Just one word for the new graduate

Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Neuroplasticity.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

This is another in a series of posts promoting, or at least complicating, our understanding of Orientation because Orientation is, after all, the Schwerpunkt.

In fact, if I had to boil Boyd’s philosophy down to one idea, it might be to ensure that your orientation makes more accurate forecasts than those of your opponents. If we’re talking business competition, substitute “customers” for “opponents.” Continue reading

Spinney: Why I wrote “Evolutionary Epistemology”

A reader asked about the reference to “Campbell” on slide 38, “Basic Assumptions of Different Orientations,” of Evolutionary Epistemology, whether this was Joseph Campbell, the late American author and scholar of myths. Chuck’s reply:

The Campbell I am referring to is Donald T Campbell. Curiously, I came up with the term “evolutionary epistemology” as a title by myself, when I was asked to brief Boyd’s D&C paper shortly after he died in 1997. This was to a strategy class at the Naval War College. Boyd never heard the term from my lips and I do not recall him ever using it. We often referred to his paper as his learning theory. I remember telling someone that this is really a paper about epistemology.

I added some things to the briefing that Boyd did not talk about in his lecture (especially, the evolution of cosmology) and while working on that part, it came to me that that Boyd’s paper was really about the evolution of epistemology. I am using the term “evolution” in a strict biological sense. So, I coined the the name of the briefing to distinguish it from John’s and to make clear that it was my interpretation of John’s work.

Later someone told me I was discussing things very similar to the work of Donald T. Campbell. And it turns out that Campbell, a social scientist, coined the term in the 1960s. I never heard of him, although he taught at my university (Lehigh), albeit after I had graduated!!!! I did a library search and came up with an article he wrote in 1974 with the same title, which you will find in Chapter II of a book of essays: Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge edited by Radnitzky and Barley (Open Court 1987). This book comes at the evolutionary nature from an entirely different perspective and there is no mention of Heisenberg, Gödel, or the 2nd Law. But many of the ideas overlap and are compatible with each other.

I do not think Boyd was familiar with Donald Campbell’s work, and I only came across it by accident after I prepared the briefing. So, since I evolved the title independently, I decided to keep it. But Campbell’s work (which I have not reviewed in many years) seemed consistent with Boyd’s.

By the way, lots of people were working on the ideas Boyd was exploring. My own favorite remains Jacob Bronowski — he was almost there — making two-way linkages between Heisenberg, Gödel, and the 2nd law, but he never synthesized all three. I think if Bronowski had seen Boyd’s paper, he would have slapped his forehead and said “ah hah!” By the way, Boyd showed the paper to the physicist Freeman Dyson (the three of us were in my office) and Boyd asked Dyson if he saw anything wrong in the argument. Dyson said he did not see any problems with the argument and from what I could tell, seemed to like the paper.

One final point: I do not recall Boyd saying anything about Joseph Campbell’s work or that it influenced his thinking — but that does not mean it did not.

Jacob Bronowski doesn’t appear in the sources for “Destruction and Creation.” There are two listings in the sources for Patterns, for The Identity of Man (1971) and A Sense of the Future (1977). I know that he was also a fan of The Ascent of Man (1973)Those three, plus two copies of The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, are included in his collection at Quantico.  All heavily annotated. 

This Boyd Stuff Works!

Starting in around 2000, Dean Lenane, the CEO of a German-owned auto-systems supplier, CRH of North America, began applying Boyd’s concepts. The results were spectacular. As he told me once,

I asked my staff to read 4 books: Certain to Win, Boyd by Robert Coram, Maneuver Warfare Handbook by Bill Lind and Warfighting by the USMC. Although my people were sometimes puzzled by this curriculum, I was able to get most of what we were trying to get across stuffed into the assembled noggins.

Between 2000 and 2010, CRH North America went from no presence whatsoever to the largest supplier in its market sector in the NAFTA region. If anyone thinks this is easy, then I suggest they try it.

A couple of years ago, Dean began writing the story of how he did it. You can download the result, The Turnaround, from our Articles page. Last year, he put the essence of his experience in to a briefing slide show that I first saw out in San Diego in February and which he polished and gave at the 2014 Boyd and Beyond Conference back in October. With his kind permission, I’ve also uploaded the October edition to our Articles page.

New version of “Evolutionary Epistemology”

Chuck Spinney has posted a new version, 2.4, of Evolutionary Epistemology, his explanation in briefing slide format of Boyd’s “Destruction and Creation.”  The biggest change is a new page 4. You can download this version from our Articles page.

Robert Coram captured the problems most of us have when trying to understand what Boyd was driving at in D&C:

Because Boyd spent more than four years researching and writing and then distilling his work down to eleven pages, the result has a specific gravity approaching that of uranium.  It is thick and heavy and ponderous, filled with caveats and qualifiers and arcane references that span theories never before connected. To read “Destruction and Creation” is to fully appreciate the term “heavy sledding.” (Boyd, p. 323)

Yet, as Chuck illustrates, everything Boyd wrote in the remaining 20 years of his life — from Patterns of Conflict to The Essence of Winning and Losing — reinforce the main points of D&C. It is the only thing Boyd produced that he never revised.

Evolutionary Epistemology is more than an explanation, however. It stands as a complement to Boyd’s paper, and, by looking at his concepts from other angles, makes the original more approachable. It takes its place alongside Patterns, Strategic Game, Conceptual Spiral, and the rest of the Discourse as another illustration of message of “Destruction and Creation.”

[Note: the link to “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop” on page 43 has been broken. Please download the latest version from our Articles page.]

Coherent, Credible, and Wrong

The best strategist is not the one who knows he must deceive the enemy,
but the one who knows how to do it.

Polish SciFi master Stanislaw Lem (1921 – 2006)

We often think of Soviet doctrine as tanks lined up tread to tread, rolling forward until either they conquer or fall. Mass makes might. While there is a lot of truth to the Soviet, and so presumably Russian, respect for mass, it may surprise you to learn that the Soviets had, and so presumably the Russians have, a well thought-out doctrine of deception called maskirovka. The BBC ran a nice piece on the subject a few days back, “How Russia outfoxes its enemies,” by Lucy Ash.

Boyd had great respect for deception, “an impression of events as they are not,” as he wrote on Patterns chart 115, “Essence of Maneuver Conflict.” A person who is being deceived is not confused. He knows what the situation is. His orientation is coherent; his mental model of the world fits all the facts. It’s just wrong. Boyd’s primary vehicle for using deception was the cheng / chi maneuver, which he borrowed from Sun Tzu and reformulated in more modern terms as the Nebenpunkte / Schwerpunkt concept (see charts 78, 114, and many others). Basically, the deceiver shapes the orientation of the victim to expect (cheng) certain actions to take place. Think all of the stuff the allies did to shape Hitler into expecting the D-Day attack across the Pas de Calais. The deceiver then springs something entirely unexpected, the chi, and tries to exploit the resulting shock and confusion. Continue reading

Playing defense

One of the most powerful ideas in Boyd’s philosophy of conflict is that it doesn’t make any difference how potent adversaries’ weapons might be — or how brilliant their strategy — if they can’t use them.  Why might they not be able to use them?  Some reasons are simple, such as lack of proficiency. In other words, insufficient Fingerspitzengefühl or its organizational counterpart, Einheit. They know what to do but just don’t have the skills to do it.

There’s another possibility, one that Boyd especially liked, and it applies even if they’re well-trained: Get them confused, discombobulated, or better yet, infected with fear, uncertainty, doubt and mistrust.  He suggested many ways to do this, some of which are direct, such as agitprop and fifth columns, and others that fall under the category of “operating inside their OODA loops.” You can read more about this approach in Patterns, particularly around pages 121-125 and pages 46-47 of Strategic Game. Continue reading

Fear of planning

Another post on research into the physiology of orientation.

Planning may start in brain’s amygdala, study says,” reporting on research conducted at Cambridge University.  The amygdala is most commonly associated with emotions like fear and aggression, so its relationship to planning comes as somewhat of a surprise.

Perhaps this neural activity in the amygdala is related to the idea that much of the activity of the frontal lobe — our higher-order thinking apparatus — is justifying and implementing actions that we decided on somewhere else. “The mind follows where the heart leads,” in other words. Perhaps it’s the amygdala and not the heart.

Early in the process, neurons in the amygdala were activated in a pattern that reflected “several trials ahead” whether the monkey would save up towards specific goals, according to the study. “These activity patterns could be used by the frontal lobe to translate goal signals into concrete action plans,” [project lead Fabian] Grabenhorst told AFP by email.

What makes this most interesting from Boyd’s perspective is that this activity is taking place in one of our primary fear centers, and in particular, one activated by ambiguity.  A key thread in Boyd’s approach is to pump up fear, menace, and uncertainty (ambiguity), which juice the amygdala.

This was a small experiment, but it does suggest a physiological basis for Boyd’s contention that one can attack not only an opponent’s plans, as Sun Tzu insisted, but his very ability to plan.

RIP Southwest??

I hope not.  Under former CEO Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines shone like a beacon through the gloom of top-down cultures managing to next quarter’s bottom line. Although it often produced the best numbers in the industry, Southwest maintained its focus on people — customers as well as members of its organization. As one imitator after another bit the dust, Kelleher would proclaim that “They can copy the details, like fly just one type of airplane, but they can’t copy the culture!”

Well, the latest quality-related numbers aren’t looking too good.  In the Wall St. Journal‘s annual ranking of US airlines, (paywall) Southwest landed at the bottom for mishandled luggage (“On average, at least one passenger ends up missing a bag from every Southwest flight.”), and near the bottom for involuntarily bumped passengers and for on-time arrivals. The once-proud Southwest ranked 5th out of eight overall and scored at the top in only one area, two hour tarmac delays. Ironically, the airline was just fined $1.6 million (WSJ – paywall), the largest such civil penalty ever, for repeated violations of the rule allowing passengers to deplane after a 3-hour delay. Southwest says that it has made substantial investments in the interim to fix the problem. Continue reading

Fingerspitzengefeuhl for building snowmobiles

That might be Boyd’s philosophy in a nutshell:

Revelation

A loser is someone is someone — individual or group — who cannot build snowmobiles when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change;

A winner is someone — individual or group — who can build snowmobiles, and employ them in an appropriate fashion, when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change.

Does it seem banal?  Insipid?  Perhaps, but as in so much else, the key lies in knowing how to do it. With that in mind, look at this story by Ben Cohen in today’s Wall St. J., “Urban Meyer: The Once and Future King of College Football.” (paywall)  If you have the print edition, it’s on page B7.

How he rose—and then rose again—has a lot to do with Meyer’s ability as college football’s ultimate imitator. The one thing he does better than any coach is incorporate other ideas into his own. “If there’s something he can get from anyone else to help his teams win, he’s going to do that,” former Texas coach Mack Brown said. …

His colleagues say Meyer’s capacity to absorb information sets him apart from more stubborn coaches. “He’s the most astute listener I’ve ever met,” said Ohio State tight ends coach Tim Hinton.

One of the characteristics of Boyd’s approach is that you don’t have to be perfect for it to work. Just be better than everybody else.

It may seem that this approach emphasizes the observation and orientation aspects of the OODA “loop” more than the decide and act. But in keeping with the notion of the OODA loop as an organic whole, consider that the ideas that Urban Meyer is picking up are just that, ideas. Hypotheses, in other words.  Potential parts for his snowmobile. Until he’s tested them on the field and his team can execute them fluidly and intuitively — in other words, subjected them to the learning loop, the “hypothesis” and “test” aspects — he really doesn’t have anything. So it is a complete “loop,” and Meyer appears to be executing it pretty well.

[For all you Buckeye fans out there, this should balance out the post about Oregon that I ran back on Saturday.]

Don’t move, be agile

Matthew Futterman, in “Ducks vs. Buckeyes: Classic Culture Clash,” from yesterday’s Wall St. J. (paywall), pointed out a great example of reorientation:

In 2004, [then-Oregon coach Mike] Bellotti got impatient. The pro-style offense he had inherited from Brooks had stalled. New defensive schemes, such as the zone blitz, where defenses could pressure the passer without becoming vulnerable to a run, had stymied Oregon’s rushing attack. The previous season the team had scored just 356 points, nearly 200 fewer than Pac-12 champion USC, finishing a middling 8-5.

Bellotti studied tapes of lesser football schools, such as Northwestern, Bowling Green and Utah, which played fast, spread its offensive weapons across the field and put the quarterback in motion on nearly every play. After caving to resistance from coaches and enduring a 5-6 season, he pressed ahead, starting to recruit players built to run the fastest, most kinetic offense college football had ever seen. The Ducks went 10-2 in 2005 and Bellotti became a hero across the state.

This is what Boyd called Behendigkeit, or “mental agility,” which is the ability to break out of one pattern of ideas and actions and adopt a new pattern.

Once you’re in a new pattern, then you can be agile within it:

Joel Klatt, the former quarterback at Colorado who now does analysis for Fox Sports, noted that Helfrich recently explained the Oregon philosophy of football in Zen language. “He said our goal is to constantly remain the same and in remaining the same to constantly evolve,” Klatt said.

Shunryu Suzuki, author of one of my favorite books, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, put it this way when describing meditation:

Don’t move! But when I say don’t move, it doesn’t mean you can’t move.