Monday, February 9, 2009


Colonel John R Boyd the true public servant gave the world with his obsession, the OODA loop.  You see the good colonel was confused as to why he was so successful in defeating his opponents at the Top Gun academy.  He pondered why he was able to be so successful with a lower quality aircraft and with the same training.  Most people would have approached the problem with why is my opponent not good or from a position of "I am just that good".  Mr Boyd, who did not lack any ego still was humble enough to look deeper.  His quest led him to analyse all the great battles in history and looked at alternatives as to why the battle was won and lost.  The culmination of this research led to the infamous "Patterns of Conflict"power point presentation.  From this research the OODA loop was created.  All his research was for public consumption for he believed being the benefactor of the public purse for his career it was morally wrong for him to benefit privately from it.  This cannot be said by some of his comrades and again gives insight into his personality.  His research is brilliant in its brevity and clarity. Many firms like IBM have refactored his code and called it Sense and Respond.  What a twist of fate, making money selling back the Military their idea.  The classic consultant gig of a consultant borrowing your watch to tell you what time it is and charging you for it comes to mind.  You have to love the irony in that one.

All this to say, that I use the OODA loop all the time for quick operational items, tactical projects and more importantly strategic matters.  I also use this thinking in my Basketball coaching, it is that relevant and open.  The basis of all trouble shooting verses parts replacing is within the OODA loop.  Now let me explain the Loop.

The first "O" in the loop.  This is the simple act of just looking with your eyes at the world around you.  Nothing more.  When you are called to someones office and you start to walk to that location, look around you.  What do you see?  Make mental note of this.  When you are looking at problem what do you see?  In basketball, I ask my players, look for the ball.  What do you see? 

This is a passive step and it the passive event of looking.  

The second "O" in the Loop.  The is the active act of orientation to the observation.  Now you need to adjust your thoughts to what you have seen.  If it is an error message, you start to ask yourself "what was the user doing?".  My favourite question is asking "what changed".  The orientation step takes into account all matters of the known and the inquisitive.  Political factors, Social factors, business factors and technical factors all play in this realm.  You need to put context to the first observation.  This is where you can take a baseline and make statements such as I am in the presidents office, the scroll lock is on and the screen is saying the password is incorrect and you have observed the obvious frustration.  The culmination of the observations and the orientation of the ancillary factors will lead to options for resolution.

I find many people do not take the time to orient themselves to the problem and more importantly the observations.  This lack of interest in orienting to observations manifests into rudeness,  lack of concern and many failed attempts at resolution.  I cannot stress enough how important this element is to the overall process.

This becomes the difference between fixing problem or addressing a symptom.  Take the time, do the research and put your observations into context.  At this stage, I seek out the "moss backs" or "lifers" of a company to get some idea of why and how certain things have happened.  

In basketball, I ask my players, who has the ball?  If it is us, then we must be on offence.  If we are on offense and you do not have the ball, then what are the offensive decisions you need to think about.  That is the next stage.

This is the "D" in the Loop.  This is the step that takes into account "make a decision".  After you have observed something and have taken into account the periphery issues you can now put into focus your options.  This in turn creates your decision.  The decision itself is just a course of action based on what you saw and what you learn about your observation.  Weighing the pros and cons of the decisions is influenced by your orientation step.

Will you buy or build your software?  Will you implement the change?  Who will you assign this project to?  These are the questions that need to get answered and the previous two steps allow you to make better pragmatic decisions.

Going back to the basketball analogy, if we have the ball and you do not have the ball then you have two decisions to make.  Move towards the ball or away from the ball.  By working on decision based thinking your team is elevated from the stress of guessing and becomes a more accountable group.

The "A" in the loop.  The elusive action stage.  All too many groups, make great observations, relevant and accurate orientations and make sound decision choices but fail to act.  The implementation of the decision is paramount.  Without it we get analysis paralysis and foster a culture of complaints and whining.  Action must be clear and be specific to the decision.  You must act respectfully in the spirit of the decision.  Deciding to do one thing and then acting to the contrary is a colossal waste of time and energy.

The basketball scenario completes this step in this example by going away from the ball to an open place on the court.

And the loop continues
Once you make your action the loop continues all over again.  This is the part where you get to observe what your action did.  The cause and effect part.  Your action will have impacted the process and now you start all over again to see how that action has affected the original observation.  Is the problem fixed?, did the desired affect occur?  All these things are now relevant.

The basketball player who moved to the open space on the floor, needs to find the ball again and orient themselves to the new reality and make decisions according.  The next decisions and actions will be determined on these revisits of Observe, Orient, Decide and Actions

In the John R. Boyd world if you can get inside your opponent's OODA loop then victory is certain.  This is due in large part to your opponent now being directed by your actions and therefore is behind in their processing.  The faster your loops are processed and the more experience and exposure you get the better your decision making is and therefore your actions will be more effective.

An OODA loop can exist in nanoseconds (Emergency conditions like a vehicle accident about to happen) to hours, days and even years (Strategic Planning).  The key is to be consistent and to educate as you communicate to your staff when they are not performing the loop effectively.

It is very powerful and is worthy of the attention of a young manager.

1 comment:

  1. A powerful tool that has a multitude of applications. Academia, in my case, is a worthy opponent.