Plausible deniability?

That seems to be what many CEOs nowadays are going for: “Chiefs at Big Firms Often the Last to Know” (paywall), in yesterday’s Wall St. J. The argument goes

Bosses need to know what’s going on to make informed decisions, but that knowledge is dependent on what direct reports choose to tell them.

So you have lots of levels and filtering going on at every level. Pity the poor CEOs at the end of the chain.

To which I reply, “Only if they’re stupid.” Or their idea of management is to sit in their corner offices, ponder their enormous salaries, and receive the ministrations of minions. Continue reading

CEO to beancounters: Sit down!

On the one hand, it’s always to good to see sanity prevail:

Delta Chief Executive Richard Anderson studies daily cancellation reports and overruled arguments inside the airline that there weren’t enough cancellations to justify the cost.

As Wall St. J. airline columnist Scott McCartney writes (paywall), attitudes such as this help explain why Delta has the lowest cancellation rate in the industry, a whopping 50% below that of the next best airlines (Southwest and Alaska) and nearly 1/6 of the airline industry average of 1.7%. Continue reading

Maneuver retail — 2

Another in our series on improving the performance of retail operations and improving the quality of life for people in it. Last post, we looked at Nordstrom; today it’s Chipotle. Yesterday, the online magazine Quartz ran a feature on their management approach.

To start off, you have to give them credit for having a unifying vision:

“The foundation of our people culture, on which everything else stands, is the concept is that each person at Chipotle will be rewarded based on their ability to make the people around them better,” [Co-CEO Monty] Moran told Quartz. Continue reading

Don’t fence me in

Nordstrom, as management consultant Michael Solomon pointed out in a recent LinkedIn column, has only one statement in its employee handbook: “Use your best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” This is not, as he goes on to observe, quite true:

There is, however, a second element of nearly equal importance at Nordstrom and at every other great organization: standards.  Additional guidelines and internal, codified knowledge that support these employees and multiply the power of their “best judgment.” Continue reading

Another ring?

John Boyd really liked Miyamoto Musashi’s 1645 treatise on swordfighting, A Book of Five Rings. In that same vein, he was a big fan of The Japanese Art of War by Thomas Cleary, a work that includes excerpts from Musashi and quotes from several other samurai and Zen masters of that period. Both of these books emphasize preparing an opponent mentally before risking an attack, a theme that also runs through Sun Tzu and that forms the foundation for much of Boyd’s Discourse.

As an aside, the parallels between fencing and dueling in the skies over southern Nevada are too close to ignore.

It’s always good, then, to receive a paper by someone who knows both fencing and Boyd. Here’s a new one for you, Nick Johnson’s “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop and Fencing,” which I’ve uploaded to the Articles page.

The Pentagon Wars

Jim Burton’s classic description of his struggle to get the Army to do the right thing by its soldiers has been reissued electronically by the Naval Institute Press. Originally published in 1993, the book was made into a movie released in 1998 that starred Cary Elwes as Burton and Kelsey Grammar as, in Burton’s words, “a combination of four or five Army generals.”

Kindle users can order from, and Barnes & Noble has a version for the Nook.  A print-on-demand edition will soon be available from the Institute.

Col Burton, USAF (ret.) was the subject of Chapter 29 in Robert Coram’s biography of John Boyd.


Boyd for Business & Innovation — Final Report

Chuck Spinney explaining some obtuse point about the OODA loop

Chuck Spinney explaining some obtuse point about the OODA loop

After my presentation, retired Marine Colonel Mike Wyly joined us from Maine via Skype to relate how the Marine Corps adopted the doctrine of maneuver warfare. Mike gave us a blow-by-blow description of a process in which he played a major role. Successful doctrinal changes by large organizations are rare: If you are the CEO of an organization considering such a change, you could do a lot worse than spending some time with Mike. His paper, “Thinking Like Marines,” is conveniently available on the Articles page. Following Mike, Sean Bone, co-founder of Adaptive Leader, demonstrated tactical decision games (TDGs) they use for training leaders in mental agility and timely decision-making under conditions of stress and uncertainty. This is real-world, practical stuff that I’m sure will be a great help to many of the participants.

Finally, for a successful implementation of Boyd’s ideas in business, Dean Lenane, then-CEO of CRH North America, described how he and his small team built CRH from no presence in the US market to a major player in their industry, explicitly using the principles of Boyd’s Discourse. Absolutely fascinating. Dean has written a thinly disguised novelization of one episode in this adventure, The Turnaround, which you can (and should!) also download from the Articles page. Continue reading

Boyd for Business & Innovation — 2

Before I forget, Chuck Spinney made a point about the OODA loop that bears repeating: Boyd did not want to draw the thing! In fact, he didn’t, until the penultimate chart in his very last briefing, less than a couple of years before he died.

Why not? Probably because he was afraid any “loop” he drew would become dogma, a reasonable assumption. Chuck finally persuaded him by using the logic that if he didn’t, others would. Most likely the circular O – O – D – A loop would become fixed in people’s minds. So Boyd agreed, but he insisted on calling it an OODA loop “sketch,” and putting “Loop” in quotes.

If you look at that briefing, the purpose of “OODA loops” (not “the OODA loop”) is simply to represent the process of evolving new implicit repertoire. Now, that’s a big purpose because our ability to survive on our own terms and increase our capacity for independent action rests solidly upon it. But it also suggests that people can create other OODA loops that serve their purpose better than Boyd’s sketch, at least in specific instances. All I ask is don’t make them more complicated than what we already have.

I have uploaded my presentation, slightly edited, to the Articles page. It’s a 3.1 MB PDF, and each element of each animation is saved as a separate slide, so don’t let the number of slides put you off. You can also download all of Boyd’s briefings, including the one we were just discussing, The Essence of Winning and Losing, from that page.

Defeated by our own technology?

Paul Lewandowski suggests so in a recent blog on (registration required):

Insurgent techniques became simpler, low-tech. Military-grade munitions gave way to homemade explosives. Cell phone detonators regressed back to command wire. Suicide bombers and insurgents disguised as Afghan army or police proved more efficient than complex, electronic IEDs or expensive VBIEDs. After nearly 13 years of war, the terrorists have learned that the best counter to a techno-savvy force is simplicity.

While this is certainly true, another, perhaps better way to characterize what’s happening is that the Taliban, al-Shabab and others confronting Western military forces aren’t so much out-innovating us as out-learning us. In other words, they aren’t coming up with better and simpler technology to counter ours. Instead, they’ve just stopped playing that game entirely. What’s most interesting is that they’re getting away with it, that is, they’ve found another game to play that works better.

As Lewandowski notes, what they’ve done is return to the roots of insurgency:

deeply embedded in the local culture, regional in focus, and urban in operation. The new insurgent will be so low tech he will be virtually untraceable. Another face in a sea of faces.

Compare with Boyd’s description of guerrilla warfare:

  • Guerrillas must establish implicit connections or bonds with people and countryside.
  • In other words, guerrillas must be able to blend into the emotional-cultural-intellectual environment of people until they become one with the people.
  • In this sense, people feelings and thoughts must be guerrilla feeling and thoughts while guerrilla feelings and thoughts become people feelings and thoughts; people aspirations must be guerrilla aspirations while guerrilla aspirations become people aspirations; people goals must be guerrilla goals while guerrilla goals become people goals.
  • Result: Guerrillas become indistinguishable from people while government is isolated from people. (Patterns 95)

Or, as Lewandowski puts it:

The counterinsurgent could see them walking to their target, weapon in hand, and never register him as a threat … The counterinsurgent can’t tap into the local, informal network the way the insurgent can. No one talks to the uniformed government official, but everyone talks to their neighbor.

And that’s the real problem. Until “counterinsurgents” solve that one, all the technological innovation in the world is just expensive wheel spinning. Another example of incestuous amplification.

Boyd for Business and Innovation — 1

Got back on time from San Diego last night, which is saying a lot, considering what’s happening on the East Coast.  On the other hand, fifty-five degrees and horizontal rain isn’t something you generally associate with San Diego, but it’s still one of my wife’s and my favorite cities. [As I'm typing this, we're starting to get heavy rain here. It's followed me home.]

The conference was great. Hans Norden along with the staff at the Rady School of Management at UCSD did a fantastic job of pulling it together. If you didn’t make this year’s event, I think they’re planning for another to coincide with monsoon season next year.

Personally, it was a hoot meeting several folks that I only know through this blog. Thanks to all of you for coming and for your enthusiastic participation.

I’ll be posting more over the next several days. In the meantime, Chuck Spinney has given me his presentation, Evolutionary Epistemology, for posting, and it’s up on our Articles page now.  I’ve been watching this pitch evolve, if you’ll pardon the expression, since about the time Chuck first gave it. It just keeps getting better and better.

More stuff and impressions over the next few days.