None of us have any idea what’s coming.
Technology continues to increase the speed of change at a rate the human race has never experienced before. Applications for AI and machine learning are seemingly making their mark in conceivable corner of society. Words like “disruption” are taking on a new meaning and are used to describe the rise and fall of entire industries. Terms like VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), originally a military term used to characterise a conflict zone, are increasingly being used to describe the modern economic marketplace and drawing parallels between it and a battlefield. In such uncertainty and constant change, how do business leaders make effective decisions that will not only see their companies survive but thrive as we move into the future of work?
One method is to examine how decisions are made in the most extreme and uncertain environments – the battlefield. By learning how leaders who make a career out of succeeding in such intensely uncertain and constantly changing environments, where their decisions can literally determine their own survival and that of those they command, one can gain valuable insights they can apply in any modern workplace.
Such a study is one of military mental models. One such model that I used to great effect in my time training as a Section Commander was the OODA Loop.
The OODA Loop
The OODA Loop was a model designed by US Air Force Colonel John Boyd. A veteran of the Korean War, Boyd became one of the great philosopher-warriors of the modern era. His 1961 Aerial Attack Study which outlined the best dogfighting tactics became the “bible of air combat” around the world and his Energy-Maneuverability Theory was key to improvements in the F15 and the developments that made the F16 and A-10 combat aircraft possible.
Boyd was particularly interested in effective decision making in the midst of uncertainty. As you can imagine, this would be incredibly important when it comes to Boyd’s line of work – the realm of air-to-air combat and dogfights. Originally his intent was to understand why some F16 pilots performed better than others in this environment. He came up with a mental model that described what was naturally occurring in seconds, so that it could be used intentionally within the same timeframe. This model of was the OODA Loop and incorporates the four stages shown below.
This model was designed to be simple, quick and intuitive. As such, it does not require in depth explanation to gain a surface level understanding and all that is needed to immediately improve your decision making. By simply reading the questions one might ask themselves at each stage, one begins to build a picture of how this model might be used in many different scenarios – including your workplace.
Where are we at?
What problems exists?
What data do I have?
Interpret the data. What does this mean? Is this the most important data?
What’s my understanding of the situation?
What are my priorities?
What are my biases? How are these influencing my interpretation of the situation?
What is the best course of action?
What will I do?
How will I know I have succeeded?
How will I evaluate my performance?
Monitor your performance and repeat. Like all feedback loop based models, it leads into a repeated process that results in continuous improvement.
How did I go? (Observe)
What did I learn? (Orient)
How will I do things differently? (Decide)
Go for it again. (Act)
This model was designed to be used in a dogfight, where pilots are constantly trying to outwit one another in order to shoot down their opponent. Never sure what an opponent might do, uncertainty was a key factor in that scenario. Key to the successful use of this model is to make sure with each repetition of the OODA Loop, a pilot observes the changes in the scenario (where his opponent is) and re-orients to those changes before deciding on the best course of action.
Getting Inside Another’s OODA Loop
Once pilots began understanding and applying this model, they began using it not only to improve their own decision making, but to defeat their opponent’s. Boyd describe this as getting inside your opponent’s OODA Loop. The premise was that this process was occurring sub-consciously for their opponent, who would be developing a course of action based on their own expectations (part of their orientation) of how the scenario will play out – i.e. how they expected a pilot to manoeuvre based on where they observed him in context of the dogfight. By intentionally flying in a manner unexpected by their opponents, pilots would be able to render their opponent’s orientation irrelevant and course of action inadequate. In this way, the OODA Loop shifted air-to-air combat from a contest of skilled flying into a psychological game of chess.
In creating this model, Boyd was in effect applying two of my maxims. First, “We are controlled by what we are not aware of.” By understanding the decision making process he was raising a pilot’s awareness so that he could control the decision-making rather than be controlled by it. Second, “Only when we clearly are articulate it can we intentionally action it.” By helping pilots clearly articulate how they could make decisions, he was assisting pilots be intentional about their decision making mid-air.
What makes environments uncertain is their dynamic nature. They are constantly changing. What makes the OODA Loop so effective in the midst of uncertainty is that it constantly requires one to observe how the environment and their position in it has changed and reorient towards it. Whether it is the positioning of an enemy aircraft, the positioning of companies in an economic market, or the positioning of individuals within the internal politics of an organisation, the OODA Loop can be applied to make and continually improve decision making and frustrate the decision making of competitors.
While many of us can’t relate to the thrill, pressure and uncertainty of a dogfight, most will be able to relate to having a competitor in the business world. How are you observing them? How are you orienting towards them? Potentially even more important to ask, how are they observing and orienting towards you? What are they expecting you to do and what can you do to get inside their OODA Loop to gain a competitive advantage?
If that was the extent of the model, then John Boyd and the OODA Loop would have made a significant impact and providing a competitive advantage for all who use it. But Boyd had grander vision for the model.
The OODA Loop System
In essence, Boyd created a system of learning that provides a strategy to win in head-to-head contests in any uncertain environment – whether on the battlefield or in the business arena. Later on in his career he drew the following diagram to illustrate the extent to which the OODA Loop could be taken to be incredibly intentional about effective decision making in changing environments.
As you can see the OODA Loop evolved to being a complex system of learning. Without going into depth on every component, let me make a few observations.
Observation and Open Systems
A key component to the success of this system was the constant return to observation. In observing change and gathering new information, the OODA Loop is an open system. Many mental models are closed systems of thinking, operating on fixed information and understanding. However as soon as the environment changes, the closed system becomes less relevant and effective. In a world where technology is causing the most rapid changes throughout history, to operate using a closed system relegates one as irrelevant. One must always be taking in new information, keeping abreast of changes and making informed decisions accordingly.
While it it vital to operate from an open system and be gathering, evaluating and using new information from our rapidly changing world, in the age of Big Data, we can be faced with too much information, incomplete information or get stuck focusing on the wrong information. Being able to identify the right information and orient towards it is crucial. In commenting on Boyd’s work, Frans Osinga writes, “It is not necessarily the one with more information who will come out victorious, it is the one with better judgement, the one who is better equipped at discerning patters.”
Orientation Is The Key
How does one develop good judgement? By the way in which they orientate. John Boyd considered orientation to be the most important of the four stages of the model. He is quotes as describing it as the “Schwerpunkt of the Loop” (German word for Blitzkrieg). It is here where the interpretation and understanding occurs. This is where who we are and the pre-existing mental models influence how we view, understand and ultimately determine how we interact with the world. This is just as true at the organisational level as it is with individuals. By being aware of these influences and ensuring we are always looking to adapt and correct during the orientation stage, we increase the quality of effective decision making in uncertain and dynamic environments.
“Orientation is just a state you’re in; it’s a process. You’re always orienting.” – John Boyd
In a world where change is so rapid and environments are increasingly describes by their VUCA characteristics, applying this battle tested mental model can assist individuals, teams and organisations to improve their decision making and gain a competitive advantage. Like any good military model, its effective in high pressure scenarios requiring quick decision and action, is just as effective in facilitating in depth strategic planning in more controlled situations and applies in all environments ranging from the battlefield to the boardroom. I encourage you to try applying it in your workplace today.
If you currently use any other mental models in your workplace, I’d love to hear what they are and how you use them. Please share in the comments below.