The power of pulling together

Some of you may be familiar with the recently concluded saga of family intrigue at the Market Basket supermarket chain, whose 71 stores are concentrated in the northeastern USA. I’ve attached a commentary on this case by my friend and colleague, Joe Astrachan, of Kennesaw State University near Atlanta. Joe ran the Family Business EMBA program at KSU and is well versed in Boyd’s concepts of strategy.

Although he is addressing members of the Cox Family Enterprise Center in this commentary, I think you’ll find ideas here that will apply to any business or, for that matter, to any organization.

Comments from Dr. Joe Astrachan on “Market Basket cited in US jobs report” in the Boston Globe

Dr. Astrachan is the Wells Fargo Eminent Scholar Chair of Family Business at the Cox Family Enterprise Center, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia

Reprinted here with his kind permission.

A recent article in the Boston Globe (Market Basket Cited in US Jobs Report, September 5, 2014, by Jack Newsham), highlights the importance of family business to society and should be a source of pride for family business owners and operators.For those who have not followed the Market Basket story, it is a too oft told tale of business owning families – one side without control complaining the side with control misused it for, as we scholars say, private benefits. The other side enjoyed a booming business and a loyal workforce—a CEO who by all accounts is a living representation of Jim Collin’s vaunted level 5 leadership. [CR note: Jim Collins' book Good to Great was required reading in the EMBA program because of its compatibility with Boyd's philosophy. Chapter 2 of the book addresses"Level 5 leadership," which might be considered as an updating of the ideal illustrated in Chapter 17 of the Tao te Ching: The Master doesn't talk; he acts. When his work is done, the people say, "Amazing! We did it all by ourselves." Mitchell trans.] Continue reading

A tip on grand strategy

Boyd insisted that one of the primary functions of grand strategy was to “attract the uncommitted to your cause.” If we take the prudent path and assume that all our current and potential customers are uncommitted, then as far as business goes, strategy and grand strategy are the same thing. One of the many ways that business isn’t war.

People buy from you for many reasons, and one of these is because they want to. People refuse to go anywhere near you for many reasons, and one of these is they don’t like you. So we get fanboys on the one hand and boycotts on the other.

Why, then, do some businesses alienate their own customers, giving them, as it were, reasons not to like them? How do you win that one? Here’s a neat example, “The perils of shaming bad tippers,” by Mario Castillo on LinkedIn. I think behavior like this may often result from an internal focus, maybe tough guy politics within the organization.

Of course, if you’re a monopoly, as Peter Thiel lauds over at the Wall St. J. (paywall), treat your customers any way you damn well please.


“When the going gets weird

The weird turn pro.” Hunter S. Thompson

Nice article from BusinessWeek on recruiting — and retaining — “weirdos.”  Contrast this with the rounds of interviews some companies subject prospects to, all in the name of making sure they’re a good fit.  As an alternative, spend that time and energy tying to figure out how to envelop the misfits in Einheit. And while you’re at it, jettison the smooth-talking sycophants.

Boyd quoted Gen Hermann Balck as telling him that one mark of a great commander was the

Willingness to support and promote (unconventional or difficult) subordinates who accept danger, demonstrate initiative, take risks, and come up with new ways toward mission accomplishment; Patterns 118

As the BW article’s author, Martin Davidson, put it:

Leaders should hire people who embody different traits and skills that are most important to the company’s goals. Those differences include subtle ones—such as personality, ways of thinking, or problem-solving—as well as visible differences, such as race, gender, or culture. Instead of seeing diversity as a distracting mandate handed down from human resources, leaders should use these differences to build a workforce that gives them a competitive advantage.

You can’t exploit an idea if nobody has the idea in the first place. The more weirdos, the wider range of potentially insanely great ideas.

Tom Peters once wrote that great leaders should be able to point to people in their organization whom they personally disliked, but whom they had promoted because of their value to the team.  For example:

  • If you’re a Democrat, have you promoted anybody to a senior position who worked in Mitt Romney’s campaign? Any Tea Party members?
  • If you’re an atheist, how many conservative Christians report directly to you? Muslims? Orthodox Jews?
  • If you’re concerned about global warming, do you have any climate skeptics on your team? New earth creationists?

And so on.

I remember somebody once telling me — it could have been Boyd — that “normal” people don’t do great things. It would certainly have applied to him. Would you have hired Boyd? Really?


Another jewel from The Doctor:

We disagree so violently on almost everything that it’s a real pleasure to drink with him. If nothing else, he’s absolutely honest in his lunacy — and I’ve found, during my admittedly limited experience in political reporting, that power & honesty very rarely coincide.

Cheng, Chi, and Mother Nature

John Boyd, on chart 132 of Patterns, described what you’re trying to accomplish by operating inside opponents’ OODA loops*:

“Generate uncertainty, confusion, disorder, panic, chaos … shatter cohesion, produce paralysis and bring about collapse.” Once you have these well underway, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to “subvert, disorient, disrupt, overload, or seize adversary’s vulnerable, yet critical, connections, centers, and activities … in order to dismember organism and isolate remnants for wrap-up or absorption.”

If you achieve this, it doesn’t make any difference how big your opponents are or how much great technology they have.

Why not? What do you actually see inside the victim’s organization when it’s happening? Here’s an example from the cockpit voice recorder in a tragic 2009 plane crash:

At 10:16 P.M., the plane’s impending-stall alert system—the stick shaker—kicked in. “Jesus Christ,” Renslow said, alarmed. In his panicked confusion, he pulled the shaker toward him instead of pushing it away from him. Seventeen seconds later, he said, “We’re down,” and, two seconds after that, the plane crashed, killing everyone on board and one person on the ground.

Capt. Resnlow was a highly skilled professional as was his co-pilot. So what happened? One way to think about it was that Mother Nature was operating inside his OODA loop, that is, events were changing more rapidly than his mental model — his orientation — could keep up. The result was confusion, disorder, panic and paralysis. Boyd is suggesting that in a conflict between groups of human beings, you can generate these effects by operating inside opponents’ OODA loops.

Read the complete piece “The Hazards of Going on Autopilot,” by Maria Konnikova on  You may have noticed that events in the cockpit resembled the results of a successful deception operation, a cheng / chi maneuver. A classic cheng / chi pattern is to lull your opponent into a false sense of security and then extremely rapidly, spring the trap. It’s interesting that some forms of automation inadvertently produce this same effect.


*”Operating inside the OODA loop” is one of what I’ve called Boyd’s four “big ideas.” For an explanation, scroll down to “Boyd’s Big Ideas” on our Articles page.

More “Mind Follows Heart”

On Alternet: More research confirms that “We want to believe we’re rational, but reason turns out to be the ex post facto way we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.” 

In other words, say goodnight to the dream that education, journalism, scientific evidence, media literacy or reason can provide the tools and information that people need in order to make good decisions.

The Alternet article is called “The Most Depressing Discovery About the Brain, Ever,” which I guess it would be, except that it opens up competitive advantage to those who understand the phenomenon and take advantage of it. Think Hitler focusing on the Pas de Calais, and Stalin on explaining away intelligence reports that accurately reported German preparations for Operation Barbarossa (“You are right, Stalin. Germany will not attack the Soviet Union in 1941.” NKVD head Lavrentii Beria, a few days before the attack.) Eventually, though, reality intrudes, but you don’t have to leave it to chance: You are part of reality for your competition. Continue reading

Always question the obvious

It’s common wisdom that among the virtues needed to succeed in business, and for that matter, any competitive enterprise, are passion and a sense of urgency.

Both of these, though, have drawbacks. They lock orientation, sort of like painting over your windshield and stomping on the accelerator. “Urgency” is particularly pernicious because it becomes a corporate loyalty test: Just execute the plan, act now, don’t think, and for God’s sake, don’t question. Continue reading

Orientation — not what it seems

Once, while musing on the essence of things, Boyd noted that:

Orientation is the Schwerpunkt. It shapes the way we interact with the environment—hence orientation shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act. In this sense, Orientation shapes the character of present observation-orientation-decision-action loops—while these present loops shape the character of future orientation. Implication: We need to create mental images, views, or impressions, hence patterns that match with activity of world, and we need to deny adversary the possibility of uncovering or discerning patterns that match our activity, or other aspects of reality in the world. Organic Design, 16

In other words, conflict is a game of dueling orientations, where we try to maintain a more accurate model of unfolding circumstances than the other players’. We don’t leave this to chance:  ” … and we need to deny adversary the possibility of uncovering or discerning patterns that match our activity, or other aspects of reality in the world.” Boyd suggested many ways to do this, including camouflage, concealment, security, deception, and most powerful of all, ambiguity particularly by operating inside adversary’s OODA loops. Continue reading

Precision in shoe boxes

Here’s the box for my wife’s latest pair of Tevas:


This is the complete box, seen from the inside, including the lid and reinforcements for the sides. No glue and no tape. Completely recyclable.

It’s still amazing to me how someone can think of things like this, not to mention manufacture them. What’s coming next — fractals?

Mind the gaps!

Like those between private jets and fractional ownership or between fractional ownership and Imperial Class.

One of the strengths of the free enterprise system is that if somebody imagines a gap, or even the possibility of creating one, and if that someone can get funding, then said someone will give it a try. That’s what we’re seeing now in the commercial aviation business.

The old model is broken. The four legacy majors — American, Delta, United, and Southwest — are moving upmarket as fast as they can, with the logical conclusion that in the near future, they’ll ditch coach entirely. So instead of coach, business, and first, the new model will be business/first, and a new ultra premium class that I’ve called “Imperial.” At least two airlines are well along in this process. Watch the commercials for Dubai’s Emirates, and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad now goes them a little better, or should I say closer to Imperial Class, with “The Residence”: Continue reading

Tactics of the Islamic State

In a post on the situation in Iraq today, Pat Lang has suggested that “This has Guderian, Patton, Manstein, et al., written all over it.”

True. Boyd did a nice summary of these tactics:

Message: By exploiting superior leadership, intelligence, communications, and mobility as well as by playing upon adversary’s fears and doubts via propaganda and terror, forces of The Islamic State operated inside adversary observation-orientation-decision-action loops.

Result: Outnumbered IS fighters created impressions of terrifying strength—by seeming to come out of nowhere yet be everywhere.

Hence: Subversive propaganda, clever stratagems, fast breaking maneuvers, and calculated terror not only created vulnerabilities and weaknesses but also played upon moral factors that drain away resolve, produce panic, and bring about collapse.  Patterns of Conflict, chart 28.

OK, I did make a few insignificant changes to bring it up to date.