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OODA Loops for Dummies. Decision-making insights from the military for leadership development and t

As part of our themed business games and programmes (such as The Executive Warfare Centre, Battlespace etc) we use many great insights from the military.

These can address issues such as command decision-making, leadership, dealing with task overload and cognisitve bias under pressure etc.

At the more complex end are full explorations of M.D.M.P (the Military Decision Making Process) as a whole. At the simpler end are tools such as the OODA Loop?

So, What’s an OODA Loop (or OODA cycle / The Boyd Cycle as it's also known)?

Let’s try a multiple choice approach for starters, is it ...

A/ A funky new breakfast cereal?

B/ The lost element of primate DNA?

C/ Electronic circuitry component from a 1960’s radio set?

D/ A highly effective and simple way to review your team’s effectiveness?

Winning in any competitive environment whether it be commercial, military or on a sports field is all about your OODA Loops, and how long or short they are.

And no - it’s not a new breakfast cereal, a component of primate DNA or a radio part by the way. It’s a very simple cycle created by a military strategist called John Boyd that revolutionised military approaches to command decision-making and surviving in rapidly changing competitive environments.

Its four major components that are considered by a good commander are...

Observe – Your situational awareness feeds in observations on what you are dealing with, what it is you need to react to. There is never perfect or full information coming in, but the higher quality it is, the better. You have to make sure it’s as accurate as possible. Experience and direct knowledge of your surroundings are very useful, and some assumptions based on experience may need to be made to fill in gaps in real time information flowing to you. This is raw information coming in from your people, the market, the media – anything relevant to driving you into an action and it is important to capture and rate it for significance and accuracy as it flows in through the process.

Orient – Now you need to start processing all the raw information from the unfolding situation and consider options to determine how best to proceed with a good course of action. This is where the team projects its collective skill and experience – it’s “Team DNA” into the equation. It’s also where personality clashes, egos, poor communication, agendas and task overload can come into play and teams can get horribly bogged down on this “O” to unnecessarily lengthen the OODA loop. Good teamwork saves time here if ideas and options can be processed efficiently. Great leadership and effective teamwork are the best factors to shorten an OODA loop here.

Decide – if your Situational Awareness has been sharp, you have captured the right information from your Battlespace / Marketplace and your team have oriented well to develop an accurate appreciation of the situation, you can now actually decide on how to proceed. If time permits you may also have multiple courses of action and contingencies up your sleeve to work with here.

Act – You now actually act upon what is hopefully a good decision, and then execute a good plan. New OODA loops will now come off your actions as they unfold.

The time that it takes to do all of this, and the quality of the decision and action that gets spat out from it, defines your OODA Loop.

It needs to be better controlled than your competitor’s to stay on top and drive the situation. If it’s longer or less effective than your opponents, then they will be able call the shots and you’ll have to react to it.

How long do you have? How long before an action is required to save the day, get a solution to market or convert a sales lead?

You simply have to get within your opponent’s OODA Loop to drive the situation the way you want it to go. Ideally, like a boxer keeping their opponent on the ropes, you want to be acting quicker and quicker which makes you harder to predict and it gradually forces an opponent to either over or under-react to you.

This enables you to drive the situation and make quicker and better decisions to keep pushing them where you want them, not the other way round. If you can shorten your loop, whilst keeping the quality of the decisions good, you can shape the Battlespace!

Technology can often be a double edged sword here. Technology when used positively as an enabler / force multiplier can shorten an OODA Loop. If not quickly and properly mastered, or if people become slaves to the technology or just lazily allow it to replace human initiative, technology can cause additional task overload. This will more often than not reduce the peripheral vision and awareness of people and teams.

Only good old fashioned human initiative can solve most real time complex problems, technology is thus a tool, not the total solution. The results can be disastrous if this is put wrong way round.

People are always the most valuable weapon. To make OODA Loops shorter, and keep them high quality, efficient teamwork is “Mission Critical”. In the competitive 21st century teams simply have to get better at this stuff to stay in the game.

In well-designed team building activities, business games and simulations we can bring how a team works through an OODA Loop to life. Great learning outcomes flow from de-briefing (especially if teams have used Belbin Team Role Profiles to reveal strengths and weakness in their approach). Transferal to real-world and how their behaviour impacts decision-making (and one another) is the key.

Team Role Behaviour and the good old “Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing” cycle influence how quick and how effective teams go round an OODA loop. Off each OODA Loop, once an actual decision is made and action is taken, will come more OODA Loops as new information and situations arise, “The Orient Bit” comes in again and so you go back and forth along the loop as required and as you may decide delegate off new OODA Loops to other people, teams or units.

Delegation is key here, if a commander does not do this they remain trapped within a small loop and can miss opportunities and lose the bigger picture by lacking the flexibility to hand over and move on the next challenge.

Great teams have short (or at times where it suits the tactics, deliberately longer) high quality OODA Loops and can get inside the OODA Loops of bad teams with ease. It helps you to drive the situation and to win basically!

What’s a good, or a bad example from your world of an OODA Loop?

Sabre has some great presentations, keynotes and business games / events for bringing simple and effective messages that have high relevance to business to your teams. We can help people and teams understand how to improve their OODA Loops and be more competitive.

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