OODA Loop: How to Make Fast Decisions in Disorienting Situations

He who hesitates is lost.

Look before you leap.

Proverbs

Fighter jet pilots in high-speed low-altitude flights 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.

Developed by United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd in the 1950s, the mental model has its origins in the armed forces. 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 intel analysis and the business world. Not to mention its value for personal use such as self-defence. Here’s how it works.

Table of Contents

The 4 Phases of the OODA Loop

OODA is an acronym that stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. Before looking into each of the phases individually, we should note a few things about its nature:

  • Being a loop the model describes decision-making as a cyclical process. In that regard, it’s similar to the intelligence cycle (a mental model that depicts how analysts transform data into actionable knowledge), it has no endpoint and continues in perpetuity.
  • The OODA Loop was originally designed for conflicts with two or more parties involved. While it can theoretically be applied to our thinking alone, the mental model unfolds its full potential in situations in which we face a competitor.
  • The model extends to the way individuals, as well as teams or entire organisations make decisions. The levels we apply it to pretty much depend on our context.

Now, according to the framework, all participants in a conflict go through the following four phases.

Observe

OODA Loop

The first stage is to observe. Meaning, both, we and our counterpart not only watch and survey the environment but also what any friendlies and the other 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 collecting data.

Paying attention and being aware of the situation around us is more difficult than we might imagine. The more fast-paced a situation unfolds and the more we have to rely on our own senses, the more susceptible we are to intuitive traps; for instance the favouring of first-hand information. Psychological experiments such as the Invisible Gorilla [affiliate link] have shown that our perception can be highly selective. In the famous 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.

So the key to this phase is the ability to tell relevant from irrelevant information. It’s to be aware of our perceptive biases and to know how to mitigate them. It’s also to be open to what truly is, to have a realistic philosophy of knowing and not knowing, regardless of whether it fits a preconceived narrative or not.

Orient

In the orientation phase, participants in any conflict engage in sensemaking of what they observed. This is where analytical techniques may come in. Be it to describe, explain, evaluate, or even 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 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, so they will have to be synthesised to generate a cohesive image of the situation. Orientation can come in many forms, be deployed at length by a leadership team or – if we think back to the jet fighter example – by an individual within a fraction of a second. The worst thing we could do would be to rush to the next step without making sense of what was observed.

Decide

The third phase of the OODA Loop is the phase in which 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 about 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 accurate 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.

Act

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 (or deliberately remain inactive for that matter) and to find out whether our hypotheses are true, the world moves on without our input. When we act, however, 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? Put simply, 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. Here’s intelligence expert Charles Vandepeer commenting on Alexander the Great’s methods of warfare around 335 BC:

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.

The Need for Speed, Mind of War Project

As Boyd put it in The Mind of War [affiliate link], 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. For example, this can be applied to a business context. As outlined by startup coach Martin Zwilling, entrepreneurial success is dependant on factors such as earlier detection of changing trends and customer needs than your competitors.[1] 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’re acting too short-sighted. Because the second classic way to disrupt someone’s OODA Loop is the use of deception. Business coach, podcaster and former US Navy Seal 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!

I will be watching you take damage, I’ll be watching you waste resources, I’ll be watching you expend leadership capital while I’m putting money in the bank. I’m putting money in the bank and I’m gonna win. I am going to win.

Jocko Podcast 266

In other words, if we’re deceived into sacrificing our long-term goals over imaginary short-term wins, our own speed will work against us. (It’s probably also a good idea to have some long-term goals in the first place.) In the context of the OODA Loop, acting smarter than our counterpart not only requires us to detect deception in time. We might also want to think about putting our counterparts in dilemmas ourselves.

Sometimes, this can be achieved with incredibly simple methods. For example, as everyone’s favourite lockpicking lawyer suggests, consider not advertising the brand of your house alarm system with a yard sign. Instead, advertise a different brand so as to give potential burglars the opportunity to research ways to defeat an alarm system you do not use. The idea is to create Black Swans for your competitor; unexpected high-impact events they can only comprehend in hindsight.

3. Cheating and the OODA Loop

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 stick to the rules. Just like we would in a game of chess or a round of sparring. Still, the idea of being outpaced, outsmarted and cheated on by our counterpart and not even see it coming can cause uncertainty up to and including paralysing paranoia.

According to the author of The Black Swan [affiliate link], Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the best way to avoid unpredictable surprises is to not waste resources on avoiding them. In the context of the OODA Loop, it means to be situationally aware of any vulnerabilities and dependencies. To accept 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.

Interesting Ideas

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 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”[2].

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 by breaking it down into discrete stages for clarity before re-integrating them once each is mastered. As such, it can be used for both to understand and improve our own decisions and to analyse our counterpart’s. An old idea indeed, it’s a re-invention that has proven to be useful.

Unforced Errors

OODA Loop

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 to stay 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, lazy and dismissive thinking can result in unforced errors and a lack of situational awareness. The captain, so it seems, was too focused on his own strength and on controlling his counterpart and his environment. Human vices can override the benefits of the OODA Loop at any time.

Performative Performances

The third caveat relates to the credibility of leaders who deploy the model. According to former US Marine Corps pilot Carl Forsling the phrase ‘getting inside the enemy’s OODA Loop’ has become all but a cliche in the military. Making the case against the OODA Loop he writes:

If tacticians bring the OODA Loop into a discussion, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a faux-profound statement is going to be said within the next 30 seconds, but it’s pretty likely. That mention of the OODA Loop had better be followed by immediately dropping some serious knowledge bombs about specific ways you plan to exploit it.

Carl Forsling

Buy-in into a leader’s newfound way to look at decision-making highly depends on his or her credibility and 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 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.

Closing Thoughts

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 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. Without an underlying goal and know-how, we’d essentially be trying to fly a jet on an empty tank. Meaning, the OODA Loop is only as good as those who use it.

In fact, 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.