I’m going to go ahead and start by pointing out that the OODA Loop is one of the most over-used and under-understood concepts ever postulated. It is often boiled down to the sum of its most easily understood parts akin to me telling you that the movie “Fight Club” is just about a Fight Club. Anyways, I will do my best not to bore you to death in the explanation phase of this blog. Rather, I will give a brief overview and some history, then get into how it works. I strongly encourage you to think of this as a primer and if this intrigues you, to read more (from a more qualified author) on John Boyd and his philosophy of strategy.
John Boyd (1927-1997) was a badass. He literally revolutionized everything he ever got involved in. A fighter pilot in the Army and then the Air Force (when the Air Force was created in 1947), his lasting strategic and scientific contributions to the military cannot be understated. In the Air-Force, John Boyd wrote the first manual on Combat, Aerial Maneuvers (which is extremely scientific, drawing profoundly on concepts from thermodynamics) and heavily aided in the architecture of the F16/F15 and A10. As an Honorary Marine (as of 2014, there were less than 100 Honorary Marines total), his work in land-based maneuver concepts is still used today and, by the Army, his work in Land Force Strategy is still used today (I went through a planning course in June of 2017 where we learned about Land Force Strategy and he is still cited as a primary contributor). Keep in mind, this is still a gross, under-appreciative accounting of his contributions to the specific branches of the military. Suffice to say the man fundamentally and radically changed the military forever…and for me, now as a private investigator, how I use it in Civilian Surveillance.
John Boyd’s most famous contribution to society is without a doubt the OODA Loop. This concept is utilized in a remarkably widespread manner, including being an investigator doing civilian surveillance. The OODA Loop is most easily explained as a cognizant recognition of the most basic process of decision-making that all humans undertake. Or, in layman’s terms: the dude basically weaponized the scientific method. By understanding, then deliberately (instead of instinctively) moving through our, evolutionary based decision-making cycle, John Boyd figured out a way to think better. Yes, I said it, and I meant it: think, better; that’s how revolutionary this concept was/is.
Ok I’ll get on with it, then I’ll explain why I bored you to death with the two acronyms I predicated this entry on.
OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.
It is an OODA “Loop”, because when you complete the process, you are continually repeating the process until it becomes more likely than not, that it will be successful (just like the scientific method). We all do this, consciously or sub-consciously. Humans are fundamentally designed to look for patterns (Fair warning, I’m going to be throwing a lot of “absolute-sounding-statements” out here like this. You can fact-check me if you want, trust me I’ve done my research on this topic). From a practical, evolutionary standpoint, it affords our brain two modalities of thinking: The High-Road and the Low-Road.
The Low-Road is best described as when you’re driving home in your car from work, singing your favorite song and then you realize you’ve already made it home, without being able to fully remember how you got there. What has happened, is that you’ve driven home from work so many times, your brain recognizes the pattern and doesn’t need to put as much energy into repeating it. The High-Road is best described as… well the opposite of the Low-Road; you engage in some (usually new) activity where an incredible amount of critical and creative thinking is required to solve a problem. The correlation between these two methods of thinking, is that when you repetitively engage in a similar High-Road thought process, it eventually becomes a Low-Road process. Thus, that process becomes easier to progress through and therefore you can finish it faster, more efficient and it even becomes more pliable in relation to its application into various, other, similar situations i.e. you get good at swinging a bat, therefore your ability to swing a bat also increases.
Thus, if you can understand and prepare yourself for common aspects of your decision-making process before you must engage in them, you can actually hack your brain into progressing through new problems faster. For example, if you say, were to find yourself in a situation where you might need to think defensively, then coming up with a broad acronym for understanding key factors in defensive strategy might come in handy. For example, if you’ve already oriented (prepared) yourself to potential factors like Observation, Cover and/or Concealment, Obstacles, Key Terrain Features and Avenues of Approach, then when it comes time to solve a problem involving these things, you’ll actually be able to do so faster (A huge part of the OODA Loop is how fast you can complete the “loop”).
Ok, ok, ok I’ll explain the cycle.
O – Observe.
In order to begin the cycle, you must first observe a problem, potential or certain. This sounds simple, but like the rest of this deal, I promise it goes deep. The observation of a problem is more than just a physical observation of say, some dude coming at you with a knife. In order to completely observe a problem, you have to undertake many, many steps. In fact, John Boyd would argue that due to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the necessity for universal application of scientific laws, it is impossible to completely “observe” anything… but that’s a little too deep for this blog. Let’s just settle with: you have to understand you have a problem in the first place. You might physically see a problem, but that doesn’t always mean you recognize that it is one. I suppose the simplest comparison here would be a drug addict not admitting that they have a problem. Even in the case of “some dude coming at you with a knife”, the “dude” might be a chef and he’s coming to cut your dinner, he might be a dude coming at you with a knife to cut you free because you’ve been capture, he might… you get my point. Objectively understanding the situation you find yourself in, is easily just as important as physically observing a problem.
O – Orient
This is the most complicated step of the entire process. In the scientific method, its parallel is the “hypothesis” step. This is where you figure out what’s going on. The way we as humans instinctively fathom what is happening now, is by basing it off what has happened to us previously. So, I guess we’ll keep going with the “dude coming at you with a knife” situation (yes, I realize it’s a pretty weak trope). So a dude is coming at you with a knife, you observe that the dude is wearing a white coat, a poofy hat and is holding a fork in his other hand. You recognize the knife as a chef’s knife and you instinctively use your previous life experiences to rapidly orient yourself to the fact that he is going to try to cut your dinner for you (because you’re apparently rich and eat at restaurants where the chef’s cut your food for you… I don’t know, work with me here). From this example we can theoretically extrapolate variations in the scenario and begin to understand the consequential loss of speed in the decision-making process that would occur from unfamiliar situations. However, again, if you were to have broadly, conceptually prepared for a “dude coming at you with a knife” (say by committing an applicable acronym to your Low-Road memory) then you wouldn’t suffer a loss of speed in your orientation to the situation.
One of the key factors here is the Analysis of the factors of the situation and the Synthesis of a solution. John Boyd based entire books off of the concept of “Analysis and Synthesis”, so I’m not even going to try to get into it. I recommend googling “Analysis and Synthesis Snowmobile example”.
D – Decide
From “Orient” it gets simpler, not easier mind you, but more straight-forward. You’ve observed a problem, you’ve oriented yourself to the situation (analyzed the factors and synthesized potential solutions) and then you simply decide the best answer for the situation. “Simply” being the key word here. Without belaboring this: the decision you make should be based off the solution you want i.e. you shouldn’t choose a decision based off a one-step action. You should decide on a solution based upon a continuous path you want to go down.
A – Act
And then, clearly, you have to actually do what you’ve decided to do. In this phase, action is predicated upon the understanding that you have completed only one loop. In any new, complex conflict wherein you are searching for an elegant, precise, efficient solution, you will undoubtedly not get it right the first time. Edison went through his loop hundreds of times before he invented the light-bulb. The big takeaway here is that you need to act based on the understanding that your action will have a reaction/consequence. The observation and orientation to this leads us down two paths: Competition and Science.
In Science, the application is purely academic. The understanding of your OODA Loop can allow for the refinement of your application of the scientific method, which allows you to alter your experiment in such a way that garnishes the result you’re looking for.
Competition goes much, much deeper. This is where my explanation of John Boyd “weaponizing the scientific method” can be appreciated. When you understand that all humans undergo the same basic, looping, decision making process, you can begin to start manipulating it to garnish a desired outcome. When you understand that your action will force the competition to Observe your actions then Orient themselves to you, Decide then Act, (and visa versa) you can begin to “get inside your opponent’s OODA Loop” and once you have done that, in John Boyd’s opinion, you have already won. Thus, any way you can increase the speed and flexibility in which you complete, and are able to complete, your loop, is an advantage you gain over your opponent. To chop it up in Private Investigator terms, if you observe that when your subject leaves their residence that they will have to go either left or right, you can orient yourself to both possibilities. Then, when it comes time for your subject to decide what to do, you will already be a step ahead of them, vis-à-vis the Decision step of the OODA Loop. Thus, you are now “inside” their loop and therefore the decision of “left or right” will not beat you… it seems obvious, but in its simplicity, it is profound.
Throughout my research, the big takeaway for me, is that objective, conscientious understanding of our actions leads to a refinement in our over-arching, decision-making modality, which ultimately leads to improvement in most aspects of life
I need you to keep in mind that this is a four-page, ramshackle explanation of one of the most comprehensive concepts there is. John Boyd used every form of published science, philosophy and strategy he could get his hands on and head around, then applied it into improving how we fundamentally solve problems. Even if you aren’t trying to use your noodle to this degree, just the exposure of some of the basic concepts in this strategic philosophy can greatly benefit you in every day life. I strongly encourage you to research the works of John Boyd further; it’s rawrsome.