Monday, February 10, 2014


Every once in a while OODA raises its ugly head.  What’s the OODA loop?  I’m glad you asked.

Simple OODA loop
It's a simple loop. Start at Observe with something obtained from the surroundings.  Use Orient to provide stuff you know, think or suspect.  At Decide we choose an action, and Act is doing the act.  We then observe the results and ....

The reality is OODA isn’t ugly.  It’s just that we try to make it the answer it to everything.  I’ve seen it mostly from business consultants, the ones that were previously teaching The Book of Five Rings, written by swordsman Miyamoto Musashi or Transactional Analysis developed by Eric Berne to industries searching for a magic bullet.

You’ll see it in combat training, martial art schools and in books on how to sell.  But what is it?

The OODA loop was developed by “40 second” Boyd. 

Okay, done snickering?

John Boyd was a US Air Force pilot who claimed in any dogfight he could start with you on his six and in 40 seconds he could be on your six and in gun range.  He lived up to that name.

The OODA loop was part of his attempt to explain not the mechanics of putting the plane in that position, but the combat mindset needed to win. 

People talk about running the loop faster than your opponent or competitor, about getting inside the loop, cross-cutting the loop like it was a Rube Goldberg mechanical device.  You turn the handle and stuff comes out.  In reality it’s an internal process by which we change our behavior to get the outcome we want.

Look at kids playing a pick-up softball game and they ask for your help.  Somebody has to play center field.  What do you tell someone who’s never played center field?  Do you tell him to see the hit, calculate the path of the ball, to run to that position where the ball will land, then catch the ball, use the glove on their hand supplemented by other hand to accomplish this?  That comes later as their experience and understanding grows.

What you do is give him a glove and tell him to stand in the field and if the ball flies out to you, catch it without it touching the ground.  If it touches the ground, pick it up and throw it to your teammate standing on the diamond.  

Then you start teaching about playing shallow and playing deep, shifting to the right or left dependent on the batter.  You spend time playing catch to develop those skills and then you start hitting pop-flies and grounders to him.  The player starts to recognize consistent actions as indicated by the batting style, posture, temperament of the batter and pitcher’s ability.  That’s part of the excitement of playing any sport: learning to correctly read the field and act accordingly.  And we still have a lot to go before we get a good pick-up ball game on our hands.

That’s also why the OODA loop isn’t shown in its entirety.

OODA loop with complex connections
This shows some of the factors and connections Boyd tried to map out for a better understanding of the combat mind.

It’s too overwhelming to start from scratch.  Boyd, himself drew a much more complex loop because he listed all the factors and the components of each factor.  His loop construction took up entire chalkboards all the way around the classroom.

The message to us is we don’t have to memorize and practice all these steps because we’re doing most of them already.  In Gavin de Becker’s Gift of Fear, he argues by the age of 30 we have more than 27 years of experience in human nature and we sense abhorrent behavior.  The book even gives you several pre-indicators of a possible criminal attack.  The problem is we don’t listen to that inner voice telling us to avoid a person or situation.

Part of that inner voice is Boyd’s loop rolling through its cycles in our subconscious.  Part of it is our experience telling us we’ve seen or read about outcomes predicted by this behavior.  It isn’t a guarantee.

I just watched a 60’s spy show where the agent gets on the elevator heading to the floor where the bad spies have their HQ.  Three large, beefy, grim-faced men get on the elevator behind him and bracket him back and both sides.  Clearly he’s been caught.

The elevator opens on the floor and the bad guys are waiting for him, naturally.  Our hero steps out and meekly surrenders, he’s completely outnumbered.  The other men stay on the elevator and keep traveling upward:

“Not your men?” He asks.
“No, they are insurance agents on the floor above us.”  She replies.

It took the audience by surprise and helped further the plot.  In this scene, as in real life, not everything is as it appears.

But don’t ignore that inner voice because we’re too civilized.

Our parents, teachers, coaches, ministers have emphasized positive social behavior, and we don’t want to injure a stranger’s feelings, or make someone we hardly know think less of us.  We want to keep the lines of communication open so we sometimes compromise our behavior.  We want to get along so we go along.

Tactical Content?
Fold in the gift of fear with your OODA loop.  Listen to that inner voice that asks “Why is someone coming out of nowhere to flag down my car?”  Start observing hands, body positions, how they’re dressed and what their clothing says about them.  Start thinking, “If I’m mentally uncomfortable, what should I do to make myself comfortable?”  And if it isn’t unreasonable, do it.  

What’s unreasonable?  That’s situational, but telling someone you’ll catch the next elevator with a friend instead of getting on, or that you can’t help them, or that they need to step back is always in good taste.

Start taking those tactics you’ve read about, like parking your car so the driver side has the car between you and store, and applying them.  Do you pause and look in the windows before you go into the restaurant or building?  When you open the door do you look to see what’s going on and who’s inside any room?  Take a little time and watch people.  How do they move, stand, and carry themselves?  Then look for what’s different. 

The more observations you put into the OODA loop the better your outcome will be.

There are some objections to the OODA loop.  Many of them have to do with Observe.  Since you can’t see the person hiding just around the corner, how can start your loop?

The answer is you see the corner.  In the Orient phase (just a name Boyd chose), your conscious and subconscious mind takes your previous experience, the current environment, your ability, any information about the neighborhood you have and comes up with a concept.  That concept might be, “On a 10° January afternoon in the middle of a snowstorm it’s unlikely anyone is waiting to jump me by hiding around the corner.”  

Your decision might be to (listening to that nagging gut voice) to increase reactionary distance, so you take a few steps toward the street, take your hands out of your coat pocket and lift your head up so you can see (another OODA loop) any approaching danger.

OODA loops are just a way to describe the mental process you go through.  The more experience, the more observations, the more skills, both verbal and tool-related you have, the better the loop rolls.

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