Observations on OODA, or Does the Machine Know?

Before you read this blog, watch this great clip from The Office and think about Michael’s situational awareness, decision-making process, and ability to update his “reality baseline!”

There are many theories that attempt to codify the decision-making process. One that has had a big influence on my decision-making approach is Boyd’s “OODA Loop.”

Col. John Boyd was a fighter pilot and military theorist whose analysis (and practice) of aerial combat led him to formulate high-level strategic military theories (including one that formed the basis of the Gulf War military plan) and general cognitive theories, including the OODA Loop, which has since become popular in business and sports.

OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It is Boyd’s shorthand for the way humans interact with and control their environment. The idea is that individuals, businesses, armies, etc. that master the OODA loop gain the advantage.

These are the four simple steps in a dynamic OODA Loop:

  1. Observation: Take in data about the overall situation.
  2. Orientation: Analyze and make judgments about the situation.
  3. Decision: Determine a course of action.
  4. Action: Execute the action, then observe the decision (to start the loop again!)

When engaged in a game, business decision, battle, or otherwise, Boyd insists the successful “get inside the OODA Loop.” One strategy for success is to execute OODA loops faster than opponents, thereby improving situational awareness while the opponent loses effectiveness. Mistakes made by individuals or groups result from old information or mis-guided situational assessments and decisions.

Boyd suggests that organizations that execute the best OODA loops strike a balance between decentralized (and therefore nimble) decision-makers and top echelons that monitor from afar just enough to ensure that lower rank decision-makers adhere to a grand strategy. Not surprisingly, this describes the military hierarchy pretty well!

However, what is not specifically called out in the OODA model is the reflexive, critical thinking that can help refine and improve the connections between the OODA steps. American pragmatist thinkers—Dewey, James, Peirce—have much to say along these lines. Other theories that complicate OODA come from Karl Weick—his “Theory of Sensemaking,” for instance, examines the roles that ambiguity and uncertainty play in observation, analysis, and decision-making.

In fact, I keep in mind Weick’s Theory of Sensemaking at all times because my business requires constant and complex situational awareness, especially when collaborating with other organizations.

Michael from The Office probably should have updated his “reality baseline” rather than blindly trust his TomTom—he made a poor decision in the face of a common sense alternative. Writ large, a silly human error like his can become a colossal groupthink failure!

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