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.

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.


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.

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

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, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFbryriZ3is and http://www.emirates.com/english/about/advertising/advertising.aspx. Abu Dhabi’s Etihad now goes them a little better, or should I say closer to Imperial Class, with “The Residence”: http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheats/2014/08/12/etihad-launches-planes-with-full-suites.html 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.

Coffee Culture

I tweeted this a few days ago, but it’s such a nice article that it’s worth reposting here.

The Future of Iced Coffee, by Alex Madrigal on Atlantic.com. “Somehow, (Blue Bottle CEO James) Freeman had scaled perfection.”

Not an easy job. As you read the article, be on the lookout for Schwerpunkt (Patterns 78)/ unifying vision (Patterns 143), which are common among entrepreneurs.

Even more interesting, at least to me, the author draws his own conclusions about why the Blue Bottle culture works:

But everywhere I looked, the most important component of scaling was the ideas of the people working with Blue Bottle.

Pure Boyd, although I’d be surprised to find out that Freeman had ever heard of the good colonel. Remember, one way to characterize Boyd’s philosophy is “Pump up the creativity and initiative of everybody in the organization and focus it to accomplish the objectives of the organization.”

The Discourse elaborates on this philosophy and provides examples, and you may find a few more parts for your snowmobiles in the article.

Oh, and watch out for the poodles! I know you already do, but could you show me how?

No, Johnny, no!

As Business Intelligence reports, John Chambers, long-time CEO of Cisco, recently told attendees at the Fortune Brainstorm conference in Aspen:

On the one hand, he hints that Cisco might carry more fat on its payroll than it should, but that he “doesn’t have the heart” to implement some kind of brutal, competitive HR practice, like a stack ranking performance review, where employees are rated against each other and the bottom percent are let go.

“A well-run organizations turns over 10% of their organizations, including senior leadership. I don’t have the heart to do that.

Arrrgh!  Either Einheit is important or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then a “stack ranking performance review” is a wonderful way to kill it. Deming pointed this out in Out of the Crisis and it’s embodied in his 14 points. He was right then, and he’s still right.

Stick with your instincts, John.