Decision Making with the OODA Cycle

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This topic was prepared by Don Greer, co-founder of Greer Black Company.

Goal-Gap Structures

The Management Control Loop (MCL) has been around a long time—it’s composed of a simple goal-gap structure. With the MCL,

  • You measure the gap between where you are now compared to your goal
  • Make gap-closing adjustments, and
  • Repeat

In the quality domain, there is the Plan-Do-Check-Act loop (PDCA) with the same desired result. In both, the idea is that over time you will approach your goal.

Boyd’s OODA Cycle

It is not hard to see the similarities of the MCL and PDCA to Boyd’s OODA cycle. The difference lies in what can be learned from the cycle itself. The previous loops don’t acknowledge–and Boyd’s does–the operating environment in which decisions are made. Decisions are not made in a vacuum, and the OODA loop is about engaged interaction with the outside world—competitors, alliances, governmental agencies, societal entities—and the unavoidable uncertainty of the unfolding story. Boyd brought the reality of environmental dynamics to decision making.

Boyd’s OODA Cycle

Getting Control

How can we make decisions under uncertainty? What is the unfolding “story” in which we are a part, or to which we must respond, in a rapidly changing business climate? Sometimes it can feel like being in the cockpit of a fighter jet in a dogfight, trying to find the enemy before he finds you!

We don’t know what will happen next—and many times we don’t even know what we don’t know. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and defeated by the things thrown our way in business. The good news is: You can get control in this environment by “getting inside your opponent’s OODA loop.”

Knowing your Opponents

You might ask: “Who is my ‘opponent’?” In business, it could be your direct competitor, but it could also be your customer, the market you are in, and the societal context in which your business exists. Each of these has implicit rates of change and pacing (event-response time) that your business must at least match, or you will fall behind, appear less relevant, and perhaps eventually fail. Take time to estimate the OODA cycle speeds of your customers, competitors, suppliers, regulatory entities. With this knowledge and a desire to be inside your environment’s OODA loop, you can begin to anticipate what may unfold and so establish better control of outcomes, rather than surprised by them.

Gaining the Advantage

While the OODA loop can certainly help you keep pace with your industry, it can also give you the power the shape it. You can make your competitors chase you by designing your business to execute inside your competitors’ and industry’s OODA cycle. How quickly you scan the environment, determine the meaning of what you see, decide what to do, and then act on it makes all the difference.

Getting Inside Your Opponent's OODA Loop
Getting “inside your opponent’s OODA loop” creates advantage.

What if you had the perfect strategy for your business but your OODA cycle speed was slower than your competitors’ or your industry’s? The perfect strategy would appear a laggard. Your customers’ perception of your performance is in your control only if you are inside your customers’ OODA loop.

Designing Experiments

Another way to develop new insights and capabilities for your business is to use the OODA loop to guide your thinking to design experiments. You can design your actions (inexpensive experiments) for generating data to observe. Take a low-cost baby step and see what you learn. Iterating on the OODA cycle with experiments provides a fast and low-cost way to find your customer’s wants, needs, values, and expectations. In my business, we built a simulation of the OODA cycle for an aerospace project and learned that it is far better to iterate on incomplete data quickly than to slowly develop “perfection.” Iteration helps you step into the fog of uncertainty and walk right through it!

It’s All Relative

Be quick—but don’t hurry.

John Wooden

Your desired OODA loop speed is relative to the environment in which your business resides. Going faster is not an absolutely good thing; going faster for the sake of going fast is not a good idea. It is not easy to go faster, and it is increasingly expensive to push for faster OODA cycle speeds. It will NOT work to do what you’ve always done—only faster—by trying harder. That will feel like running downhill at full speed. Yes, you are going fast, AND you will certainly crash. Faster OODA cycle speed is about finding new ways to cycle through the loop using new knowledge, skills, methods, processes, and tools. As the renowned UCLA basketball coach John Wooden used to say: “Be quick—but don’t hurry.”