The OODA Loop

One of the lenses for which I tend to reach frequently is the OODA loop. First articulated by John Boyd in the context of combat, it’s found its way into various other spheres of strategic thinking. The way I hold it is probably different from how The Mad Major intended, because I apply it in non-confrontational contexts. Here’s the basics.

Conceptually, our interaction with the environment outside can be viewed as this continuous cycle of observing, orienting, deciding, and acting — also known as the OODA loop.  

When we observe, we try to gather information about the environment. What is happening? What are the circumstances? What are the changes? Trends? What are the constraints?

Then, like clockwork, we move on to orienting, or making sense of what we’ve observed. We try to look at all of the existing information we might have, smash it with the new one, and synthesize a model of what’s happening. 

Once we’ve convinced ourselves that this is indeed the model, we decide. We try to roll the model forward in time and predict what will happen next, forming our hypothesis for the final step. 

Once we have the hypothesis, we act within the environment. The all-important feedback loop takes us back to the first step. Acting is just a test of our hypothesis, and we need a way to keep refining that hypothesis. 

So we jump back into observing. What happened after we acted? How did the environment react to it? What does that tell us about it? And on we go, cycling through the OODA loop.

One significant part that I often see missed is that there are actually two interrelated loops. As mentioned above, the environment cycles through a loop along with us. Suppose that you and I are playing a simple turn-based game. Applying the OODA loop lens, I am part of your environment. It’s easy to see how both you and I are cycling through two loops. You observe my actions, I observe yours. We both orient, decide, and act based on the actions of each other. Being turn-based, our game synchronizes our OODA loops. I can act only after you act and so on. Now, imagine that you could take five turns while I could only take one? That would give you a massive advantage. You’d be running … err… loops around me.

This is a valuable insight that’s not easy to grasp when just looking at a picture of a loop. Outside of this cyclical sequence of steps is another loop — the one of the environment.  

If I am cycling in lockstep with the environment, I never have to worry about keeping up. I have the advantage if I am cycling much faster — I can be five steps ahead, anticipating what comes next like a magician. Of course, if my OODA loop cycle is a few times slower than that of the environment, I am like that sloth from Zootopia, hopelessly out of touch with what’s happening: the environment is zooming past me.

It is my experience that these situations are rare and I am not going to spend much time considering them. Instead, I want to study the situation where most organizations find themselves: the two loops cycle at nearly identical speeds, and the organizations struggle to get their OODA loops to go faster. Which brings us to the concept of jank.

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