The OODA loop: how the greatest military strategists make decisions in the face of uncertainty

Successful leaders within this organization foster an environment of experimentation, mistakes and uncertainty, giving room for rapid adaptation.

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After nearly 50 years of service, the F-15 Eagle—a formidable military jet fighter— has never been shut down in air combat, holding an undefeated record of 104 wins and zero losses. 1

However, prior to its introduction, United States Air Force jet fighters struggled in air-to-air combat: during the Vietnam War, jet fighters scored dismal loss ratios of 1:1.


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In the winter of 1952, a young prodigious Air Force fighter pilot, named John Boyd, was assigned to fly one of the earliest jet fighters in history—the F-86 Sabre—during the Korean war. 2

As the high-speed dog fight commenced in the skies of Korea, the F-86 Sabre faced the impossible task of defeating the Soviet MiG-15—a superior aircraft with faster maximum speed, heavier firepower and narrower turn radius.

But by the end of the war, the F-86 pilots shot down 792 MiGs and lost only 78 Sabres, recording a victory to loss ratio of 10:1. 3

Whilst the Air Force celebrated the victory, John Boyd racked his brain to solve a puzzling question: Why did the F-86 jet fighter score such a high victory ratio against a superior opponent?

In order to solve this problem, Boyd studied, analyzed and combined ideas from psychology, biology, physics and theories from the greatest military strategists of all-time, including Sun Tzu, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Carl von Clausewitz, Ulysses S. Grant, Eric Ludendorff and Erwin Rommel.

During his search for answers, Boyd made remarkable discoveries that would not only change the Art of War, but also revolutionize postmodern strategy.

The most important of these is called the OODA loop: a simple model for optimal decision-making and innovation in the face of uncertainty.

The Genesis of the OODA Loop

“What Is the Aim or Purpose of Strategy? To improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we (as individuals or as groups or as a culture or as a nation-state) can survive on our own terms.”—John Boyd

In 1962, Boyd was posted to the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and as luck would have it, he had access to expensive computer time to conduct research into solving the puzzle of the F-86 Sabre’s extraordinary success.

After several months of discreetly conducting millions of calculations, Boyd finally solved the puzzle.

By applying insights from thermodynamics, Boyd discovered that air-to-air combat could be explained in terms of energy relationships. He encapsulated his ideas as the Energy-Maneuverability theory, or E-M theory.

Boyd’s EM theory proved that the F-86 success in Korea had little to do with differences in pilot skills or luck. Rather, it was a by-product of agility—the aircraft could transition from one maneuver to another faster than the Soviets MiG-15.

This breakthrough idea would later lead to the creation of the undefeated F-15 Eagle, and subsequent jet fighters that continue to dominate air combat today.

Most importantly, Boyd’s EM theory paved the way for the OODA Loop. 4

Credit: Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd.

OODA stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action.

In the book Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, each one of these elements is briefly explained as follows (in-depth explanations will be revealed shortly):

  • Observation is sensing yourself and the world around you.
  • Orientation is your belief system: it’s the complex set of filters of genetic heritage, cultural predispositions, personal experience, and knowledge.
  • Decision is a review of alternative courses of action and the selection of the preferred course as a hypothesis to be tested.
  • Action is the testing of decision selected by implementation.

The idea of a ‘loop,’ highlights the importance of repeating the OODA cycle indefinitely.

Contrary to popularized interpretations, the OODA loop is not so much a decision-making tool, as it is a mental model for individual and organizational learning and adaptation.

Boyd elaborates on this in his presentation, The Conceptual Spiral:

“Since survival and growth are directly connected with the uncertain, ever-changing, unpredictable world of winning and losing we will exploit this whirling (conceptual) spiral of orientation, mismatches, analysis/synthesis, reorientation, mismatches, analysis/synthesis … so that we can comprehend, cope with, and shape, as well as be shaped by that world and the novelty that arises out of it.”

Why is the OODA loop so important?

More so than any other period in history, the world is gripped with extreme levels of uncertainty, confusion and disruption: the future of work is threatened by artificial intelligence and legacy organizations are dying off.

As a case in point, in 1965, the average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 was 33 years. By 1990, it was 20 years and by 2026, this number is predicted to shrink to 14 years (in the past 5 years alone iconic companies like Yahoo, Alcao and Dell Computer have been displaced from the S&P list). 5

The OODA loop is a powerful tool that helps individuals and organizations to embrace uncertainty and quickly adapt to environmental changes, ensuring survival and growth.

Let’s dive into the mechanics of OODA loop to uncover how it can be used for better decision-making.

The OODA Loop Explained

“Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”—Jacob Bronowski

On 28 June 1995, two years prior to his death, Boyd finished the last addition to his Discourse on Winning & Losing, and revealed a much more in-depth and comprehensive model of the OODA loop.

Comprehensive OODA loop.

Within the context of an organization—any organized group of people with a particular purpose—observation involves paying close attention to changes, or lack of change, within the organization, among competitors and the environment.

Observation however, is not sufficient to survive and grow within a complex, ever-changing world.

According to Boyd’s OODA loop, we need to properly orient ourselves to make optimal decisions and take effective action.

In other words, the quicker and more accurately we can develop mental images or mental models to make sense of environmental changes—through analyzing and synthesizing our observations—the greater our odds of success.

For this reason, the orientation phase is the most important part of the OODA loop: it’s where creativity and innovation occurs.

It’s also the phase of the OODA loop where the majority of the population fall short, because it requires the ability to rapidly change beliefs in lockstep with a fast changing and chaotic environment.

Most of us are unwilling to question our assumptions and deeply held beliefs, so we orient poorly and fall prey to highly creative people who have already adapted to, and disrupted our environment.

The decision phase of the OODA loop involves a discussion amongst key decision-makers within an organization to take action on one of the alternatives generated during the orientation phase.

Finally, the action phase according to Boyd, should be rapid, surprising, ambiguous, menacing and varied.

This alters the tempo and psychological dynamics, which throws the opponent into a state of confusion, diminishes their capacity to adapt to the new environment and leads to their defeat.

The decision and action phases both send feedback to the OODA loop as a check on the adequacy of existing orientation patterns.

This entire process is repeated indefinitely.

Now here’s the catch: it’s not the person who runs through the OODA loop the fastest who wins. It’s the person who does so efficiently.

So what are the key ingredients to completing the OODA loop efficiently?

The Key to Making the OODA Loop Work

“There is no such thing as a logical method of having new ideas. Discovery contains an irrational element or a creative intuition.”— Karl Popper

According to Boyd, there are four key attributes based on the Blitzkrieg used in the Second World War—a German term used to describe a quick military tactic designed to dismantle enemy forces through the use of mobile forces—that are required to make the OODA loop work efficiently within any organization.

These are:

1. Einheit: Mutual Trust

2. Fingerspitzengefühl: Intuitive Skill

3. Schwerpunkt: Focus and Direction

4. Auftragstaktik: Mission

Einheit represents the strong bond and trust built through shared values and experiences of overcoming adversity.

Fingerspitzengefühl represents an intuitive knowledge and skill set developed through the incessant practice of a particular activity.

It enables us to adapt quicker through the OODA loop, because the orientation and decide phase take much less time than otherwise.

Schwerpunkt represents the focus and direction of our efforts.

It’s the orientation phase of the OODA loop, as it shapes the way we observe, decide and act on the environment.

Auftragstaktik is the joint mission of the entire organization or group. It builds upon, and requires Einheit (mutual trust), flexibility, initiative and freedom of action across all levels.

The combination of these four attributes creates a highly innovative and agile organization that is much quicker to adapt to rapidly changing environments than competitors.

Such an organization incorporates variety, creativity, flexibility, diversity and learning communities.

If one function of the organization is disrupted by an environmental shock i.e. a cyber attack, another part of the network quickly responds and preserves the entire organization.

Freedom of activity ensures that small teams within the organization operate autonomously, pursue entrepreneurial opportunities and share knowledge among themselves.

Unlike the traditional top-down management style used by the less agile competitors, this organization incorporates loose-tight control: the shared values of the corporate culture provide tight control, and mutual trust between managers and employees liberates them to discover new opportunities, learn and innovate.

Successful leaders within this organization foster an environment of experimentation, mistakes and uncertainty, giving room for rapid adaptation.

In fact, the best leaders lead by not leading.

Boyd’s premise for this is simple: since the world is fundamentally complex and uncertain, organizational change is non-linear. And so, conventional linear practices like fixed policies and one-size-fits-all strategies, lead to stagnation and extinction.

Conversely, letting go of control and focusing on enhancing the network of relationships, permits the organization to adopt a large family of strategies, innovate and survive. 6

Ultimately, the efficiency of the OODA loop is driven by a combination of trust, intuition, direction and mission.

Adapt or Die

“Once you stop learning, you start dying.”— Albert Einstein

The breakthrough discovery of the OODA loop solved John Boyd’s head-scratching puzzle of the F-86 Sabre’s miraculous victory during the Korean war.

But more importantly, the OODA loop synthesizes the core ideas of the greatest military strategists, to explain why winners win and losers lose in the face of inevitable uncertainty.

It enables us to comprehend, shape, adapt to, and in turn be shaped by an ever-changing, uncertain and complex environment that creates mismatches and new opportunities.

At the core of Boyd’s OODA loop is the idea of Darwinian natural selection, which suggests that ‘the environment selects’ based on the ‘ability or inability to interact and adapt to exigencies of environment.’ 8

Likewise, today’s highly uncertain and complex environment will select the individuals and organizations who swiftly change their beliefs or ‘Orient’ themselves to adapt to the new conditions of the environment.

And those who refuse to adapt will become extinct.

Or put more simply by John Boyd:

“Whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who survives.” 8
A version of this article originally appeared at mayooshin.com as “The OODA Loop: How the Greatest Military Strategists Make Decisions in the Face of Uncertainty”

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.Com, where he shares the best practical ideas based on proven science and the habits of highly successful people for stress-free productivity and improved mental performance. To get these strategies to stop procrastinating, get more things by doing less and improve your focus, join his free weekly newsletter.”

FOOTNOTES

1. F-15 Eagle Engaged: The world’s most successful jet fighter (General Aviation).

2. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.

3. Thompson and McLaren 2002.

4. In his essay Destruction & Creation, Boyd provides a philosophical foundation for his OODA Loop by combining Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

5. Corporate Longevity: Turbulence Ahead for Large Organizations. Innosight. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Aug. 2017.

6. Roger Lewin and Birute Regine, ‘An Organic Approach to Management’, Perspective on Business Innovation, Cap Gemini Ernst & young Journal, Issue 4, pp. 19-26.

7. Organic Design for Command and Control (version dated May 1987).

8. A New Conception of Air to Air Combat by John Boyd.


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