Those of you who have seen me speak more than once have probably heard me make reference to the OODA Loop. OODA is an acronym of observe, orient, decide and act. As the name implies, the process is a loop. Once you have done something (act), you see what the results are (observe) and continue on through the loop again. Practiced well, it’s a self-correcting system.
OODA helps us deal with rapidly changing environments, and everyone who is in business today is working in a rapidly changing environment.
The OODA Loop was developed by John Boyd, an Air Force colonel whose ideas were adopted by the Marines. OODA was made to help overcome the challenges of a constantly changing environment in which errors are far more costly than the errors any of us make in digital marketing.
This past week I was honored to have the opportunity to present at the Boyd and Beyond Conference at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va. This was two straight days of theory related to Boyd’s work, sharing of stories from his life (given that he was an Air Force guy working most closely with the Marines, I’m sure you can appreciate that there were some very interesting stories) and examples in a variety of fields.
By all accounts, Boyd had an expansive appetite for ideas beyond his immediate discipline. This was confirmed by a review of his papers and books at the Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections during the conference.
Staying true to the spirit of the man, the conference presentations included examples of principles of Boyd’s work from several kinds of warfare (kinetic or "hot," counterinsurgency, robotic and stabilization), government policy, nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), business leadership, and my own presentation, which focused on recognizing patterns of interaction with mobile technology. The audience included an array of businesses and agencies among members of several branches of military and government service.
It was, to say the least, an impressive collection of brainpower and diverse experiences. There were a couple of thoughts that continued to bounce through my mind as I made my way back to Vermont following the conference, thoughts that I believe will be beneficial to my clients in real estate and other industries. I want to share them here as well.
The OODA Loop is probably Boyd’s best-known artifact (well that and maybe the F-15 and F-16 fighters). Whenever I mention OODA to an audience, I get a few knowing nods, and the people in the back of the room who were checking their email start listening.
John Boyd’s experience flying F-86s during the Korean War led to a lifelong interest in tactics. After the war, he flew F-100 Super Sabres (pictured above) as a flight instructor stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Photo credit: U.S. Air Force.
One of the presenters, Michael Moore (not that Michael Moore, this one is a psychologist in London), posed a question along the lines of, "Why did Boyd keep coming up with ideas after the OODA Loop?"
The reason, I believe, is that a person can master something like the OODA — which develops effective action-taking — but still end up in the wrong place. You can step on the gas and go very, very fast in the wrong direction just as easily as stepping on the gas and going very, very fast in the right direction.
A large body of Boyd’s work beyond OODA deals with identifying and clarifying what the right direction might be. While an effective model for taking action, OODA doesn’t tell you what action to take.
Let me take it out of the clouds for a moment.
We have a wide array of technology at our disposal to help us "get things done." We have task managers and email managers and file managers and contact managers and lead managers and deal managers and content managers, as well as cloud-based variations of all of these things.
There is an enormous amount of technology developed, supposedly, to help us do things — to help us rock the OODA Loop. We can devote an enormous quantity of pixels to identifying, describing and debating the various merits of these technologies. We already have, in fact.
But that’s not helpful if the direction our businesses are traveling point towards places where we will have limited options or unhappiness for ourselves, our colleagues or our customers. There’s more to life and to business than "high performance." To be truly effective we need to moving in the right direction. We need to define what "performance" really means.
I’m not going to tell anyone what the "right direction" is, but I am going to encourage people to know for certain what it is for themselves. Without that self-awareness, direction is set by makers of the tools, which is rarely helpful.
During one of the breaks between sessions, G.I. Wilson — a retired Marine Corps colonel who knew John Boyd personally — described to me how Boyd felt it was a strategic failure if one had to shoot someone. If it were done right, there would be prisoners of war from the opposing side, not body counts. That’s an example of examining all the way to the end what "right direction" might mean.
Expand your inputs
Boyd pursued an extremely wide variety of intellectual thought. His concepts embody chaos theory, complexity theory, thermodynamics, Gödel and Heisenberg, Taoism and Zen in addition to the classics of military strategy like Clausewitz.
In fact, Boyd’s last briefing, The Strategic Game of ? and ?, begins with 10 slides (out of 59) devoted to the idea of gaining multiple perspectives. Much of this briefing deals with integrating new ideas/energy into a strategy in order to succeed. Being cut off from new ideas or energy is a risk.
There is value in this for a wider audience than military planners. For example, businesses looking to develop new content or services or products.
Whenever I discuss a new digital marketing initiative with real estate brokerages, for example, the business owner has often limited his examination of the marketplace to include only real estate businesses.
The reality is that customers interact with relatively few real estate business website/apps but a wide variety of websites/apps from other businesses that fit their lifestyle. My friend Matthew Shadbolt, director of interactive at Corcoran Group in Manhattan, frequently notes that customers judge their experience of a real estate website not by other real estate websites but all other websites they encounter. This means that a brokerage search is judged in relation to Google, not a direct competitor’s website.
Opportunities are missed by failing to integrate more completely into a customer’s lifestyle and examine the experience from multiple perspectives. It’s also why so many brokerage websites have a large beautiful image on the home page with a small parametric search functionality overlaid on the right of the image; everyone is looking within their own industry. It’s hard to differentiate a brand this way, even if the photo is gorgeous.
I take copious notes when I’m attending a conference. It will likely be several weeks before I’m done processing them to a point where I feel comfortable sharing them. But if either of the above topics is remotely intriguing to you, I recommend a few things:
Chet Richards (who knew John Boyd) wrote a book that translates these concepts from military terms into business terms. It’s called "Certain to Win."
Frans Osinga wrote an in-depth exploration of Boyd’s work, keeping it in a military perspective. It’s called "Science, Strategy and War."
I have written about and mentioned OODA concepts in many of the columns I have written for Inman News (the scenario planning column, "You’ve planned for the future: Now what?" is one example). And it’s hidden with subtlety in the others. Now that you know, consider it like an Easter egg hunt to spot the hidden OODA in my columns that don’t mention it explicitly.
Grab me at the next event we’re both at and I’ll talk your ear off about these things.
Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.
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