OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. Commanders have limited information and limited time in their decision-making process. Col. John Boyd describes a dynamic decision-making (pdf) to outperform your enemies.

OODA is designed to overcome wicked problems relating to friction and enemy action.

Boyd’s diagram shows the decision cycle
ooda.gif

  • Observation collects informationa about the enemy and the environment
  • Orientation analyzes this information by comparing it to prior experience, beliefs, and reasoning ability
  • Decision chooses the plan of action from the alternatives
  • Action implements the decision

Importantly, the OODA loop is continuous. After the action is taken, the commander observes the results, as if he was a scientist observing his own experiments. Then the starts over. New information is constantly collected, analyzed, and used to modify decisions or ongoing actions, all the while remembering into account prior experiences and updating probability of successful decisions. In many respects, this is a Bayesian command system.

OODA methods are needed for a few reasons. We cannot make decisions based on a belief in simple causes and effects. Armed conflict poses a wicked problem, as defined by Horst Rittel. Problems are ill-structured and ill-defined, they are circular, they resist solutions, they change and evolve as you interact with them, and there’s no stopping point. There’s also a problem where once you commit to a strategy, there is path dependency which makes it difficult to change strategies.

OODA constantly updates your knowledge to deal with the changing nature of a wicked problem. There is a bit of trial and error involved. There are a few major factors OODA manages: Friction, limited time, and enemy action.

First, the element of friction introduces non-rational outcomes which cannot be anticipated. Friction is the impact of many unknowable variables on any plan or action.

Second, limited time constricts your ability to collect information and implement action. If you act too soon, you act with very little information. If you wait to gather more information to make a more reasoned decision, you run out of time and lose the window of opportunity. There is no golden mean. There’s always an undesirable tradeoff between time and information.

Third, enemy actions means they are constantly adapting and changing based on your actions.

And this is where it gets difficult. You cannot merely respond to an enemy action and it is impossible to anticipate future operational environments.

Col. Boyd believes the great commanders get inside their enemies’ OODA loop. They think two or three cycles faster and command the entire situation. He describes this as the commander’s “agility” in decision-making. Agile commanders outmaneuver their enemies

There are three spheres which OODA affects – the physical, mental, and morale. Morale represents the willpower, determination, training, and irrational elements. A loss of morale leads to retreat and defeat.

Boyd:

  • Probe and test adversary to unmask weakness
  • Interweave menace, uncertainty, and mistrust
  • Move along paths of least resistance
  • Exploit differences, frictions and obsessions (within) the adversary
  • Subvert, disorient, disrupt, overload, or seize adversary’s critical connections, centers, and activities

In other words, sieze the initiative. You force the enemy to respond rather than take the initiative himself. In this way you can control what he does. This is rather ancient advice – going back to Sun Tzu. But it is pertinent. A passive commander will be defeated.

Boyd describes how this works. Not only do you force the enemy to respond, but you virtually shut down his OODA loop. Your actions cause confusion and panic amongst the enemy. You stop him from observing or communicating information, or by making him panic you interrupt his orientation ability. You can even take away his ability to act.

Once a man’s OODA loop is disrupted, he literally acts insane. He loses his connection with a dynamically changing reality and his decisions become more and more irrational. He will make more mistakes which an observant opponent can observe and capitalize upon.

We must also understand our own weaknesses. When faced with a wicked problem, an 80% solution at the right time is far better than a 90% solution a week late. How many alternatives are you considering? At some point you have to make a decision. Yet people believe that solutions should be “perfect” while in warfare nothing ever is. The goal is to out-think the enemy in way that is sufficient, not perfect.

Uncertainty causes fear of failure which results in inaction. We can get locked into an observation/orientation cycle and become reluctant to commit to a decision which we know has flaws. But a hand-wringing OO-OO-OO-OO decision cycle is worse than flawed decisions. Intellectuals pride themselves with their OOOOing, but they accomplish nothing of substance.

OODA loops applies to individuals and organizations. Organizations, for a number of reasons, become more risk adverse than individual commanders. Risk-taking is what allows commanders to get inside the enemy’s OODA loop. This is a rather important point to remember.

Of course, this gets much more complicated and there is a considerable discussion about the merits of this idea by military and business thinkers.

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