The ODA and OODA stances

After writing a bit about principles and tensions, I thought I’d switch tracks and go with something slightly different. Philosophy meets strategy in this story about how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us.
I’d like to start by making a distinction between two different ways in which we place ourselves in our environment. The first one we will call the ODA stance and we’ll name the second the OODA stance. I’ll explain the names shortly.

📈 The ODA stance

The ODA stance  is fairly common and broadly applied. In this stance, we see ourselves situated in our environment and able to perceive our environment directly. When we act on our environment, we observe changes, make decisions, and act again. This cycle – let’s call it the ODA loop (Observe, Decide, Act) – is our way to navigate the environment.

In many situations, the ODA loop surprisingly well. We observe customer behavior, we decide on the change we need to make to our product to adapt to this behavior, and then we make that change. Because we can see the environment around us (the Observe part), we can make plans, create OKRs, make Gantt charts, and proceed forth with confidence.

When in the ODA stance, it is all about making the right decisions. To make sure our actions yield the outcomes that we desire, our decisions have to be correct. If our organization’s narratives rotate around effectiveness of decision-making, it’s very likely that we’re in the ODA stance.

Because of that, organizations in the ODA stance are usually program-heavy. They trend toward rails and cranks. Rails are processes and practices that ensure that only correct decisions are made. Cranks are tools that to make sure that following the right processes and practices is as easy as turning the crank. When I am in the ODA stance, I have this firm belief that if I put down enough rails and create ergonomic enough cranks, I can solve any problem at scale.

The ODA stance will start to feel insufficient and missing ingredients when we get blindsided by an unanticipated change. When our plans and projections get swept away by a disruptive innovation or a newly discovered challenge, we begin to struggle.

Something feels off. It often feels like someone or something is deceiving us. Organizations tend to react to this feeling in various ways. Sometimes, the guilty parties are identified and dismissed. Sometimes, the external entities are deemed antagonistic and troops are rallied to defend the fort. Very often, the disruption is dismissed as a blip, an outlier that’s not worth paying attention to. In most cases, the whole ordeal is forgotten. Until it happens again.

Technological innovation really messes with the ODA stance. Every new change brings chaos, the uncomfortable time when things stop making sense. The best thing we can do, it seems, is to hang on for our dear lives and wait out the turbulence. Unfortunately, the frequency of storms only seems to increase.

Unsurprisingly, the ODA stance organizations experiencing the storms intuitively lean into even more rails and cranks. They strive to create better decision-making processes, document practices more precisely, and enforce more stringently that they are followed.

🌀The OODA stance

After getting bruised by the turbulence a few too many times, a new stance tends to emerge. Speaking from experience, we rarely grasp the idea and adopt this stance immediately. It takes actual experiential scars to arrive at it.

The OODA stance discards the idea of perceiving the environment directly. Instead, we insert this concept of a mental model between our observations and our decisions. This mental model is what, back in the ODA stance, we mistook for the environment.

In this stance, observations stream into our model, and continuously update this model, causing us to orient – to change our understanding of our environment. When we see an observation, we orient, then make decisions, then act. Helpfully, a fellow named John Boyd already coined the term for this cycle: the OODA loop.

The addition of an extra “O” to the ODA loop from the previous stance implies a more humble posture toward the environment. We do not know what the environment looks like. We may never have a full grasp of it. We only have observations as clues. We try to cobble these observations as best we can into a model of the environment, and then try to guess what the environment will do next by using our model to make these predictions.

It’s a productive kind of humility. Instead of beginner’s humility, where we are too timid to make predictions because we are alarmed by our own ignorance, with productive humility we admit that the environment is likely too complex for us to grok it fully, yet we have tools to navigate this complexity.

Organizations operating in the OODA stance focus on bettering their mental models. They recognize that the key to making good decisions stems from their ability to maintain mental models that result in good predictions.
This recognition usually leads to three types of investments:

1️⃣ Sensing. The OODA stance craves observation. Productive humility dictates that external sensing is paramount. We put in a lot of effort to ensure that information from outside of the organization (and the inside!) flows as freely as as abundantly as possible. Sensing is not a responsibility limited to a small group of folks with the right job titles, but a daily practice for everyone.

Organizations with the OODA stance encourage the culture of reading and writing, of seeking out novel trends. There are spaces for robust conversations about these trends and tools to plug into the flow easily. 

2️⃣ Flexibility. When we’re in the OODA stance, we want to ensure that we’re able to orient flexibly. No matter how meticulously maintained and useful so far, mental models are only based on past observations. Any new disconfirming evidence must be treated as a signal that the model might need an update. 

Organizations in the OODA stance have a healthy fear of seeing it all wrong. They build tripwires and warning lights into their processes, and treat challenges to established mental models as gifts, rather than annoyances. Coming from this organization’s leader, “Prove me wrong” is not a threat, but a plea.

In contrast with the ODA-stance organizations, it’s not the speed of the decision-making, but rather the agility of adjusting course that is valued and developed.

3️⃣ Shared mental model space. Organizations that favor the OODA stance nurture shared mental models. A funny thing: when we adopt the OODA stance, we recognize that everyone has their own mental model that they use to make predictions. Lived experiences, culture and upbringing, all contribute to a massive kaleidoscope of mental models of individuals across the organization. When looking at the same environment, we are seeing slightly different things, often without knowing it.

Contemplating this notion can feel overwhelming. The whole post-modernist movement might have risen out of that. To get past the “is there really a real reality?” line of inquiry, we lean into productive humility. It is clear that a collection of individuals of greater diversity of perspectives will likely have parts of a larger mental model amongst them. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle.

The trick is to assemble this puzzle. In the OODA stance, we expressly cultivate spaces where people can share their experiences, and have confidence that their perspective will be listened to and incorporated into the bigger picture. Collectively, we learn how to overcome the discomfort of others seeing something entirely different from what is plainly obvious to us.

☯️ Compare and contrast

Both stances have their utility. The OODA stance takes a lot more self-discipline and accumulated experience – the scars! – to acquire and hold. Because of that, the ODA stance is the default choice for most organizations.

Particularly in environments that are very familiar, don’t change very much, or change in monotone ways (like seasons), the ODA stance can work great. A good way to think of it is that when we don’t need to Orient ourselves a lot within an environment, we can simply omit the middle “O” from the OODA loop.

The ODA stance brings industrial scale. I might even argue that one can’t have industrial scale without leaning toward the ODA stance. We can only contemplate large-scale endeavors only when our model of environment is so sound and well-embedded across the organization that we don’t even think about it. To make a well-functioning bureaucracy, one needs a well-established system of governance.

On the other hand, in novel environments and environments that change rapidly, where the existing mental models keep failing to predict useful outcomes, the OODA stance becomes necessary. The ODA stance is simply blind to all the novelty, experiencing it as utter chaos. This is when it becomes necessary to decouple our mental models from the environment – and embrace the weird and wild ride of the OODA loop.

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