November 2020

OODA Loop and Bias Toward Action

by Tom Deierlein

How would you like to beat the competition 9 times out of 10?

Stimulus and Response. Observe. Orient. Decide. Act. We actually go through this process subconsciously thousands of times each day.

I was just a dumb Infantry Grunt and so not as indoctrinated and trained as pilots and tankers on the OODA Loop. But over the past couple of months I have found myself referencing and using this important yet simple concept to make quality and quick decisions.

According to Wikipedia The OODA Loop is the cycle observe–orient–decide–act, developed by military strategist and U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd. Colonel Boyd trained his pilots based upon his observations of human reaction time and as a result his pilots had a 10 to 1 kill ratio over the superior Mig-15’s. Decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe–orient–decide–act. An entity (whether an individual or an organization) that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby "get inside" the opponent's decision cycle and gain the advantage. Boyd applied the concept to the combat operations process, often at the operational level during military campaigns. The approach explains how agility can overcome raw power. It is especially applicable to cyber security and cyberwarfare. The OODA loop has become an important concept in litigation, business, law enforcement, and military strategy.

In order for the OODA loop to work in business there must be speed. A Bias Toward Action. Leaders must develop a bias toward action in the organization. I encourage this at ThunderCat in my Personal Leadership Philosophy which I sit, review and discuss with each new employee. I am not suggesting shoot from the hip and ‘trust your gut’ without taking time to review the facts and options. General Patton articulated this balancing act well:

"A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week." —George Patton

Making quality decisions and being right is just as important as being fast. Use the critical Observe and Orient part of the loop for that. Some people are geared for fast action and quick decisions and are willing to live with mistakes and adjust on the fly. Some people like to understand and study steps, process, previous similar projects and opportunities, others enjoy thinking about the endless possibilities, options, and "what ifs’? Guess what – you need all of those folks on your team. This isn’t about ready, fire, aim. This is about ready, aim, fire. All four parts of the process are equally important. Blazing fast, bad choices is not the goal - rapid, consistently good decisions is the goal.

In reading the book Radical Inclusion by the unlikely pairing of a vegan UC Berkley professor and a retired 4-Star General I found some useful insights. As you might guess from the title, the book is about letting go of control, reducing barriers to belonging and membership and being more inclusive so that you can make better quality decisions. Yes, getting more people involved in the observe and orient stages may seem like it will add time—but it will also add to the quality of insights. They actually warn against ‘Paralysis by Analysis’ and reinforce the importance of creating a ‘bias toward action’. Their "Leadership Principle #4: Develop a Bias Toward Action" goes on to state "A bias for action is the recognition that facts are vulnerable and that speed matters in the era of digital echos." So even a book that focused on the importance of leaders involving others and being inclusive promotes speed. The chapter closes with a final warning, "Without it, companies and countries will simply be outpaced."

So, use the OODA loop to give yourself and your organization a competitive advantage with fast quality decisions:

Observe - Constantly monitor the marketplace for information and insights. (EVERYONE)

Orient - Get that information into the hands of key decision makers so they can begin to gather resources and start movement toward the desired outcome or change (EVERYONE)

Decide – Be inclusive, not exclusive. Review options, review the information, get feedback from team. But then be prepared and have the courage to make a decision. (LEADERS)

Act - Be bold. Take the steps you need for your team to be successful. (EVERYONE)

"Orientation isn’t just a state you’re in; it’s a process. You’re always orienting." -John Boyd

People also talk about innovation as a competitive advantage. YES. Great companies leverage this OODA Loop to observe the market, gain deeper insights than competitors, orient the product and marketing team toward that market need, decide to fill that demand and take action to develop and launch that product or service long before the competition has had time to even process the market feedback.

The OODA Personal Challenge

Yes, our environment and the pace of change can be overwhelming. Yes, we live in a VUCA world — Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. We are being bombarded with data, not information, it is hard to discern facts from opinion, and the pace of innovation and change is staggering. UGH! But there are a couple things that can calm you down:

  1. EVERYONE is living in this VUCA world. You are NOT alone – your boss, your teammates, your partners, and your competitors are all living in this VUCA world too. Those that can stay calm and focused will excel. Think about those top NCAA prospects – some adjust to the new NFL, NBA, MLB pace, speed, and level of competition and others don’t. Like COL Boyd and his team, have your mind be your superior weapon. Make faster and better decisions than your competitors.
  2. You now have a VERY simple tool to keep you calm and focused on where you at; what you are seeing; and what you should do about it. This tool is actually designed specifically for complex, confusing, and fast moving events. OODA - stimulus and response. Like elite athletes – you let your mind slow things down all around you so that you can process and react faster. Calm mind, fast feet.

The OODA Leadership Challenge

What can you do to enable every single person on your team and turn them into a powerful ever-vigilant competitive and customer intelligence gathering machine?

How do we create an effective communication and feedback channel to capture and ingest that intelligence to quickly get it in the hands of decision makers?

What processes and protocols are in place to create a culture where both speed and accuracy of decisions is rewarded? Build an organization where people are empowered, energized, and excited to make informed, rapid decisions and are not paralyzed by fear of failure.

Ready, Aim, Fire!

Further Reading

A retired Marine and elite fighter pilot breaks down the OODA Loop, the military decision-making process that guides 'every single thing' in life via Business Insider

Boyd’s O.O.D.A Loop and How We Use It via Tracy A. Hightower

OODA LOOP: What You Can Learn from Fighter Pilots About Making Fast and Accurate Decisions via Farnam Street

The OODA loop is a practical concept designed to be the foundation of rational thinking in confusing or chaotic situations.

"What is strategy? A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests." -John Boyd