OODA and Intention

The ability to make predictions is an astounding quality of retained-mode systems. Unlike the imaginary immediate-mode beings, we can start seeing what might be. And we humans are blessed/cursed with the ability to go one step beyond that: we can imagine alternatives. We create multitudes of “what might bes”. This is where the true significance of the Decide step becomes evident — we need to choose among the many things that “might be” to pick the Action that will do … what?

Turns out, we have preferences. We want some alternatives more than others. In our minds, the possible futures aren’t equal. A way to think of it is that we have a preference toward a certain state of the environment that we are imagining, as compared to our perceived current state. Instead of having just one model of the environment, we carry two: “what is” and “what should be.” The sum of our preferences manifests as intention, or our desire to move “what is” toward “what should be.”  

Every team is born and continues to exist around some objective. The objective itself may change over time, but it is the presence of this objective that holds the team together. This team, with some understanding of the environment —  “what is” — sets out on a journey of applying intention, to influence the environment toward some state, or “what should be.” From this perspective, the OODA loop is about steering — shifting the environment into some desired state.

Whoa, this is kind of a big insight, isn’t it? We’ve been walking around the OODA loop for a bit now, and — boom! — here we arrive at this moment. What is the point of the OODA loop if not saying: “Hey environment! I have some ideas about you. Let’s dance.” Within an OODA loop, intentionality is always present. There is no need for the OODA loop without it.

This whole steering business doesn’t come without downsides. Most individuals and certainly many teams don’t have the “what is” and “what should be” models clearly separated. One of my friends has a habit of pointing out the distinction, occasionally blowing people’s minds. This lack of separation commonly leads to the “what should be” model influencing the Observe and Orient steps. When Observing, we tend to filter out things that shouldn’t be there, and when Orienting, fit things that should be.

Guess what that does to our prediction error rate? That’s right. The more we the “what should be” model bleeds into our “what is” model, the higher is the error rate.

We live in a world where it’s hard not to notice the instances of conflation of “what is” and “what should be.” From conspiracy theories to magnetic personalities creating “reality distortion fields” around them, to filter bubbles, we are surrounded by them. We even have a term to describe some of these instances: cognitive biases. 

At the same time, this conflation can be productive. A team believing that they can ship a product may indeed ship a product, despite the overwhelming odds. Had they not mixed their “what is” and “what should be,” they would have seen right through their silly naivete at the start and folded early. Lucky for them, the environments are steerable – they can shift to “what should be” under certain conditions. The trick of any team lead is to recognize and hold the delicate balance between productive and unproductive blending of “what is” and “what should be.” Another friend of mine calls this balancing “dancing with delusion,” and I love how well it captures the nature of the process.

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