Oodles of OODA loops

Our discovery of the inner OODA loop was cool, but I bet you’re thinking… just one other loop? That seems fishy. There’s got to be more, right?  Throughout the story, I’ve been blithely jumping back and forth between the individual and collective OODA loops, and that was another hint. An organization runs an OODA loop, and so does each person in it.  Individually, we also have more than one thing going – and all these add up. Typically, at this point in a typical OODA loop learning journey, we would point at this abundance of loops and start stacking them up neatly or nest them into a concentric-looking diagram. However, my experience is that OODA loops are a bit more organic. They tangle and jive. Some just a little, the others quite a bit. Some cycle unaware of each other, others arrange into intricate dependency barnacles. Some are short and savage. Some are long and gentle. All of it is happening at once, in one massive writhing mess.

In this jungle, there are multitudes of models, both “what is” and “what should bes,” each with their own intention, within individuals, across individuals, thoroughly mixed in any given group of them. Though trying to reason about OODA loops as if they were perfectly arranged in a structure is tempting, it is rarely effective. Even just trying to enumerate them in an actual org feels like falling into a Coastline paradox: we eventually drop our pencils in awe at how anything is working at all. OODA loops aren’t meant to be tabulated, and they will evade our attempts to do so. I can catch a sight of one or two, but eventually, I have to treat the rest as “the environment” – and that can get frustrating, especially when trying to apply the OODA loop insights in larger teams and organizations.

The good news is that we might have a secret decoder ring for this puzzle. Over the course of these series, we spotted a bunch of moving parts and their causal relationships within an OODA loop. And despite the fact that the exact configuration of the loops in our team will continue to flummox us, we can reason about them as a whole. Think of it as murmurations of birds that can look incredibly complex (and stunningly beautiful), but are actually rooted in a few simple rules. And I have an inkling that we found a few of these during our adventure.

First, we have to give up on micro-jank. When looking at OODA loops in aggregate, we simply can’t sense it. At that level, micro-jank is just noise – something that we only notice once it accrues past a certain point. However, if we are careful, we can spot the sources of macro jank. They usually look like causal arrow relationships forming a vicious cycle – one thing causes more of another thing, which in turn causes more of the first thing. These are also known as compounding loops, and if you are living in the contemporary times, you are well familiar with their effects. The same way COVID-19 is doing the “smash and grab” with our holiday plans, compounding loops tend to sneak up on people: a thing that looks like nothing at first rapidly balloons into a big deal. If we can discern the underlying causal loop behind these dramatic effects, we can do something about them before they smack us in our faces.

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