A Boydian Distribution?

I’m not sure what to do with this article about the Tracy-Widom distribution, but it seems like it might contribute to Boyd’s philosophy of conflict on several levels. I’ll offer it in the spirit that Boyd spent a lot of time mining physics and biology for parts to use in his snowmobiles.

The article is “At the Far Ends of a New Universal Law,” by Natalie Wolchover in the October 15th edition of Quanta Magazine.

Usually I’m skeptical about applying physical or statistical concepts to the problems of strategy because these laws assume that the particles don’t behave like participants in a conflict, i.e., that they don’t lie, engage in deception, try to panic the scientists, and so on. As Boyd put it, on chart 132 of Patterns, instead of choosing the alternative that you think will be the most effective, select the one that your opponent will least expect, ideally something your opponent thinks is impossible. Do this just for the panic effect if nothing else.  Typically, particles obeying the laws of physics don’t do this. Continue reading

Whence Fingerspitzengefuehl?

Try this: Hold your right arm out in front of you, palm up. Unless you’ve been injured, you should be able to flex your elbow easily 150 or more degrees so that your hand touches your right shoulder. Now hold it back out straight, and keeping your palm up, try to bend your elbow the other way.  How far down can you go? For me the answer is practically zero degrees. There are people, however, who can go down some distance, as much as 10 degrees.

Now let’s suppose that it’s important for you to develop the ability to go down 10 degrees, say for some special mission. How much practice would it take for you to get your elbow to to do this (holding your palm up)? Would 10,000 hours do the trick?

A quick glance at the physiology of the elbow should convince you that there is no amount of practice that would work. Some sort of surgery would be your only option.

Continue reading

What’s luck got to do with it?

One of the things that used to drive Boyd nuts was trusting to “luck”: Once you’ve run through your bag of tricks, you give up and “trust to luck.” We’ve done all we can. It’s out of our hands now.

Boyd would insist that you never do this, that you keep on building snowmobiles and learning from the results right up until the end. Keep your team from “coming unglued,” as he would put it. This is not luck but lots of clear thinking, hard work, and leadership before and during the conflict.

A little of this flavor comes from a recent interview in The Guardian by Peter Thiel, of “monopoly is good” (WSJ — paywall) fame. I had never thought of “luck” as being an atheistic god, but he may have a point:

What I do think is that as a society we attribute too much to luck. Luck is like an atheistic word for God: we ascribe things to it that we don’t understand or don’t want to understand. As a venture capitalist, I think one of the most toxic things to do is to treat the people I’m investing in as lottery tickets where I say: “Well I don’t know if your business is going to work. It might, it might not.” I think that’s a horrible way to treat people. The anti-lottery ticket approach is to try to achieve a high level of conviction, to ask: “Is this a business that I have enough confidence in that I would consider joining it myself?”

In other words, Fingerspitzengefühl as an antidote to “luck.” I think this is an interpretation that Boyd would have liked.

“Uncertainty” is reality; it’s the climate of all competition, and like climate, it affects all competitors. So as Richards’ Third Law states:

If you lost because of luck, you were a loser going in.

It would be like a general blaming his debacle on rain.

Uncertainty is really nasty stuff, so you don’t want to leave it to chance. The essence of Boyd’s approach to tactics is that you don’t have to wait on acts of God — you can create the climate of uncertainty yourself, you can build your own Fog of War Machine.

Because they’re inside their OODA loops

How small animals sometimes beat larger rivals:

Specific traits that may provide advantages to small species in aggressive interactions included well-developed leg musculature and talons, enhanced flight acceleration and maneuverability and traits associated with aggression including testosterone and muscle development.

From “When David beats Goliath,” by Anne Craig at PhysOrg. The study was performed by Paul Martin of Queens University, Kingston, Ontario.

Should not surprise readers of this column.

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 newyorker.com.  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