Can a fighter pilot can teach us something about decision-making? For a long time I viewed a decision as a point-in-time event. It seemed pretty straightforward – gather the pertinent facts, consider them and then make the decision. I was much more concerned that the decision was made rather than how it was made; any delay in making a decision would impact my project schedule and I sure didn’t want that to happen. Over the years I learned to better prepare the decision makers, and I learned to build some slack into the schedule around decision milestones. It wasn’t until I looked back at some of the decisions made, by both myself and others, and realized that while some very good decisions were made, there were quite a few that were sub-optimal, and other decisions were just plain bad. I wondered if following a generic decision making process or framework could improve the quality of decisions. This brings us to John Boyd. John Boyd was a fighter pilot who served in the Korean War. He was also a mathematician, an aircraft designer, a military analyst, a historian and a philosopher. His accomplishments include being:

  • Widely acknowledged as being the best fighter pilot in the history of the USAF
  • An air-to-air combat tactician
  • Directly responsible for design of the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-18 Hornet
  • Indirectly responsible for the design of the A-10 Thunderbolt
  • A military strategist – one of the primary planners of Desert Storm (the 1991 invasion of Iraq)
  • A major contributor to the study of decision theory

His work on decision theory started when he looked at the outcomes of aerial dogfights between the American F-86 and the Russian MIG-15 in the later stages of the Korean War. In comparing the two planes, the MIG-15 had a higher top speed, a greater operational ceiling and a better turning ratio; three capabilities that should have stacked the odds in favour of the Russian plane. But the actual kill ratios were close to 14:1 in favour of the American plane. An easy assumption to make was that the skill of the American pilots was the deciding factor, but that not the case. The study concluded that there were two design elements of the F-86 that resulted in the lopsided results: a bubble canopy and a fully hydraulic control system. The bubble canopy gave the pilot better visibility and allowed him to gather more complete information before he made a decision. The hydraulic control system allowed the plane to react more quickly to the pilot’s commands once the decision was made. The combination of better informed decisions and accelerated execution resulted in devastating superiority in combat situations. Boyd continued with this train of thought; over the ensuing years he developed a decision support construct that he called ‘The OODA Loop’. It’s also known as ‘the decision cycle’. OODA is an acronym for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. Boyd’s belief was that decision making occurs through the execution of a series of iterations through this loop, where the decision-maker repeatedly evaluates his situation, makes decisions, acts and re-evaluates and continues until the outcome is reached. His focus was on military matters and more specifically on fighter pilots; he was documenting the optimal process that a pilot should follow in determining his circumstances, gathering and evaluating information, determining the proper course of action and taking it. Success was determined by the validity of the information, accurate evaluation and rapid decision making and execution. It’s sometimes simplified into a diagram that looks like this: OODA Loop Unfortunately this diagram is a gross over-simplification. (It also looks an awful lot like Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.) When Boyd finally got around to drawing the diagram, it looked like this:

Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OODA.Boyd.svg

Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OODA.Boyd.svg

The first time I saw this model I wondered if it could be applied to projects or to change management, particularly transformational change. Is there a business application? One thing that is apparent is that the OODA loop is misnamed; it’s not a loop, it’s a network of loops that connect each of the stages in various ways. Another thing that may not be so apparent is that the model is much more reactive than proactive. The goal of the OODA loop is more tactical than strategic. It’s not used to define and attain specific objectives – used it’s to increase the quality of decisions and the speed with which they are made. And it’s worth noting that while it has a military heritage the terminology leans more to the scientific method (which is appropriate, because Boyd used such varied sources as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem in the development of his theory).

Observe

The observe stage is fairly straightforward – it’s gathering information about the current situation. It looks at the environment, external information, internal information – I would call it a ‘current state model’. From the military perspective it’s concerned about what both you and your enemy are doing. From a business perspective it’s more about your organization’s vision, strategies and capabilities, the marketplace and what your competitors are doing. Think about the contents of a SWOT matrix – that’s the type of information that needs to be collected. One of the challenges of the observation phase is making sure that your observations are complete and ensuring that you are focusing on the correct information.

Orient

At one level the orientation phase is equivalent to the traditional analysis phase of a project or change initiative; it can be viewed as a situational analysis. However in Boyd’s model it goes deeper than that; it becomes a complex assessment or interpretation of the observations previously made, viewed through several different lenses. He realized that our analysis is distorted by our previous experiences, our heritage, traditions and value systems. They act as screens that filter out some of the information. Care must be taken to ensure that information isn’t filtered out for the wrong reason. The OODA model requires objectivity; it’s required to cope with our inherent biases and predispositions. This ensures that all information is considered, even that which doesn’t necessarily fit in our world-view. Ultimately, the goal of this phase is to analyze all the information and synthesize it into one or more actionable plans. Here’s a personal example.   My first car was a used 1971 Datsun 240Z. When it ran it was a great little car. Unfortunately it spent far too much time not running; it was spectacularly unreliable, in need of constant repair and was a colossal (and expensive) headache. I was not that sorry to see it go. Fast forward thirty-three years. I’m shopping for a new car. Do I go into a Nissan dealership? No, I don’t. Even after all that time the memory of the 240Z causes me to deselect Nissan. It’s neither reasonable nor rationale, but there it is. The amount of time spent in the orientation phase is another critical consideration. Too little time and the analysis and synthesis efforts are not adequately informed, leading to unreliable scenarios. Too long a time (‘analysis paralysis’) and the observations lose their validity; too much has changed between when the observations were made and when they were acted upon, resulting in scenarios that address the wrong things.

Decide

The decision phase is just that; choosing the best scenario from those that were developed. The criteria could be anything and may include a combination of risk/reward, ROI, time to market or any other of a host of variables. It’s considering how your enemy (or competitor, marketplace or maybe even your own organization) will react to the change and then picking the scenario with the best fit. What I find interesting is that Boyd has used the word ‘hypothesis’ in conjunction with the word ‘decide’. To me this implies, in a manner similar to the scientific method, that the decision needs to be tested. It predicts an outcome but the results need to be examined in the next phase before the decision can be considered correct. And this in itself is interesting, because it’s been my experience that individuals and organizations don’t normally test their decisions; they just assume that the decisions are correct and continue as if they are, sometimes even after it’s apparent that they aren’t!

Act

The act phase executes the decision. It’s testing the hypothesis and evaluating the result. It is only after action has been taken that the correctness of the decision can be properly evaluated. This evaluation as well as all the other information gathered during the execution of the cycle are captured for use in the next iteration; this closes the loop and either completes the cycle or beings the next execution. There’s one other aspect of the model that’s worth examining – ‘Explicit Command and Control’. In the military these could be considered the chain of command and rules of engagement; in business they are organization charts, regulations, policies, procedures and operating principles. Sometimes command and control has the effect of short-circuiting the decision cycle by limiting the solution space and reducing the number of possible scenarios. If can also cause problems by micromanaging and overcontrolling, or by abdicating its responsibility and not managing. Command and control also monitors execution of the decision cycles to make sure that things are progressing smoothly. It’s important to note that there is not just one decision cycle occurring at any one time; there are any number of decisions cycles occurring simultaneously. I visualize them almost like a stack of pancakes.   Everyone is involved in a cycle – from the general down to the private (or the CEO to the mail room clerk). Part of command and control is ensuring that these concurrent cycles are aligned and are executing in harmony.

Speed – The Key Factor

The key to success is speed. The OODA loop must be executed rapidly. In the military application of the OODA loop, the key to victory is getting inside your adversary’s decision cycle; making him react to what you are doing until he is unable to continue, at which point he is defeated or quits the field. Victory favors the side that can recognize changes in a dynamic environment (Observe), analyze and synthesize appropriate responses (Orient), choice a response (Decide) and execute it (Act) and do so rapidly and decisively. It’s no different in business. Organizations that can adapt to dynamic situations and that can execute their plans rapidly have much greater likelihood of success.

Projects and the OODA Loop

What do we need to consider if we want to implement a decision making model like the OODA Loop in our own projects or change initiatives? When we observe, we need to observe as completely as possible. Capturing just a subset of the available information provides a false sense of confidence and will likely result in problems as the process moves forward. It’s a lot like the parable of the blind men and the elephant; you may understand part of the situation but you will never perceive the complete whole. When we orient, we must continue the holistic approach and take a comprehensive look at all the information that is available, including our own perceptions and biases, and build one or more plans of action. In doing so we triage the information, deciding what is essential (and should be retained) and what is irrelevant (and can be discarded). Make sure that outlier information is not discarded just because it is an outlier; make the decision to discard information a conscious one and not just a convenient one. Decision balances the risk and reward of the plan(s) of action and selects the best option. The longer the decision takes the higher the risk; what we have observed may no longer be true, the conclusions of our analysis may be based on incorrect information, the plans developed may not be addressing the correct issues. And in order to manage risk the decision should almost always be tested in a controlled environment before being implemented in a more widespread manner. Then we act – quickly and decisively. Allow me to go off on a tangent for a moment.   In his book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Gary Klein describes a study that was performed on the decision making by firefighters; specifically the process that captains used to decide how best to fight any given fire. The assumption was that the captain would develop multiple approaches and choose the best one. But that’s not what happens. After arriving at the scene the captain quickly assesses both the fire and the resources he has on hand; based on his assessment he immediately constructs a single plan that he believes to be best. He then takes this approach and tests it mentally. If it passes he immediately implements it; if it fails he tries to adjust the approach to compensate for the failure, and if he cannot he constructs a new approach, continuing the iterations until he arrives at an acceptable approach. Klein also documents at least one situation where a volunteer firefighter brigade spent 3 days trying to extinguish a refinery fire before calling in professionals.   The professionals put out the fire the next day. Based on this, I think it’s valid to assume that expertise is a requirement for effective decision making. Working with an individual who has experienced similar situations is a tremendous asset to the decision making process. They have learned what is material and what isn’t and can add their knowledge to the information gathered and the analysis and synthesis performed. Their expertise allows them to recognize conditions and qualities that may otherwise go unnoticed. This knowledge doesn’t even have to reside in an individual; any formal ‘body of knowledge’ can fulfill the same role. Finally, speed. The decision process needs to be executed with a sense of urgency. There are constraints to how fast the process can be proceed, but to be successful those constraints can’t be administrivia, bureaucracy or individuals who, for whatever reason, are unable to make a decision. Decision making is serious business. In a military setting good decision making can be a matter of life and death. In business it could mean the success or failure of your career, your project or, in some extreme situations, your business. Good decisions are more likely to happen if a decision-making process is followed; any framework is better than none. I think John Boyd’s OODA loop is worthy candidate for your consideration. John Boyd died in 1997 at the age of 70. He was buried with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Interested in learning more about John Boyd? Can I suggest: The John Boyd Compendium – http://dnipogo.org/john-r-boyd/ The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security by Grant Tedrick Hammond Boyd: the fighter pilot who changed the art of war by Robert Coram photo credit: mrBunin via photopin cc

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