I was introduced to John Boyd’s OODA loop when taking a defensive fire-arm class. Boyd was a successful fighter pilot in the Korean War – he also had an analytic bent and distilled his experiences in a series of briefings. The central tenant was (in good military fashion) is the acronym: OODA loop. The OODA loop stands for: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It is a good shorthand reminder of proper strategic thinking.
The power of the concept is that it makes explicit that which is usually implicit. It takes the basic method to employ to think, decide, and operate in the world and codifies them into a strategic system that can allow you to succeed in the chaos of battle. It is a learning system, a method for dealing with uncertainty, and a strategy for winning.
At its simplest – the ODDA loop is showing how to keep adapting as information is received:
Boyd continued to refine and expand this concept adding greater granularity, but for our purposes, the simpler the better. The loop can help provide a framework for processing information in a rapidly changing environment. So let’s unpack the four phases.
Insert here – zanshin – or Cooper’s condition yellow – a state of relaxed heightened awareness.* If you are constantly observing then you remain open to new information so as not to be caught unaware. New information allows us to form new mental models. The first Jason Bourne movie is a great example of the continuous processing of information using excellent situational awareness. In daily self-defense, observing means things like knowing where all the exits are, noticing congregations of young males, or other statistical threats, or just noticing those elements that are out of place. Subtle cues that suggest something isn’t “normal” and therefore merits focused attention.**
Focused attention – you now orient on that information that piqued your attention: what is it precisely that made you look twice? At this point, the information is something to keep tabs on – we have only imperfect information but need to keep observing in case new information shows it to be a threat.
Orienting is where our mental model exists – where we ‘process’ the information and shapes how we observe. To get good at orienting you must be willing to jettison comfortable paradigms in favor of ones that match current reality. Boyd called this process ‘destructive deduction.’ One of the best examples of this process is found in the brilliant 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) where the agents are tested on their ability to distinguish a car backfire from a gunshot.*** How we process information is largely contextual and most people are hesitant to star ripping apart their mental constructs into discrete parts in order to reform a better hypothesis. This is a continual process; as soon as you create that new mental concept, it will quickly become outdated as new information is received. So how do we not get stuck in always orienting? Have a plethora of mental models – familiarize yourself with numerous theories and fields of knowledge as possible. Have a plan and act the plan. Constantly challenge your thinking – dismiss doctrine and dogma even if you think it is correct. In short, start destroying and creating mental models. “Sensei, does this really work?” Your fluency in destroying and creating mental models will only come with practice, so start doing it as much as you can. Have others challenge your paradigm. “Does Aikido work against karate?” Try to validate mental models before operation. I have asked other instructors from other arts present on their methods so as to expand your mental models – in Kenpo they do this, in Karate that, etc., so as to break rigid thinking and to validate your new models – “So does this technique work in this environment against that opponent?”
Boyd expanded much on the decision step – it is the “component in which actors decide among action alternatives generated in the Orientation phase.” But all we can ever do is make the best decision based upon the information at hand – and we always have imperfect information of our environment. At this stage you select your action plan. The more experience (“I have been encountered this before”), the shorter the orienting phase, the quicker the decision phase and the quicker to Act.
Once you’ve decided on your action plan (strategy, technique) to implement, you must act. Action is how we find out if our mental models are correct. If they are, we win. If they aren’t we hope we get the chance to start the OODA Loop again using our new information.
In summary: You need to have a plan and execute it immediately. You must finish your loop before the bad guy does, or strategically interrupt his to gain the initiative.
*Col. Jeff Cooper. Situational Awareness color codes are much discussed. We need not parse them deeply nor debate how many there are, rather recognize them for a good short-hand to prod us into better overall awareness:
** The Gift Of Fear. A good read with a simple message – trust your instincts. If a situation ‘feels’ bad, it is. Don’t prevaricate – act. Your subconscious processes more information that your awareness can filter.
*** 13 Rue Madeleine. I cannot remember when I first saw the movie, but it made a lasting impression on me because of the training methods depicted as well as it just being a great film. I know it isn’t the fast-paced, quick-edits we are used to now, but it remains one of the better spy movies in cinema history. One of my favorite scenes is when Cagney discusses how he discovered the German spy – a nice application of the “theory of cultural types” that Ruth Benedict (among others) was developing as an anthropologist working in the war department to better understand the psychology of the enemy – she later published her research as “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.” Her earlier “Patterns of Culture” is still a good read.