During the Korean War, John Boyd was a young airman flying F-86 Sabre fighters. John noticed that American pilots were downing Soviet MIG-18s with greater frequency than the Soviets were destroying U.S. fighters. This intrigued John as the MIGs were known to be technically superior to the F-86s in most categories and the fighter pilot training on both sides was similar.
John studied this phenomenon and discovered there were two slight advantages the F-86 had. First, F-86s had a bubbled canopy for the cockpit that allowed pilots a larger field of vision that the MIG flyers. Second, the F-86 had better hydraulic controls; this allowed our pilots to not exert themselves physically when flying the jets. The combination of increased vision and better handling in combat gave the Americans a 10-1 kill advantage over the MIG pilots!
After the war, John continued serving our country in the Pentagon. There, he expanded on his insights he made during the Korean War by crafting the OODA Loop. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. Boyd’s purpose in the OODA Loop is to create the ability to unraveling one’s opponent by acting in the least-expected way possible. This keeps the opponent off-balance and keeps them from mustering an effective defense. Think of those who are successful in a football game. Many times, the difference may come from an unexpected play or two that give the advantage to the team that executes the play better. Think of the pass from Trey Bolton to quarterback Nick Foles in the recent super bowl.
A great example of the OODA Loop embodied is in President Donald Trump. Whether you are a Trumpster or don’t care for him, you must admit that Trump moves much differently from career politicians that we have been accustomed to. In his first year we have seen the largest reform to the tax code in the past 30 years, major proposals to change Obamacare, slashing of 22 regulations for every new one implemented, and the proposal for a major private-public partnership for major infrastructure improvements, just to name a few items of what is happening.
The discussion here is not to tout or criticize the accomplishments; it is to just compare the speed of action to those career politicians in Washington DC, where accomplishments are celebrated when the snail moves an inch. It is because Trump moves at such breakneck speed that leaves his opponents and the media in the dust, wondering what has happened to them while Trump has moved way past them. I am reminded of a neighbor I had in Missouri who ran a computer company that had a large contract with the State to monitor road conditions. He once told me the biggest difference in the corporate vs government world is simply this. In business you have a field to play on and the goal is to get to the end zone in whatever way you can, as quick as you can. In government, they don’t focus on the outcome, they stress the process. He told me of meetings he sat in on where the subject was literally how to have meetings!
The OODA Loop begins with Observe. This is taking account of circumstances, outside information, implicit guidance and control, and unfolding interaction with the environment. Think of the pilot who is constantly assessing the skies or the quarterback sizing up the defense.
Observation leads to the next step, which is to Orient. This step mixes cultural traditions, heritage, past experiences, and new information together to analyze and synthesize the observation through these filters. Here think of the fighter pilot moving into position behind an enemy or the quarterback dropping back for a pass.
The first two steps feed forward to the next one which is Decide. Here using the observations and orientation, under the governance of implicit guidance and control, a decision is made. This decision is feed back to the original observation. At this point, the fighter pilot has the bogy in his crosshairs or the quarterback sees his slot receiver has a step on the opposing quarterback.
The OOD steps feed forward to the final step, Act. Action has feedback immediately with the observation when the action is executed and after the action occurs once unfolding interaction with the environment from the action occurs. In this step, our pilot has fired on the enemy or the quarterback has hurled a pass to the wide open receiver.
But this does not end after action, the process is a loop and it continues to turn again and again through the OODA process. Companies and leaders who accomplish much at breakneck speed will use the OODA Loop again and again.
There is danger in stopping at various points in the loop and not moving forward. Staying in the observation and orientation stages too long can lead to analysis paralysis. Have you ever seen someone who is very comfortable looking and studying the data and never deciding? Analysis paralysis may come with a perfectionist attitude or the fear of failure that prohibits decisions.
Some may get stuck in the decision stage without action. The circumstances are analyzed and a conclusion is made, but no real action is completed. Another problem is completing the OODA loop in one cycle but not repeating it to see the changes in the environment with your action. It is like leadership where you must inspire and walk ahead of the follower, but you also must look back for feedback and to make sure that you are being followed. Abraham Lincoln once said, “He who thinks he is leading and has no one following, is only out for a walk”
Now the OODA Loop in your business may not require as quick of decisions as the fighter pilot or a professional quarterback. But the process needs to be completed and repeated to accomplish real changes in your world. Also, this Loop should be studied whenever we see good examples of it.