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OODA loop

The observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop, created by John Boyd, is a conceptual cycle for people having to make decisions while learning. Especially in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environments that people in the military often find themselves in. 

The goal of the loop is to get “inside” your opponent's decision making to be able to take advantage of it. This allows you to make decisions that will then push them in a direction you want. This post looks to contextualize the OODA loop in building products and what “getting inside the loop” means for us.

I first came across the OODA loop from Venkatesh Rao's book Tempo. Which is a discussion of how narratives are used to make decisions. He references Boyd and his OODA loop a lot in how changing tempo is about getting inside someone else’s loop.

Along with other loops like build-measure-learn, design thinking, and even the scientific method (see a full list of like-loops by John Cutler) it asks that we continuously learn as we iterate. 

Historical context

The OODA loop comes out of Boyd’s work on the Energy Maneuverability (E-M) theory which talked about the tradeoff between speed and maneuverability of an aircraft. This then led him to the realization that it wasn’t just about the superiority of the jetfighter but also the person flying the plane. 

While he retired from the US Air Force in 1975 he spent a lot of time working with the US Marine Corps. The first time he referenced the loop was without a diagram in his “Patterns of Conflict” presentation on slide 133 back in 1986:

Operate inside adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action loops, or get inside his mind-time-space, to create a tangle of threatening and/or non-threatening events/efforts as well as repeatedly generate mismatches between those events/efforts adversary observes, or anticipates, and those he must react to, to survive; 

He then went on to make many drawings and edits of the loops that then turned into the OODA diagram.

The simple OODA loop vs. the real one

What has been popularized about the OODA loop is a simple cycle with four steps:

But the full loop that Boyd came up with has many feedback and feedforward loops:

Credit: Wikipedia, Patrick Edwin Moran, source

The steps are as follows:

  1. Observe - gather information from the world. In building products this could be quantitative behavior, qualitative research, competitive landscape, and many other sources. 
  2. Orient - update your beliefs and understanding of the world. It should include the strategy of the organization. This is arguably the most important step for Boyd. You will always have an orientation or understanding of the world that is some distance from the reality of it due to bias, out of date info, and lack of data. Your job is to make sure you get as in alignment as possible and ideally inside of what your competitor’s loop allows them to understand about the world.
  3. Decide - create a hypothesis by which you will decide what to do next. This could include deferring action or looking for more evidence. 
  4. Act - the test or action on the world you want to take. This is how you get a reaction from the environment (and your competitors) to be able to better observe and orient in the next loop. It could be a prototype that you launch to see how the market reacts. 

The loop is then repeated. While we want to speed up this loop sometimes it isn’t valuable to take fast action and the loop may be looking for updates from your observation to change your orientation for the right moment to act. 

For a very in depth discussion of OODA and other concepts used by Boyd, I recommend reading Tylor Pearson’s Ultimate Guide to the OODA Loop.  

Who is your adversary?

What isn’t always clear is how to use the OODA loop in decision making processes that don’t have clear adversaries or competitors. In technology, it is very rare that you have a direct competitor as a startup. Uber and Lyft could be recent examples of a very direct competition in localities. However, the biggest hazard to any startup isn’t other businesses but the environment itself. You need to stand out from the noise of everything else going on in a customer’s life. They are much more likely to not care at all than think of you positioned against a competitor. They probably don’t care about your competitor either.

What you can control is your understanding of the environment. You can invest into talking to your customers, understanding market trends, and testing out new ideas. You can rarely control the competitors in your environment but using the OODA loop you may be able to understand why they make decisions. This could help you make better decisions and learn from their mistakes. 

OODA in this case is less about getting inside someone else’s loop and more about understanding how you make better decisions through iterative learning in the world. Most likely the actions you take can help provide better orientation, especially in places where the rules are unknown or are constantly changing like the complex and chaotic domains of Cynefin. The concept of probing a situation is using your OODA loop to actively figure out what is going on in a complex domain.

John Boyd was a lifelong learner

When people first start diving into the background on Boyd they start and finish with the OODA loop but I’d recommend you dive deeper. Boyd is considered to be one of the most impactful military strategists of the 20th century because of his contributions but few are known outside of the US Military. There isn’t a lot from him other than a few presentations, a paper, and some grainy videos

He has a lot to teach about decision making and interdisciplinary thought as a way to find new methods for solving very hard and complex problems. Between retiring from the US Air Force and helping the US Marine Corps reinvent their doctrine he was a voracious reader. I’ve visited his archives in Quantico (twice) and through the books he left there were many notes that spoke to his cross-disciplinary study. I’m most impressed and inspired by this. I try to model his curiosity in my practice.

How helpful is the OODA loop?

There are many practitioners today that reference the OODA loop including a favorite of mine the Wardley Map. Simon has used the OODA loop as a way to iterate through strategic gameplay. 

A lot of business leaders tend to talk about “getting inside someone’s loop” to be able to know what they will do and how to get them to do it. Samo Burja’s live vs. dead players embodies this mentality. 

The best way to leverage the lessons of the OODA loop is to embrace that you will never know everything and that you can only continue to be closer to the reality of the situation. We will never get a perfect understanding but we can always strive for something better. If we can keep learning from the environment, we can continue to “survive on our own terms” (another favorite quote of mine by Boyd on strategy is). 

This is more of a mentality than a specific set of rules. Better decision making processes use similar steps to the OODA loop.