OODA Loop – Iterating to Success

I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with a number of people who have served our country in the Armed Forces. One of the gifts they gave me early in my career was a framework called the OODA Loop. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (and then do it again and again). What they explained to me was that a superior force doesn’t have to be bigger or stronger, it just has to iterate through the OODA Loop more quickly. What really speaks to me about the model is the Act part. Too many organizations get caught in “analysis paralysis” with the Observing and don’t pick something to Orient and Decide on. Usually not acting in some thoughtful or planned manner can lead you to a worse situation – but that first action could be used to help you kickstart the loop!

Full diagram originally drawn by John Boyd for...

Image via Wikipedia

Observe: to watch carefully especially with attention to details or behavior for the purpose of arriving at a judgment  (merriam-webster.com).   This can sometimes be quite challenging if there are lot of things going on and the details that matter are hard to separate from everything else.  Experts are usually very good at separating the “information” from the “noise” and focusing on the details they to which they need to orient.

Orient:  to set right by adjusting to facts or principles, to acquaint with the existing situation or environment  (merriam-webster.com).  After identifying the important details, the gathered information needs to be assessed in some meaningful way to understand the implications and possible scenarios and options.  Some amount of bias is necessary in the orientation stage – which can come from preferences, desires and constraints.

Decide: to make a choice or judgment (merriam-webster.com).  Many times, this can be one of the hardest things to get through – because the act of choosing something is also the act of NOT choosing other things.  Too often the desire is to keep as many options open as possible should the decision be wrong, which can lead to making NO decision and putting the Act step in jeopardy.

Act: the process of doing  (merriam-webster.com).  Action usually requires energy – an investment of something to move in a direction.  Lives, battles, and businesses have been lost for lack of action resulting from paralysis of data, paralysis of analysis, or paralysis of fear of making the wrong decision.  Nike gets credit for saying it best “Just do it!”.  The OODA Loop is forgiving since the next step after any action is to see where that action put you. :)

I ran into a group of consultants (ex-Armed Forces) some time after I had learned about the OODA framework and they had made an improvement on it.  They called their version the OODAL Loop.  Know what the extra “L” was for?  Although it would seem obvious that while you are doing the OODA Loop you are keeping some history of what you had done, why, and the results, these consultants were making a point that you also need to LEARN throughout the ongoing iterations.  And I like to always keep that in mind after making changes – what should we have learned so that our decision making is more informed the next time a similar issue is presented to us?  If we learn, we can likely get even faster at knowing how best to observe, orient, decide, and act.

Sistine Chapel, Rome

Image by Christopher Chan via Flickr

I will have to find the references for it, but off the top of my head, two audacious numbers come to mind that give me comfort and compassion for the time it takes to get new things started: 1) apprentices in history were expected to spend between 7 to 13 years working on their trade before they would be considered “masters” of their craft, 2) to master a skill it is estimated you have to commit more than 10,000 hours to constructive practice.  I suspect that these represent the time it takes for people to develop their automatic OODA intuition necessary to almost instantly assess and form a plan for their first action, without even having to think about.  I suspect there aren’t any shortcuts.

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  • Ooda (tomaplomb.blogspot.com)
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