Episode 2: Orientation and the OODA Loop

The OODA loop is commonly cited as a way to beat an adversary or opponent. From the military to business, completing your OODA loop faster than your adversary is cited as a path to victory. Further, Observation is cited as the key to beginning the OODA loop process and Orientation is defined as orienting towards the critical element identified during observation. This is bullshit. And I'm going to tell you why. Don't just take my word, I will use John Boyd's, creator of the OODA loops own words to destroy this gross misrepresentation.

First, Observation is NOT the first part of the loop. In fact, Boyd himself states:

"Note how orientation shapes observation, shapes decision, shapes action, and in turn is shaped by the feedback and other phenomena coming into our sensing or observing window.

Also note how the entire “loop” (not just orientation) is an ongoing many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection." [Source:  The Essence of Winning and Losing, John Boyd]

Boyd's statement, what he identifies as an insight, says "Note how orientation shapes observation, shapes decision, shapes action, and in turn is shaped by the feedback..." This simple sentence clearly destroys all the blatantly false explanations of the uneducated, uninformed, and ignorant who state the loop begins with Observation. [Note: the shapes Boyd used when drawing the OODA loop have meaning.] 

In his presentations on armed conflict--war--Boyd never wrote the term "OODA loop" alone but used the phrase "operating inside opponents' OODA loops," which he seemed careful never to define. The closest he came was 132 charts into his major briefing on war, Patterns of Conflict (Boyd, 1986), where he stated that to operate inside an adversary's OODA loop could be "put another way" as Observe, orient, decide and act more inconspicuously, more quickly, and with more irregularity..." Another way to think about operating inside the OODA loop is that we change the situation more rapidly than the opponent can comprehend (Boyd, 1986, p.5). And keep doing it. These concepts go considerably deeper than cycling through "observe, then orient, then decide, then act" more rapidly than an opponent. Boyd made the claim that the ability to perform the more sophisticated version-enabled one to execute an agenda of heinous acts upon one's adversary, ending with "Generate uncertainty, confusion, disorder, panic, chaos... to shatter cohesion, produce paralysis and bring about collapse" (Boyd, 1986, p. 132).

Interpreting the OODA "Loop" Sketch


The "loop" depicted above is a wonderful framework for strategy, but it can appear daunting at first. To get a handle on it, begin with the centrality of orientation and imagine that when we are engaged with opponents--or in the case of business, with competitors and customers--our actions will flow from it implicitly, that is, without explicit (e.g., written or detailed verbal) commands or instructions, most of the time. Orientation is an ancient idea, embodied in the concept of mindfulness, but it is as modern as fighter pilots who talk about maintaining "situation awareness."

What this emphasis on orientation does is make conflict into a learning contest to better maintain awareness of the world, of, as Collins (2001) called it, the "brutal facts." But success under this model is not a simple, accumulative process, where one gradually adds to one's net competitive advantage account and the side with the higher balance wins. Instead, by maintaining better awareness, one can create opportunities to act in ways that opponents will see as highly irregular and disorienting (shaping your opponent's observations). Boyd based much of his strategy on one of these, Sun Tzu's "cheng/Ch'i" (Boyd, 1987; Gimian & Boyce, 2008).

How to Become Certain to Win

The basic pattern is simple: An organization uses its better understanding of--clearer awareness of--the unfolding situation to set up its opponent by employing actions that fit with the opponent's expectations, which Boyd, following Sun Tzu (trans. 1988), called the cheng. When the organization sense (viz. from its previous experiences, including training) that the time is ripe, it springs the ch'i, the unexpected, extremely rapidly (Gimian & Boyce, 2008).

The primary reason for implicit guidance when engaged with opponents is that explicit instructions--written orders, for example--would take too much time. As Boyd (1987) put it, "The key idea is to emphasize implicit over explicit in order to gain a favorable mismatch in friction and time (i.e., ours lower than any adversary's) for superiority in shaping and adapting to circumstances" (p.22).

For the same reason, initiating actions via the circular OODA loop does not work well when one is engaged with an opponent. The need to go through stages before coming around to action is too slow, as Storr observed, and too easy to disrupt (Klein, 1999). If, on the other hand, action can flow rapidly from orientation directly via an implicitly guidance and control (IG&C) link, then any pattern of actions becomes possible. In particular, abrupt shifts, which Boyd (1986) called "asymmetric fast transients," from cheng to ch'i are straightforward. Just fire the ch'i when the time is right. The jarring transition jerks opponents off balance mentally (sometimes physically) and sets them up for the exploitation to follow.

It is not difficult to see that the rapid shift from the expected to the unexpected--unleashing the ch'i--will work much better if the instructions to do so are largely implicit, flowing quickly and smoothly from similar implicit orientations among the individual team members. It is difficult, in fact, to see it working at all through layers of bureaucracy, endless meetings, and coordination of detailed written instructions.

Cheng/ch'i maneuvers are difficult to pull off against an opponent well versed in strategy. But when they succeed, the results are worth the effort. One of Boyd'sfavorite strategists, the 17th century samurai Miyamoto Musashi (trans. 1982), whose Book of Five Rings is still studied in both military and business schools, observed that such transients will produce a period, though perhaps only a moment, of confusion, hesitation, surprise, even debilitating shock and disorientation. During that period, when the opponent does not have an accurate understanding of the situation or the ability to formulate a coherent concept for dealing with it, we can act with little fear of effective counter-action. For this reason, some strategists including commentators on Sun Tzu, the Japanese of the samurai period, and Boyd in our day have raised the study of cheng/ch'i to the level of art.

Destruction and Creation

"To comprehend and cope with our environment we develop mental patterns of concepts of meaning. The purpose of the paper, Destruction and Creation, is to sketch out how we destroy and create these patterns to permit us to both shape and be shaped by this changing environment. In this sense, the discussion also literally shows why we cannot avoid this kind of activity if we intend to survive on our own terms. 

The activity is dialectic in nature generating both disorder and order that emerges as changing and expanding universe of mental concepts matched to a changing and expanding universe of observed reality."

Studies of human behavior reveal that the actions we undertake as individuals are closely related to survival, more importantly, survival on our own terms. Naturally, such a notion implies that we should be able to act relatively free or independent of any debilitating external influences--otherwise that very survival might be in jeopardy. In viewing the instinct for survival in this manner we imply that a basic aim or goal, as individuals, is to improve our capacity for independent action.

In a real world of limited resources and skills, individuals and groups form, dissolve, and reform their cooperative or competitive postures in a continuous struggle to remove or overcome physical and social environmental obstacles. 

Naturally, such a combination of real world scarcity and goal striving to overcome this scarcity intensifies the struggle of individuals and groups to cope with both their physical and social environments.

Against such a background, actions and decisions become critically important. Actions must be taken over and over again and in many different ways. Decisions must be rendered to monitor and determine the precise nature of the actions needed that will be compatible with the goal. To make these decisions implies that we must be able to form mental concepts of observed reality, as we perceive it, and be able to change these concepts as reality itself appears to change. The concepts can then be used as decision-models for improving our capacity for independent action. Such a demand for decisions that literally impact our survival causes one to wonder: How do we generate or create the mental concepts to support this decision making activity?

There are two ways in which we can develop and manipulate mental concepts to represent observed reality: we can start from a comprehensive whole and break it down to its particulars or we can start with the particulars and build towards a comprehensive whole. Saying it another way, but in a related sense, we can go from the general-to-specific or from the specific-to-general. General-to-specific is related to deduction, analysis, and differentiation, while specific-to-general is related to induction, synthesis, and integration. To continue reading see Destruction and Creation.

In Episode Three we will cover Mental Models in detail, as Mental Models are key to Orientation. This will connect the work of cognitive psychologist Gary Klein to Boyd's OODA loop. 

Additional Resources

John Boyd Compendium