Jet pilots flying at high speeds and low altitudes are in a tight spot. The environment around them changes so quickly that they run the risk of flying in the past. Whatever landmark they perceive right in front of them is de-facto already behind them as soon as they act on what they just saw. Human perception can’t keep up. Pilots solve this by disregarding their immediate surroundings, focussing on what’s 5-10 seconds ahead. It’s a small change. But one that can aid decision-making in disorienting situations. Much like the OODA Loop, a decision-making model invented by a legendary fighter pilot.
What Is the OODA Loop?
The OODA Loop is a cyclic approach to situational awareness and decision-making that consists of four phases: Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. The model was developed by US Air Force Colonel and military strategist John Boyd in the 1950s.
Being a loop, the model describes decision-making as a cyclical process. Similar to the Intelligence Cycle, a method analysts use to process raw data into actionable knowledge, it has no endpoint and continues in perpetuity. The OODA Loop was originally designed for conflicts involving two or more parties. It unfolds its full potential when we use it to analyse a competitor and direct individuals, teams, or entire organisations accordingly.
Naturally, the military has a vital interest in mastering the chaotic environment of armed conflicts. Having been tried and tested in extreme situations of combat, the OODA Loop soon became attractive beyond the military. Among others, it has made its way into intelligence analysis and the business world. Not to mention its value for personal use such as self-defence. Here’s how it works.
The Four Phases of the OODA Loop
According to the framework, all participants in a conflict, friend and foe, go through the four phases of observing their environment, orienting themselves, deciding on a course of action and acting it out.
Both, we and our counterparts not only watch the environment in which we’re operating. We also keep an eye on what friendly forces, as well as the opposing side, are doing. In this phase, actors collect information from a variety of sources to get a raw account of What is? Be it with their own eyes and ears, through second-hand sources or more sophisticated means of data collection.
Paying attention and being aware of the situation around us is more difficult than we might imagine. The faster a situation unfolds and the more we have to rely on our own senses, the more susceptible we are to intuitive traps. Psychological experiments such as The Invisible Gorilla have shown that our perception can be highly selective. In the study, participants were asked to observe how often a group of people passed a ball. Many missed the guy in the gorilla costume dancing through the picture.
This is why the key to the first phase is the ability to separate relevant from irrelevant information. It’s to be aware of our perceptive biases and to know how to mitigate them. It’s important to be open to what truly is, and to have a realistic philosophy of knowing and not knowing, regardless of whether it fits a preconceived narrative or not.
In the orientation phase, participants in any conflict engage in sensemaking of what they observed. The key question here is: What does it all mean? Orientation will likely consist of a whole range of assumptions and interpretations from a variety of sources. They all have to be synthesised to generate a cohesive image of the situation. This is where analytical techniques may come in. Be it to describe, explain, evaluate, or predict what has happened, is happening, or will happen.
For example, a simple five-step satellite image analysis can change whether something initially perceived as a threat is harmful or a decoy. This is of course provided that the relevant information has been collected in the first place. You can’t make sense of a gorilla if you haven’t noticed it.
The second phase of the OODA Loop can happen at the individual or group levels. If we think back to the jet fighter example, pilots observe and orient themselves within a fraction of a second. At the same time, leadership might build a more complete and long-term image of a situation. The worst thing anyone could do, though, is to rush to the next phase before making sense of what was observed.
In the third phase of the OODA Loop, our counterpart (and hopefully us) make an informed decision about what to do next. Whether it’s a short-term immediate action or a long-term strategic plan. I’ve covered some principles for making recommendations in a previous post. But essentially, this is where we answer the question of What should be? while factoring in intended and unintended consequences.
John Boyd aptly named the decision phase the hypothesis stage. Because in a sense, decisions are guesswork of what’s going to happen if we implement an action. The more accurately the observation and orientation phase was carried out, the more likely it is that our decision will yield the expected results. That is if we actually act it out as planned.
I may be stating the obvious here. But making a decision is unlike taking action. Samuel Beckett’s absurd play Waiting for Godot illustrates what happens if people get stuck in a loop of observing, orienting and making a decision without ever acting on it. The two protagonists famously wait for a stranger named Godot, unsure when and if he’ll even show up. In the meantime, they kill time with nonsense talk.
Without the courage to take action and to find out whether our hypotheses are true, the world moves on without our input. When we act (or deliberately remain inactive for that matter), no matter how small our action may be, it will have an effect on the situation. It will complete the OODA Loop and we’ll once again find ourselves observing the effects of our actions on us, our team, our counterpart and the environment.
The OODA Loop in Action
What may sound like a lengthy and deliberate process doesn’t have to be. Cycling through the loop as a whole may happen over a matter of days and weeks or within a matter of seconds. It may happen consciously or unconsciously. But how exactly are we supposed to apply the mental model?
The answer is twofold. The goal is to go through our loop on our own terms while getting inside that of our opponent. Here to summarise our options is Jeremy Iron’s character John Tuld, an investment bank CEO, from the 2011 film Margin Call: “There are three ways to make a living in this business: Be first, be smarter, or cheat.
1. Being First and the OODA Loop”
Boyd was quite clear about the importance of speed in any operation. The faster we can cycle through the four phases, the better. Though relatively speaking, it’s enough to move faster than our counterpart. Granted, this is not a new idea, either. Alexander the Great was known for employing this method in warfare as early as 335 BC. Charles Vandepeer, senior lecturer in intelligence analysis explains:
Alexander moved quickly. He moved rapidly to surprise his opponents, but also to shut down their time to identify what was going on, to make plans and preparations and to act on those.
Speed of action in warfare is critically important. It decreases not only the time that the enemy has to make their own decision. But speed also minimises the time for recognition, for comprehension and understanding. Meaning that options and actions that an adversary takes are not well-considered because they haven’t had the time to plan, to think through and to evaluate options.Charles Vandepeer, Mind of War Project
As Boyd put it in The Mind of War, operating “at a faster tempo or rhythm” will ideally leave your counterpart “disoriented and confused”, which is precisely the state we don’t want to be in ourselves. This can also be applied to a business context. As outlined by startup coach Martin Zwilling, entrepreneurial success is dependent on factors such as earlier detection of changing trends and customer needs than your competitors. But also by how purposeful and decisive we pursue our vision.
2. Being Smarter and the OODA
While tempo is a significant advantage, the potential trade-offs are accuracy and reliability. Our own speed can be used against us if we haven’t mastered the art of timing, acting too short-sighted or naive. Because another classic way to disrupt someone’s OODA Loop is the use of deception. Former US Navy SEAL and leadership instructor Jocko Willink illustrates this principle quite vividly:
If you’re competing against me, I will have you in tactical fights all day long. I will put tactical things out there to distract you and fight you. And I put some minimum amount of resources against your whole deal and make you think you’re achieving this big victory — and you’re not!Jocko Podcast 266
If we don’t detect being deceived into sacrificing our long-term goals over imaginary short-term wins, our own speed will work against us. On top, acting smarter than our counterparts also includes putting them in dilemmas ourselves. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu recommended making your own forces seem idle when in fact they’re busy. Or to appear ready to strike when in fact your troops are still preparing. If done right, the enemy will orient itself, make decisions and act them out based on false observations.
The methods to achieve this in everyday life are often as banal as they are simple. Consider not advertising the brand of your house alarm system with a yard sign. Instead, advertise a different brand. This gives burglars the opportunity to research ways to defeat an alarm system you do not use. We could say, the idea is to create unknown unknowns for your opponent, so-called Black Swans. These are unexpected high-impact events our counterparts can only comprehend in hindsight.
3. Cheating and the OODA Loop
Fraudulent deception or betrayal can be the ultimate Black Swan. Now, Jeremy Iron’s character makes it quite clear that he doesn’t cheat. We, too, have probably decided to play the long game and play by the rules. Just like we would in a game of chess or a round of sparring. Still, the idea of being cheated by our counterpart without seeing it coming can cause uncertainty. Up to and including paralysing paranoia.
According to the author of The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the best way to deal with such unpredictable surprises is to not waste resources on the futile attempt to predict them. In the context of the OODA Loop, it means to be situationally aware of any vulnerabilities and dependencies. It means accepting small losses and mistakes as an opportunity to build robustness and anti-fragility. To put ourselves into a position where risks remain calculable and we still have options.
Caveats of the OODA Loop
With all that being said, let’s take a moment to consider some caveats of the OODA Loop. The idea, we might say, is not new, prone to unforced errors and invites performative performances.
An Old Idea
Similar to the criticism of the Intelligence Cycle, we could interject that the OODA Loop is merely stating the obvious. Its phases are not such an original idea and above all simplistic. And we’d be correct. Boyd was known for drawing from a range of fields outside the military to pull “things apart (analysis) and putting them back together (synthesis) in new combinations to find how apparently unrelated ideas and actions can be related to one another”.
However, it can’t be denied that the OODA Loop has proven to be a popular and easily digestible mental model. One that makes the decision-making process visible and describable. This is achieved by breaking it down into discrete stages for clarity before re-integrating them once each is mastered. As such, it can be used to understand and improve our own decisions and to analyse the ones of our counterparts.
There’s an urban legend about a battleship on a collision course with what appears to be a small naval vessel on their radar. Over the radio, the navy commander orders the other party to change course. They refuse to comply suggesting instead that the officer brings his ship about. The battleship captain insists on staying on course in no uncertain terms. But the other party does not back down, eventually declaring: “We’re a lighthouse. Your call.”
It’s one of those fictional stories you just wish to be true. Perhaps because it illustrates how ego, arrogance or hubris in leadership can be exposed by the calm, defiant demeanour of the seemingly powerless. Human vices and lazy thinking can result in unforced errors and a lack of situational awareness. The navy commander, so it seems, was too focused on his own strength and on controlling his counterpart and his environment. Such vices can override the benefits of the OODA Loop at any time.
The third caveat relates to the credibility of leaders who deploy the model. One downside of the OODA Loop having been around for such a long time is that the model runs the risk of becoming a cliche. How much people buy into a leader’s newfound way of looking at decision-making highly depends on his or her credibility, which in turn depends on their ability to get results.
Performative tactical theatre can be just as fateful as hubris. At least if it doesn’t come with a plan and if leadership can’t explain how individual actions are supposed to feed into it. People can tell if someone has integrated an idea into their personality or if they’re just possessed by it, and the idea speaks through them. It’s much like quoting Shakespeare without ever having seen one of her movies.
Philosophically, we could see the OODA Loop as an attempt to solve the age-old human dilemma: Neither hesitating unnecessarily nor leaping blindly in a disorienting world. Neither merely reacting to life, nor trying to micromanage every aspect of it. Decision-making in emergency situations and quickly changing environments is a balancing act. Who knew?
When the dynamic of a situation outpaces our ability to adapt we revert to mental shortcuts and our capacity for making sound decisions decreases. The Observe, Orient, Decide and Act Loop is a mere tool to help us keep up; a way to understand, refine and communicate what we’re already doing anyway. But without an underlying goal and conscious competence, we’d essentially be trying to fly a jet on an empty tank.
On a final note, it seems like much of the model’s attraction is due to its legendary inventor. By all accounts, Boyd was quite the character who knew what he was doing. A fighter pilot himself he was nicknamed Forty Second Boyd for his ability to win air fights in 40 seconds or less. Looks like he was always a bit ahead of his time.