“Whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who survives”
- John Boyd (Military Strategist and Pioneer of The OODA Loop) -
With its origins in military strategy (specifically fighter jet dogfight manoeuvres), it’s no surprise that the OODA Loop is a decision tool specifically designed to help you win in competitive environments, and come out on top in situations where is losing is not an option. The OODA Loop is a simple, and yet effective methodology that can be applied to any decision-making process, but especially those where a saturated market exists, and competition is rife.
The OODA Loop is a system that is additionally useful when you or your business is facing rapidly changing circumstances. The current pandemic has resulted in dramatic displacement of working styles, with internal and external company communication shifting quickly, leaving those less able to adapt swiftly at a significant disadvantage.
In this post, we'll explain what the OODA Loop is, why it’s useful in a business context, explore how it can be mapped to the software engineering process, and look into how these mental models allow teams to move with agility in a fast-changing world. Before we explain what the OODA Loop is, it’s important to understand the background of its pioneer, and the origins behind the concept as it provides a context that will be useful when looking to apply this system in a business scenario.
The background to the OODA Loop
The pioneer of the OODA Loop was renowned military strategist John Boyd, who spent much of his military career as a United States Air Force fighter pilot. He was as skilled at flying as he was at strategizing: he went by the nickname of “Forty-Second Boyd” with the long running wager that he could defeat any opponent in simulated air-to-air combat in less than forty seconds.
As his career progressed from fighter pilot to instructor, to consultant at the Pentagon, he began to organize his learnings and thoughts into formalized theories and strategies. He developed what would eventually become the world standard model for aircraft performance (the Energy-Manoeuvrability theory) as well as playing a key part in the strategy behind Operation Desert Storm. His key concept however would be a decision-making framework known as the OODA Loop.
What is the OODA Loop?
During Boyd’s time, much of the theoretical models of conflict focused on attrition and trench warfare, requiring immense resources and massed numbers. However, Boyd found that it was not the bigger, more powerful fighter planes that come out victorious in air-to-air combat, but the smaller, faster ones who demonstrated adept manoeuvres against their enemy pilots.
The OODA loop is an iterative process consisting of four core steps:
1. Observe — Understand the environment
2. Orient — Align on what is important
3. Decide — Agree on a good course of action
4. Act — Do it
Let’s go into these core steps in a bit more detail:
“If we don’t communicate with the outside world–to gain information for knowledge and understanding–we die out to become a non-discerning and uninteresting part of that world.”
The OODA Loop begins, as in any dogfight, with looking at what’s happening around you. In this observation phase, you gather as much data as possible from as many sources as possible. In the cockpit of your F-86 (Boyd’s fighter model) you are seeing the combat situation with your eyes but also through the onboard radar, mission control and other electronic sensors. Whilst being able to rapidly interpret this data is important, being the first party to be aware of their surroundings and gather this data will naturally give you the upper hand and an invaluable first-mover advantage.
“Orientation isn’t just a state you’re in; it’s a process. You’re always orienting.”
The next stage is to orient yourself to the environment you are observing. This is when you make sense of the observations from the previous step, turning data into information, processing the facts and figures for signposting and pertinent data-points. Climbing back into the cockpit, having observed where the enemy is, you look to orient your aircraft into the best possible position having made sense of where you enemy is but also your own skillset, experience and knowledge of the situation. Boyd saw this step as the most crucial part of the OODA Loop since it requires an awareness of your enemy and yourself.
Now, it’s one thing to reposition yourself in a physical space, but doing so in a less tangible dimension like that of a business strategy can require more thought. In this list, Boyd suggests the following areas as focus for effective orientation:
• Cultural traditions: how were you and your opponent trained and educated?
• Genetic heritage: what is your physical match versus your opponent [although in a business scenario this can be paired with cultural traditions to orient yourself against how you might approach a problem relative to your competitor]
• Previous experiences: how have comparable situations played out before?
• New information: Is there anything novel to the situation you haven’t previously seen?
• Analyze and synthesize: Break down the above elements (analyze) and put them together (synthesize) to optimally orient yourself
“To be or to do? Which way will you go?”
The third stage of the OODA loop is to make a choice: decide on the options available and select the best path of action. The options available to you will be based on the previous stages of observation and orientation. So, having observed the enemy aircraft and orient accordingly, a pilot must decide between climbing or diving, turning to meet the threat or running away.
“Decisions without actions are pointless. Actions without decisions are reckless.”
The fourth stage of the OODA Loop is to act, to execute the decision you made in the step before. Integral to this stage is acting quickly - rather than being hung up on perfection, take action swiftly.
“We gotta get an image or picture in our head, which we call orientation. Then we have to make a decision as to what we’re going to do, and then implement the decision….Then we look at the [resulting] action, plus our observation, and we drag in new data, new orientation, new decision, new action, ad infinitum…”
Ultimately, the cycle continues until you observe having either won or lost the situation. If you have defeated the competition, or been defeated, shot down the enemy, or been shot down, it is over: the OODA Loop is complete.
Why is it useful in a business context?
The OODA Loop sharpens the decision-making process by making clear what might otherwise only be assumed. By creating a direct pathway for us to follow, Boyd brought to light a peerless strategy-tool applicable to soldiers and fighter pilots, businesses, and social movements.
Rather than getting wrapped up in details, the OODA Loop asks you how doing various kinds of activities such as data-mining, market research, competitive analysis, and making decisions around products and markets will outmanoeuvre your rivals and put you ahead of the game.
Start to think about the OODA Loop as:
• How much do you observe the marketplace that exists outside your enterprise
• How well are you oriented towards the openings that are presenting themselves
• How you decide to capitalize on those opportunities
• How quickly you take action on the insights gained from the previous steps
• A continuous process
How does this apply to IoT software development?
As we’ve seen, the OODA Loop can be deployed to most, if not all, decision-scenarios. Its background as a way of averting enemy shoot-downs however highlights its additional strengths in risk management, and IoT software development, especially during cutting edge projects is filled with both decisions to be made and risks to be managed.
Because the OODA Loop is such an effectual framework for risk management, it’s extremely applicable to software development in the Internet of Things. Each step allows developers to identify, track and manage the risks that circle the project. Because the OODA Loop is a cyclic process, conclusions on project risk can be refined again and again, even as the risks change over time. Successful implementation of the OODA Loop can further assist project managers in completing their projects within budget and on time.
Let’s look at how each stage of the OODA Loop would apply:
Look to be situationally aware of:
• What customers are requesting
• What levels of technical debt exist?
• Upcoming technical trends
• Partnerships with other companies
• Operational challenges
• Minor but frequent requests
We capture these requests, without judgement to form a backlog of potential tasks. Almost all ideas generated here have some value, and over time they coalesce into larger feature and product bundles.
This is when you create meaning to the observations you’ve made. You’ve probably built a backlog of potential tasks and actions, but to decide on which, prioritisation is key. Some tasks have time critical elements to them: deadlines and release dates shared with customers. Some tasks form part of the critical path and should be eliminated to unblock any other actions. Other tasks may strategically benefit future work, laying the groundwork for further iterations.
This iterative approach to software development rewards rapid engagement and experimentation to de-risk projects. Many smaller segments of work come together for increased rewards.
Find the best position to orient to by asking yourself:
• How valuable is this opportunity?
- To the company
- To clients
• Can we experiment to learn and de-risk?
• How long will this take?
• Is a solution possible?
• Do we know how to solve it?
• Have we solved something similar before?
Once orientated to the problem, you move to the decision phase, where you select the best course of action. If feasible during the decision phase, consult your team members for additional insights and perspectives that they might have gained in the observe and orient stages themselves.
Finally, execute the plan. Engage engineers to work on tasks, but of course be respectful of maker time and flow: proper groundwork means don't have to change much for them, so engineers can work with minimal disruption. Small tasks can mean the whole team remains flexible for the changing environment allowing you to iterate the process on a continuous basis.
Imperative to the OODA Loop is of course, the Loop (after all, it is in the name!). Swift iterations will always come out on top, so the faster you can complete the cycle, the better.
With all these elements, the more complete cycle looks like this:
Why is the OODA Loop especially effective for smaller, more flexible companies?
The best military units are faster than their competitors:
• They observe better and faster
• They orient more quickly towards an opportunity or the enemy
• They decide more quickly
• They act more quickly
The same thing can be applied to enterprise, and as mentioned, the faster and more effectively you can move through this process the better. Smaller, more agile companies can gain a competitive advantage using this process since their ability to make decisions nimbly, adapt to changing situations quicker, and pivot when they need to usually far surpasses that of larger corporations where the decision-making process has to climb through layers of red tape.
Like the fighter jets of John Boyd's world, the smaller, more agile businesses are best placed to adapt quickly to this changing world. The faster you can capitalize on the opportunities available (having taken the necessary time to observe the environment, orient yourself around it and decide what to do), the more likely you are to beat the competition, and dominate your marketplace.
Whilst we might not find ourselves in the arena of air-to-air combat and a do-or-die dogfight, the competitive space in which business operates is much more of a battle zone than most people realize. This is especially true in the tech industry where competition is rife and market conditions can quickly change. The OODA Loop is so effective in this context because it promotes awareness and action as a continuous process, whilst emphasizing the importance of speed throughout. Equipping this mindset will leave you well-equipped to outmanoeuvre the market however seemingly against the odds it might seem, and emerge, even if with wings slightly singed, victorious.