pilot on adaptability

OODA — a powerful model for project and change professionals everywhere. The heart of the OODA loop? ABO — Always Be Orienting

Photo by Merlin Lightpainting from Pexels
Source: Wikipedia

Here’s to the crazy brave. The intense, focussed, unconventional and polarising. One exemplar of this: Colonel John Boyd. Boyd was a loud, abrasive and intense ex-fighter pilot, Pentagon consultant and military strategist. What is the background of this legendary maverick? Engineering, flying planes and designing fighter planes.

What were Boyd’s interests and ethos? Intense study of aerial combat dynamics and how you maintain an accurate grasp of reality during uncertainty. His experience in playing life-and-death “3D chess” as a fighter pilot gave his thinking gravitas. As a Pentagon consultant for fighter plane development, Boyd offended many in power. He challenged the Pentagon’s status quo, living a spartan life (and earning the nickname “Ghetto Colonel”). Boyd worked closely with his loyal, like-minded team.

In Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, by Robert Coram, Boyd’s impact on our world is clear. Boyd’s insights shaped how the US Marines fight a war on the ground. He also designed a physical theory for improving fighter planes. Most importantly for you — Boyd designed a powerful way to become a better business or project professional.

Have you heard of the OODA loop? I will throw it out there: OODA was agile before agile was even a thing.

The OODA Loop, or Observe-Orient-Decide-Act, is a decision-making process. OODA is a mental model helping you respond to rapid, unpredictable change. The key to this technique is being able to observe, orient, decide, and act quickly. Boyd illustrated the OODA loop in his 1995 presentation: The Essence of Winning and Losing.

The OODA Loop is a mental model that provides decision-makers with a fast way to process information. It was conceived while Boyd studies fighter pilots in combat during the Korean War. For decades, the cycle has been used extensively by military strategists because it helps deal with rapid changes in an ever-changing world.

Source: McKinsey & Company

He called this framework the “observe, orient, decide and act” cycle where observation is the only step that doesn’t need action. The person or organisation observes their environment, orients themselves to it, makes a decision on what action to take and then acts on that decision. The four steps are repeated over and over again until the desired outcome is achieved.

An organisation that wants to evolve will need people who can constantly adapt to change without losing their bearings, both literally and figuratively.

How exactly does this apply to my own battles, my own life, or to those whom I advise in their affairs?

…a fighter pilot is in a unique spot. He is a rugged individualist who can ultimately only depend on his own creative maneuvers for survival and success. On the other hand, he is part of a team, and if he operates completely on his own strategy, his personal success will translate into confusion on the battlefield.

At the same time, the battlefield itself is so incredibly fluid that the pilot cannot think in traditional linear terms. It is more like complex geometry, or three-dimensional chess. If the pilot is too slow and conventional in his thinking, he will find himself falling further and further behind in the loops. His ideas will not keep pace with reality. The proper mindset is to let go a little, to allow some of the chaos to become part of his mental system, and to use it to his advantage by simply creating more chaos and confusion for the opponent. He funnels the inevitable chaos of the battlefield in the direction of the enemy.

This seemed to me the perfect metaphor for what we are all going through right now in the 21st century. Changes are occurring too fast for any of us to really process them in the traditional manner. Our strategies tend to be rooted in the past. Our businesses operate on models from the 60s and 70s. The changes going on can easily give us the feeling that we are not really in control of events. The standard response in such situations is to try to control too much, in which case everything will tend to fall apart as we fall behind. (Those who try to control too much lose contact with reality, react emotionally to surprises.) Or to let go, an equally disastrous mindset.

- Robert Greene, OODA and You

For any of us with those of us operating in complex and fluid business environments understand the demands of “3D chess”. Our proverbial dogfights might come from scope changes and other operational surprises. We scramble to capture and lock down change impacts, requirements or risk mitigation. If you’re anything like me you may struggle to make sense of the latest changes to your world.

You may see the OODA loop as the heart of an agile delivery approach. The Manifesto for Agile Software Development advocates “responding to change over following a plan”. Here’s one major point to remember about OODA: it’s not about speed. It’s about manoeuvrability.

In Boyd’s case, why could American fighter pilots achieve a 10:1 kill ratio over their opponents? American planes allowed the pilot to see more of their surroundings than other plans. Also, the American plane’s hydraulic controls allowed quicker transitions than other planes. So — greater visibility and quicker adaptations.

What is “manoeuvrability” as a project or business professional? To me, this means:

  1. Keeping an open mind (are any assumptions or “mental models” of your world actually clouding your judgement?)
  2. Seeing reality as it is (not how your team wants it to be);
  3. Going beyond comfort with risk and uncertainty, even using clever rules of thumb to guide decisions;
  4. Adjusting to feedback straight away;
  5. Using the OODA loop to make data-driven decisions based on your project’s purpose.

Business Analysts, Change practitioners, Project Managers and operational leaders can apply OODA. Each of us may have no choice but to start applying OODA in the future.

Under OODA loop theory every combatant observes the situation, orients himself . . . decides what to do and then does it. If his opponent can do this faster, however, his own actions become outdated and disconnected to the true situation, and his opponent’s advantage increases geometrically.

— John Boyd

I recently caught up with Igor Arkhipov, the Business Analyst Practice Lead at Merkle Australia. We spoke about the future of project delivery, and I enjoyed Igor’s insights. The main points I drew from our conversation demands our ability to pivot; can an OODA loop help us do this well?

  1. Faster change iterations: How many of you have found the pace and intensity of change abating? We need to be on top of an increasingly valuable skill: assessing and managing change impacts at a faster rate. Complex problem-solving skills may help us adapt; could the OODA loop provide structure for this skill?
  2. Experimental mindsets permeating organisations: Data helps inform both evidence-based decision making and a personalised customer experience. Decisions and personalisation need a practical attitude. Open-mindedness and curiosity might be personality traits and qualities which beat a need for structure and risk-aversion. Again, could the OODA loop lend itself to this open-mindedness, and egoless adaptation to feedback?
Source: Human Factors Advisory YouTube channel

So what are some practical steps for applying the OODA loop in our work on projects?

Observe: Without judgement, mindfully take in any business-related changes that you become privy to. These may include pain points, features and benefits. If your project involves transitioning from a current state to a future state, keep your mind open to both states. Carefully take note of your observations again without judgement. Also, observe any biases or mental filters which may exist in either yourself or your project team. Can you strive to observe changes in your environment without these?

Orient: This stage leans on your ability to analyse and synthesise data. How easily can your project plans update? This includes the adaptability of other project artefacts. Depending on your role, you may be in charge of updating requirements specifications or change impact assessments. Can you take each note of your observation and place each note into distinct “buckets”? Can you discern between fact, opinion and other’s self-reported data? Do your project artefacts allow you to synthesise new information into existing information? You may want to spend time with stakeholders to seek their understanding of how accurately you have understood and synthesised new information.

Decide: You have incorporated new observations into your existing “understanding of the world”. What new suggestions or opportunities do these latest opportunities now mean for your team? Are there any assumptions that this new information now challenges? Has this discovery led to any sticking points within your team? Or has everyone’s ego been left outside this decision-making forum? With everyone’s open mind and ego-free perspective, what decisions has your team now lined up?

Act: What decisions have you made to move forward based on the new information you have observed? Your decision may involve a quick test or prototype. Remember, this is not about speed but maintaining a high degree of quality observations and analysis/synthesis. Once you have acted, it is time to go back to the observation phase. Of course, we also need to defer to realities in our project environments. Your team’s approach is also subject to project methodology. For instance, a Waterfall or a hybrid Agile/Waterfall method may need project leaders to report and/or justify their adaptation. In contrast, OODA seems to complement the Agile method. Your team is also subject to your sponsor’s appetite for adaptation. You may need to update steering committees or other governance forums to again justify any pivots your team makes.

The OODA loop is a brilliant, simple and battle-tested way to help you navigate and thrive amidst complexity. OODA can help individuals and project teams alike orient and adapt to the noise and unknowns on the project battlefield.

My book — The Change Manager’s Companion — is available now. You can also check out my online course on Change Management.

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