John M. Boyd was an air force pilot who earned the nickname “40-second Boyd” due to his ability to defeat any enemy in combat air maneuvering in 40 seconds or less. He was very much interested in theory and later on, after he became a consultant he developed a brief called Patterns of Conflict summarizing military strategy from Sun Tzu, to Hannibal, to WWII Blitzkrieg, to guerrilla warfare.
Despite all this, the one concept he’s most known for is the OODA loop. It grew out of his theory of learning which he called Destruction and Creation and is the only paper he ever published. In it he discusses the processes of analysis and synthesis, which later would play a role in the Orientation phase of the OODA loop.
Destruction and Creation
According to Boyd, through analysis you break down the whole into pieces so you can understand it better, and through synthesis you put various pieces together to create a new coherent whole. The key is to shatter the domains that hold the pieces together in your mind so that they are no longer connected to those domains. The relationship between those parts and the whole is to be destroyed before a new whole can be created.
Boyd’s example was the snowmobile. You take the treads from the tank, the engine of an outboard motorboat, the skis and the handlebar of a bicycle. When you take each of those parts individually and you shatter the links they have to the original concept (tank, boat, bike and ski) you are able to see how you can put them together in a whole new coherent way (the snowmobile). This according to Boyd was creative destruction.
After destruction and creation, Boyd set his sites on trying to understand warfare, especially how the US who was better equipped ended up losing the Vietnam War. He started his analysis by looking at why the F86 had more wins than the MiG despite the fact they were very similar in what he deemed energy-maneuverability (another concept he created earlier in his career as an air force pilot).
After working on it for a while he discovered that the F86 was able to go through changes in speed and direction much faster than the MiG due to it’s hydraulic controls vs the MiG’s mechanical controls. The F86 also had a much winder angle canopy which allowed the pilot a better view of the enemy. We’ll come back to that when we discuss the observation phase of the OODA loop.
The ability to quickly switch maneuvers in response to what your opponent was doing, was a key advantage that created a rapidly changing environment and caused confusion, disorientation and panic in your adversary rendering them unable to adapt quickly. This meant that in order to win, you had to operate a faster tempo than your adversary in fact you must operate inside their tempo.
This led him to create a brief called Patterns of Conflict which started out small but then ended up growing to be 8 full hours!. During the slides of the brief, as Boyd is explaining the key concepts of the blitzkrieg and guerilla warfare, he mentions the concept of the OODA Loop, or Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. According to Boyd, if you were able to go through the OODA loop faster than your opponent, you could essentially win without having to resort to attrition warfare.
The biggest misconception about the OODA loop is that it’s a simple step by step process comprised of four distinct steps which you then try to loop through as quickly as possible. Boyd’s concept was much more than that as we’ll see.
Here is a diagram of the OODA “loop”
During Observation you gather as much information as possible through your five senses and unfolding circumstances, unfolding interaction with the environment, feedback from any action or any decision you’ve taken and more importantly implicit guidance and control. Anything that hindered your ability to observe clearly and get accurate information about your environment will hinder your ability to orient yourself properly and cause mismatches between your “reality” and you opponent’s “reality” This was his key insight as to why the F86 was superior. The MiG’s canopy restricted the pilot’s view, creating blind spots that could easily be exploited by the enemy.
Because the key to the OODA Loop is how fast you switch maneuvers, you don’t want to be spending too much time Observing, you want to quickly move on to Orientation.
Orientation is the key to the entire “loop” What Boyd meant by orientation is in a way the opposite of disorientation. Your goal is to bring about things like previous experience, new information, analysis/synthesis, genetic heritage and cultural traditions to create a complex integration, or as I like to call it a mental model of the situation. What Boyd means here, is that you should be able to read a situation in such a way that is as close to reality as possible and keep it that way so that you don’t get disoriented. When you do that, you’re able to dictate and shape the mind of your opponent in such a way as to bring about disorientation and confusion and inhibit their ability to make clear decisions.
In the Decision phase, you create a hypothesis of what the orientation suggested and you test it by taking Action.
The most important thing to note here is that these stages do no need to occur in this order. Notice the arrows for implicit guidance and control between orientation and observation/decision/action. What this means is that there’s a point where a you can achieve an intuitive sense for how the events are unfolding. You get an insight and it happened to match reality perfectly. Once this happens, you no longer need to go though the stages one by one, they begin to occur simultaneously. You can now begin to dictate the tempo of decisions and shape the mind of your opponent. This allows you to win more easily.
Fast Tempo Offense in Sports
I don’t like sports metaphors in general (since not everyone is a sports fan) but they illustrate the OODA loop perfectly. In the American NFL, NBA and in other sports, the idea of a fast tempo offense is starting to become more common. There will be a stage during the game where the coach will notice something in the defense, the game situation , the score, etc. and decide to speed up the tempo of the game in order to catch the defense off-guard or to dictate the tempo and score more easily.
The coach will observe for example the certain set up of the defense, how tired they look, their energy level, how much attention they’re paying in the game, take into account the score of the game, the clock, how well his team is advancing, game film that he’s seen previously of this particular defense in this situation, the type of defense he’s dealing with, plays they ran in practice, etc. and orient himself to the situation by creating a mental model of the reality. During orientation, he will get an idea that maybe by switching to a faster tempo, he can spark the offense, disorient the defense, advance faster and score easier.
He makes the decision and calls for quicker/higher percentage of success plays. Given how accurate the read of the situation was, how successful the play was, how the defense reacted, (this is feedback that will shape his orientation) he will go through the loop again and decide whether to continue the quick tempo while the defense tries hard to adjust. It’s very important that this fast decision making tempo be kept up in order to keep the defense guessing and delay/inhibit their ability to orient and adjust to the faster tempo. If the read of the situation was accurate, the coach will start to get an intuitive feel for the game and know exactly which plays to call in order to be successful.
Fast Tempo in Business
In business, if your orientation doesn’t match reality, for example when you’re clueless about what the customers really want, you will end up slowly declining and eventually go bankrupt. A good example of a company who operates at a fast tempo is Google. When Google first launched, AltaVista was the most popular search engine (in fact Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, actually tried to license their search technology to AltaVista but they refused).
Internet search engines had a problem. They would display results without any sort of relevance, making it hard for you to find what you were actually looking for. One can say that their orientation to the marketplace was off. Google invented an algorithm called PageRank which assigned a rank to a website based on how many other sites linked to it. This was an insight that Brin got while he was working on a project to digitize papers. He noticed that the best papers had the most references from other papers.
People started to switch to Google as their main search engine and sites like AltaVista didn’t adjust so they headed for a decline. Not willing to adjust they slowly went out of business. But Google didn’t stop there. They monetized search by placing text based ads next to the search results. If you wanted your website to show up as a top search result in Google for certain search terms/keywords, given that most people didn’t go beyond the first 2-3 pages of search results, you needed to outbid your competition for those specific search terms/keywords.
However the natural search results were free! So people tried to figure out how Google’s PageRank algorithm worked by reverse engineering the search results (since this information is proprietary to Google) and then try to optimize sites or game Google’s algorithm so their site would appear on top for the desired search terms/keywords. The SEO (search engine optimization) game is still being played to this day. The problem isn’t that people try to figure out Google’s algorithm, the problem is that unscrupulous marketers were using unethical techniques (also known as “black hat SEO” from the popular term “black hat hacker”) to try and game the search results and have their sites show up on top undeservingly.
Operating at a fast tempo, Google began periodically updating the algorithm in order to stay one step ahead of these “black hat” SEO hackers. If Google didn’t operate at a fast tempo, they would soon start to lose credibility in their search results.
This is only scratching the surface of what the OODA Loop can do. Some of the more interesting applications of it can achieve the ability to shape the marketplace, shape the mind of the customer and the mind of the competitors to keep them at bay. For more on John Boyd, check out Robert Coram’s excellent biography “Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War”