OODA loops go forth

Most readers of this blog will be familiar with Boyd’s practice of exploring a variety of domains looking for what he called “invariants,” concepts that keep occurring in different fields. Here, for example, is his domain list from Strategic Game of ? and ?

From Strategic Game of ? and ?

The invariants he found in this collection explain the two question marks (All of Boyd’s works are available for free download from our Articles page).

What you may not be so familiar with is that the process goes both ways. That is, once he distilled out an invariant, it was often applicable to domains outside his original collection. In fact, this was virtually inevitable, as he observed near the end of his life in Conceptual Spiral (1992):

Taken together, the theorems associated with Gödel, Lowenheim & Skolem, Tarski, Church, Turing, Chaitin, and others reveal that not only do the statements representing a theoretical system for explaining some aspect of reality explain that reality inadequately or incompletely but, like it or not, these statements spill out beyond any one system and do so in unpredictable ways (14).

So the OODA loop, which started out as a concept from armed conflict — war — quickly spilled out into business, sports, politics, etc. One could argue that although these aren’t war, they are forms of conflict, thus the application of the OODA loop to them shouldn’t be surprising. But here is something perhaps less expected. This post introduces a paper from Lancaster University in England, “Rethinking reflective practice: John Boyd’s OODA loop as an alternative to Kolb.,” by Mike Ryder and Carolyn Downs (The International Journal of Management Education 20 (2022) 100703), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1472811722001057

Let me start by admitting that I have no idea who Kolb was or is and have never heard of “reflective practice.” But what is clear is that the OODA loop is making a major leap from any form of conflict into pedagogy — the art of teaching. Here is the paper’s abstract:

The world is changing and business schools are struggling to keep up. Theories of reflective practice developed by the likes of Schon (1983), Gibbs (1988), Driscoll (1994, 2007) and Kolb (1984, 2015) are outdated and unfit for current purposes. Problems include the chronology of events, the orientation of the observer, the impact of external inputs, and the fact that neither education nor the workplace follow a structured, linear path.

In response to these challenges, we propose a new ‘solution’: John Boyd’s OODA loop. We argue that OODA loops offer the chance to reshape reflective practice and work-based learning for a world in which individuals must cope with ‘an unfolding evolving reality that is uncertain, ever changing and unpredictable’ (Boyd, 1995, slide 1). By embracing the philosophy of John Boyd and his OODA loop theory, business schools can develop greater resilience and employability in graduates, preparing them to embrace change while also embedding the concept of life-long learning to make them better equipped to face the uncertainty that the modern world brings.

I am not going to get involved in debate over reflective practice, whatever that may be. However, having taught Boyd’s philosophy and OODA loop theory in graduate business school, I heartily concur with the last sentence of the abstract.

Before you read the paper, one caution. As you will soon discover, I am cited and quoted several times, granting me considerably more credit than I deserve. That being said, this is an excellent exegesis of some of Boyd’s ideas, particularly as they affect the “learning loop,” where we tweak our orientations to keep up with that “unfolding evolving reality” and develop the intuitive actions we need to respond to and influence that world. Boyd described this aspect of the “loop” in Conceptual Spiral, particularly slides 26 – 28, and drew his famous sketch of it in The Essence of Winning and Losing (1996):

The “learning loop” component of the OODA “loop” (emp. added)

Let me illustrate with a few quotes from the paper:

The real value of Boyd’s theory is in its approach to thinking and understanding one’s orientation with respect to the wider world…

A good example might be the student who memorises a long list of management theories and develops excellent speed of recall. While this may be a useful skill to pass an exam, what the student doesn’t gain is the intuitive ability to process factors and apply them to a given situation. This requires a far deeper level of understanding than a textbook or list of management theories can provide. Much rather, it requires knowledge and understanding beyond the formal realms of any given subject: it requires speed of contextual processing, rather than speed of recall.

This is why Boyd’s theory is so useful. 

The application of the “loop,” the entire “loop,” to the process of teaching, itself, appears to me to be novel, and for this reason alone, I highly recommend this paper. I’m going to assume most of my audience aren’t professional educators (although we all end up teaching something to somebody at some point …). Whatever your occupation, however, it’s a great example of how ideas spread not by analogy but by first developing a deep understanding of their origins and meanings, and then applying this understanding to new domains.

Boyd first used this approach in “Destruction and Creation,” and, as he explains in the “Abstract” (available on the Articles page), continued to employ it the rest of his life:

Yet, the theme that weaves its way through this Discourse on Winning and Losing is not so much contained within each of the five sections, per se, that make up the Discourse; rather, it is the kind of thinking that both lies behind and makes up its very essence. For the interested, a careful examination will reveal that the increasingly abstract discussion surfaces a process of reaching across many perspectives; pulling each and every one apart (analysis), all the while intuitively looking for those parts of the disassembled perspectives which naturally interconnect with one another to form a higher-order, more general elaboration (synthesis) of what is taking place. As a result, the process not only creates the Discourse but it also represents the key to evolve the tactics, strategies, goals, unifying themes, etc., that permit us to actively shape and adapt to the unfolding world we are a part of, live in, and feed upon.

Boyd’s OODA “Loop”: What and why?

As Frans Osinga pointed out in his 2006 examination of John Boyd’s philosophy of conflict, Science, strategy and war: The strategic theory of John Boyd, the OODA loop is the best known but probably most misunderstood aspect of Boyd’s body of work. Even today, it’s very common to see people describe the OODA loop as a loop. However, when Boyd finally got around to producing a “sketch” of the “loop” (his terms), it was, as I’m sure practically all readers of this blog know, something entirely different.

From “The Essence of Winning and Losing,” 1996.

Why? The reason is that the OODA “loop” is an answer to a specific problem. It is not, for example a model of decision making — in fact, it simply requires you to make implicit and explicit decisions and link them to actions, all the while experimenting and learning.

On November 30, I gave a lecture on this subject to the Swedish Defense University in Stockholm. My host, Johan Ivari, arranged for it to be recorded and made available on the University’s web site. They broke it into two parts:

Part 1 https://play.fhs.se/media/The+OODA-%E2%80%9Dloop%E2%80%9D+lecture+by+Chet+Richards+-+Part+1+-+Setting+the+scene./0_bkfn6gnx

Part 2 https://play.fhs.se/media/The+OODA-%E2%80%9Dloop%E2%80%9D+lecture+by+Chet+Richards+-+Part+2+-+John+Boyd%27s+real+OODA+%E2%80%9CLoop%E2%80%9D+/0_tkvhlxsh

I had a lot of fun with this, and the students asked some great questions. I hope you enjoy it!

By the way, check out some of the other interesting videos on their site.

Fighting on the Eastern Front, 1942 – 45

In 1979 and 1980, Wehrmacht generals Hermann Balck, A.D. Von Mellenthin, and Heinz Gaedcke gave interviews, and even participated in war-games, in the United States. Their hosts included senior US officials, including Andrew Marshall and LTGs Paul Gorman and Glenn Otis, Retired General William DuPuy, and John Boyd and Pierre Sprey. Current USMC doctrine, “maneuver warfare,” was heavily influenced by the German “blitzkrieg,” and the officers in these interviews were some of its most skilled practitioners.

Battelle Labs and the BDM Corporation compiled transcripts of these events and they are available at Chuck Spinney’s “Blaster” site, http://chuckspinney.blogspot.com/p/in-mid-1970s-military-reformers-led-by.html

Given what’s going on in Eastern Europe today, I’m sure you’ll find these fascinating reading. Incidentally, if you’ve tried but been unable to access them in the past, Chuck has repaired the links and they should work. To download, please use the icon in the Google Docs toolbar rather than your browser menu.

Readers of this blog who are familiar with John Boyd’s work will find the sources of many of his references to German tactics, such as:

In addition to these interviews, Chuck also includes links to interviews with Stuka pilots Hans Ulrich Rudel and Paul-Werner Hozzel.

Magic leadership video now live!

Kanban University has posted the video of my keynote, The Lost Arts of Leadership, and How to Get Them Back, from the Kanban Global Summit in San Diego in August.

Finally, the secret to great leadership is revealed. Shutterstock image.

A couple of points:

  • The speaker’s rostrum was on a platform about 18″ above the floor, and the audience was seated pretty close to it. It made for a dynamic speaking experience, but it also explains why I seem to be bent over a lot.
  • The presentation has several animations which in the interests of readability, the version that accompanies my video doesn’t capture. If you’d like to see them, please download the PDF edition on our Articles page (each stage of a build is a separate slide). Also, I’m using an Apple Pencil to underline, circle, draw arrows and the like. You’ll have to infer these.

There were a lot of interesting presentations. You can view them all on their Conference Archive and their YouTube channel. And don’t forget the helpful and entertaining set of annotations!



A subject I know virtually nothing about, apart from the Wikipedia article and a couple of Taleb’s YouTube videos.

That being admitted, here’s the definition from Wikipedia:

Antifragility is a property of systems in which they increase in capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.

Certainly sounds like a generalization of “operating inside the OODA loop,” which applies to conflict between sentient organisms and organizations.

I’ll be giving a closing keynote on operating inside the OODA loop at 11:25 ET on November 16 at the Agility, Resilience, and Antifragility 2022 Virtual Conference. It’s free and open to the public, so listen in.

Do you believe in magic?

The Witch of Endor
1 Samuel 28

[11/11/2022 version updates link to annotations] There’s a whole category of leadership practices that are rarely taught nowadays. I’m thinking witchcraft, conjuring, necromancy, divination and the like. People have been practicing these arts for tens of thousands of years — they show up on cave walls and the Bible attests to their power — but you’ll search long and hard to find MBA programs that include them.

So in my keynote at the recently held Kanban Global Summit in San Diego, I set out to remedy this sad state of affairs.

Lycanthropy – a neglected art of leadership
(Shutterstock image)

You can download the PDF (12.3 MB) of my presentation, and I’ve also included a helpful set of notes and annotations. WordPress’s Terms of Service appear to prevent me from including the actual spells, hexes, and curses themselves — a liability thing, you know. This is unfortunate, because we have all had occasions when the ability to transform into a werewolf and rip out somebody’s heart would have proven extremely useful*. But I think you’ll find enough to give your leadership that extra edge you need to be successful in these trying times.

Many thanks to David J. Anderson, founder, honcho, and chief sensei at Kanban University, for inviting me back. The University’s Kanban Maturity Model provides a tested framework for incorporating the OODA loop (the one Boyd intended) into practically any type of organization.

Also, my extreme gratitude to the staff of Kanban University for putting up with all my questions, objections, and negotiations over the past three years — the Summit was originally scheduled for 2020.

And, finally, our host facility, the Rancho Bernado Inn, might be a great place for that mid-winter, or, if you’re from my part of the world, mid-summer getaway.

*If you go around ripping out peoples’ hearts without first transforming into a werewolf, that’s not magic. You may have anger management issues.

Why you should read Certain to Win (and 5 other books)

Shepherd.com has just published my recommendations for your light summer reading.  The concept is to explain why people should read one of your books, and then to recommend five others, all around a common theme.  I took my inspiration from Boyd, whose basic method was to look for common themes — “invariants” —  across a wide variety of domains and then use these as the building blocks for his syntheses.

Here’s an example from his 1987 briefing, Strategic Game of ? and ?

SG Slide 12

Typical Boyd to begin his presentation on strategy with stuff from mathematical logic and physics. In that spirit, I recommend works from:

  • Statistics
  • Literature
  • Ancient wisdom & philosophy
  • Anatomy and Physiology

And Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.

Just seemed like what every person ought to know. The site limits authors to five books, so I tried to pick subjects that you might have overlooked.

Go check it out: https://shepherd.com/best-books/for-upsetting-your-orientation

How the Narcotic of Defense Spending Undermines a Sensible Grand Strategy

A new post by Chuck Spinney on his Blaster blog.


Here’s a sample to get you started:

The MICC’s grand-strategic chickens are coming home to roost big time. While war is bad, the Russo-Ukrainian War has the champagne corks quietly popping in the Pentagon, on K Street, in the defense industry, and throughout the halls of Congress. Taxpayers are going to be paying for their party for a long time.

It is no accident that the United States is on the cusp of the Second Cold War.

Future historians may well view the last 30 years as a case study in the institutional survival of the American Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex (MICC), together with its supporting blob now saturating the media, think tanks, academia, and the intelligence community. Perhaps, these future historians will come also to view the Global War on Terror (GWOT) as the bridging operation that greased the transition to Cold War II by keeping defense budgets at Cold War levels after Cold War I ended. Also, 9-11 may have re-acclimated the American people to the climate of fear now needed to sustain Cold War II for the remainder of the 21st Century.