Einheit: New Research

In Organic Design, Boyd had suggested:

Arrange setting and circumstances so that leaders and subordinates alike are given opportunity to continuously interact with external world, and with each other, in order to more quickly make many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections as well as create the similar images or impressions, hence a similar implicit orientation, needed to form an organic whole. (23)

New research out of UCLA and Caltech has found evidence of a physiological basis for this:

“Observational learning is the cornerstone for our ability to change behavior,” said senior author Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery and psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “It’s human nature to want to learn from other people’s mistakes rather than commit your own.”

Said lead author Michael Hill, a former UCLA and California Institute of Technology scientist now based at the Swiss National Science Foundation: “The ability to quickly learn from others can give humans a critical edge over other species. The skill also contributes to someone feeling he or she is a member of one culture versus another.”

They were able to identify neurons in a part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, that were active in these situations:

The findings suggest that individual nerve cells in the person’s brain used the details gleaned by observing the other players to calculate which deck to choose a card from next.

“The anterior cingulate cortex acts as the central executive of human decision-making, yet we know little about the neuronal machinery at this level,” said Fried, who is also a professor of neurosurgery at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University.

Perhaps as we learn more about how the brain works in such social situations, we can design programs and organizational climates to build Einheit more rapidly and more effectively.

[All of Boyd’s briefings are available for free download from our Articles page.]


Double Ace

Double Ace: The Life of Robert Lee Scott Jr., Pilot, Hero, and Teller of Tall Tales Robert Coram’s bio of Robert Scott, Brig Gen USAF (1908 – 2006), is now out.  I’ve ordered it and will post a review here.

cover of double aceAlthough General Scott isn’t well-remembered now (a Google search for “Robert Scott” didn’t include him in the first 10 pages of results), after WWII, he was famous as a daring fighter pilot and author of God is my Co-pilot. I met him several years ago when he was running the Museum of Aviation at Robbins AFB, about 2 hours south of Atlanta down I-75. This is an incredible museum, incidentally, with a collection of Air Force aircraft second only to the USAF Museum at Wright-Pat.  You’ll find the L-5E Sentinel (cruising speed 90 mph), the SR-71 (“Over 2,200 mph”), and pretty much everything in-between, including the P-40 Warhawk flown by Scott and the Flying Tigers.

If you can spend a day or two in this area, you won’t be too far from Andersonville and the National Prisoner of War Museum (my dad was a POW of the Japanese from  April 1942 – September 1945).  Boyd emphasized humane treatment of prisoners — and widely publicizing that fact — as a great way to encourage enemy troops to defect. Obviously there have been exceptions, but all-in-all, I think we have done this pretty well since the Civil War.

While you’re down here, check out nearby Macon, one of the capitals of Southern music, including Otis Redding, Little Richard, and the Allman Brothers.



The torch of chaos

Yesterday’s quote on the Page-a-Day calendar of Zen sayings was:

The torch of doubt and chaos is what the sage steers by. Chuang Tzu.

If you Google that quote, you can find lots of references, even a book by that title.  I’m not terribly familiar with Chuang Tzu, a younger contemporary, so the legend goes, of the much better known Lao Tzu. But I know that Boyd was heavily influenced by classical Taoism. The sources for Patterns of Conflict, for example, include Gary Zukav’s The dancing Wu Li masters and Fritjof Capra’s The tao of physics. I might possibly be somewhat to blame — I sent him his copy of Alan Watts’ Tao, the watercourse way (a great beach read, incidentally) — but he had other associates who were much more familiar with Taoism and Zen than I.

His study of these ancient ideas reinforced his natural tendency towards harmony and flow on the inside to produce non-differentiable, that is, abrupt, jerky, and disorienting, change on the outside. These ideas come through explicitly on charts 12 and 117 of Patterns of Conflict and underly practically all the rest of his work, particularly his notion of “operating inside the OODA loop.” Continue reading

The Power of Fingerspitzengefühl

An e-mail appeared a few weeks ago asking an interesting question about Fingerspitzengefühl:

I am particularly interested in the concept of Fingerspitzengefühl, which I interpret as an intuitive understanding of a situation. This concept sounds something like what my wife described to me about her work. She’s a surgeon who talks about being able to “see with her fingertips” during an operation. This sounds a lot like “Fingerspitzengefühl”. What do you think?

I think he’s right. We sometimes regard Fingerspitzengefühl as the simple component of Boyd’s organizational climate, EBFAS (for an explanation, please see my paper and accompanying presentation, “All By Ourselves,” available for free download from the Articles page.) But Boyd certainly did not. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to conclude that it lies at the core of his philosophy — simply put, if you don’t have Fingerspitzengefühl for some capability, then you don’t have the capability in any meaningful sense. Continue reading

A Boyd Potpourri

I’ve had a long, if not particularly distinguished, involvement in sales.  Starting with Fuller Brush over a college summer, then with professional services — beltway bandit stuff — domestic and foreign military aircraft, and public relations.  Along the way, I’ve picked up great respect for people who can sell for a living; sort of consider them the infantry of the business world.

So I was delighted when sales guru Anthony Iannarino asked if I’d do a podcast on John Boyd and applications of his strategies to business.  I’ve known Anthony for a while, and can attest to his knowledge of Boyd, so I hope you enjoy our session: Chet Richards on Strategy, Morale, and Agility in Warfare and Business – Episode #65.

In addition to the books that Anthony recommends at the bottom of his post, I’d also recommend the three papers from my section of the Articles page: “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop,” “John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, and the meaning of life,” and “All By Ourselves.”  These amplify some of the points in Certain to Win and include research that I’ve done since that book was published.

Anthony also includes a link to “LKCE15,” LeanKanban Central Europe 2015 in Munich last November. Click on “Videos.”  LeanKanban is a recent application of some of the ideas that underly lean production and maneuver warfare to the problems of software development. My suspicion is that LeanKanban philosophy, if not the specific techniques, will also improve throughput time, cost, and quality (simultaneously!) in other forms of white collar work. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, check out some of the material on LKCE15 and consider going to LKCE16 in Hamburg this fall.

You can download all of Boyd’s materials (for free) from our Articles page.


Unlike Patterns of Conflict, where Boyd went through so many versions that he finally quit numbering them, he only distributed one edition of his paper, “Destruction and Creation,” which carries the date 3 September 1976.

“Destruction and Creation” asks the question:

Actions must be taken over and over again and in many different ways. Decisions must be rendered to monitor and determine the precise nature of the actions needed that will be compatible with the goal. To make these timely decisions implies that we must be able to form mental concepts of observed reality, as we perceive it, and be able to change these concepts as reality itself appears to change. The concepts can then be used as decision models for improving our capacity for independent action. Such a demand for decisions that literally impact our survival causes one to wonder: How do we generate or create the mental concepts to support this decision-making activity?

He gives an answer later in the paper, then spends the next 20 years illustrating his concept for creating and updating mental models (it may not be entirely obvious, but that’s what Patterns, Organic Design, and Strategic Game are).

Somewhere along the way, fairly early, perhaps only a year or two after D&C, he coined the term “OODA loop.”  Originally it was just that, a loop, a circular process of observe, then orient, then decide, then act. I’ve heard him brief it just that way.

But problems soon began to crop up. For one thing, it’s slow. For another, quality of decision and “speed” through the OODA loop can trade-off.  That is, to go faster, you may have to hurry your decision making.  A British writer and officer, Jim Storr, simply pointed out that real organizations don’t behave as if they were cycling through OODA “loops.”

In the last work of his career, The Essence of Winning and Losing, published shortly before he died, Boyd finally produced a sketch of the OODA loop that resolved these problems.  I’ve just posted a revised version of my paper “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop” that looks at what he came up with and why. This version notes that although he rarely wrote “OODA loop” by itself before his last briefing (lots of mentions, though, of “operating inside the OODA loop”), “rarely” doesn’t mean “never.”  There are, as best I can tell, three times in the 320 or so pages that separate “Destruction and Creation” from The Essence of Winning and Losing where Boyd does mention the OODA loop per se.  None of these, though, are accompanied by any description, definition, or explanation, much less a figure or diagram.

And I’ve done some wordsmithing and added an epilogue on the bookends theme.

You can download this edition, as well as all of Boyd’s works and lots of other interesting stuff from the Articles page.



A Beautiful Day in Beaufort

In the South Carolina Lowcountry (impress the locals by spelling “Lowcountry” as all one word. For some reason, “Highcountry” like around Boone, NC, doesn’t seem to work.)

I was never much of a jock in high school — think Leonard Hofstadter or maybe even Howard Wolowitz — so after graduation, I promised myself that if I ever reached retirement, I’d make up for lost time.


The start line is the bridge way off in the distance, in the middle of the picture (click for a larger image).

And here I am.  On the beautiful Beaufort River, actually a tidal estuary, that runs past the historic Lowcountry town of Beaufort, SC (you can also impress the locals by pronouncing it “Bee-you-fort,” not “Bow-fort” — that would be the quite similar town in North Carolina.)

To be more precise, in the Beaufort River, competing in the 10th Annual Beaufort River Swim, a 3.2 mi test of courage, commitment, and endurance.  I’m happy to report that I washed ashore at somewhere around the 1 hr 12 minute point.

TheWinnerAnd Me

I’m on the right. The guy on the left, George Moreno, is an old friend, who also won the race today.

I’m also happy to report that neither Mary Lee nor any of her friends and relatives put in an appearance.  I did follow the advice of a former SEAL friend, who suggested staying as deep into the middle of the pack as possible.

Beaufort really is a wonderful little town — think live oaks and lots of Spanish Moss. The exterior scenes of the house in The Big Chill were filmed here. Pat Conroy is buried here, as is his dad, Donald, the Great Santini. Plan a visit to mysterious and romantic Parris Island, which has a great museum, open to the public. If you’re coming down the East Coast, program in a day or two. I can personally recommend the Beaufort Inn.

To all my nerd friends, here is my message:  The wait is over, your time is now, you can do it.

It’s that time of the year

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay

Nothing captures the mood of a place — the heat that penetrates, the dust, the humidity — like the Ode to Billie Joe:

Although Ms. Gentry was born in nearby Chickasaw County, the song has long been associated with Greenwood, where the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha come together to form the Yazoo. It’s where she started school and learned to play a variety of musical instruments. As an aside, “Greenwood” doesn’t appear in the lyrics — the only actual places mentioned are Tupelo and the “Carroll County picture show,” neither of which are in the Delta.

To get to the point, Greenwood is also where my wife, Ginger, was born.  So the song has always had a lot of significance to us.

If you’ve never been to the Mississippi Delta, it’s worth a trip. Home of the Delta Blues, of course, and one of those supernatural places where, to quote Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

What you think you see

Perhaps more accurately, “What you think, you see.”

It’s always worth reminding ourselves that we don’t actually “see” anything.  Photons strike our retinas causing nerve impulses to travel to various parts of the brain.  (There is processing behind the retina, so sometimes no impulses get sent.)

In any case, these impulses get mixed up with all the other activity in our 86 or so billion neurons in the brain, involving in some cases thousands of interconnections, each. The result when it finally hits our prefrontal cortex is an “observation.”

Lots of things can go wrong, a fact for which we need constant reminding. Here’s a good one.

You may have seen this recently floating around the Internet. Go to http://www.psy.ritsumei.ac.jp/~akitaoka/color12e.html and look at the last illusion.  If you have a color picker that will tell you the RGB values for any pixel, you can verify Dr. Kitaoka’s claim. Or just blow the thing up and scroll back and forth.

The same phenomenon happens out in the real world, where the patterns are not static pixels on a page but evolving scenarios often with lots of people.  If you can be fooled by pixels-on-a-page, think about what happens out there. Oh, and the pixels aren’t actively trying to deceive you.

In the OODA “loop” sketch, Boyd tried to capture this with the “implicit guidance and control” feed from orientation back to observation:

Basic OODA Loop No Blue.001

We can mine a little more from this experiment. Once you’ve decided that you see blue and green spirals, it can take a fair amount of effort to convince you otherwise, even though Kitaoka tells you what the RGB values are. You may have noticed this. Now suppose you didn’t know the real colors and just saw the figure cold.

Why do they lie to us?

Asked the late father of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, in one of his last major new books, The Curse of Lono.

The same question was asked back last November by David Anderson at the Lean Kanban Central Europe 2015 conference where he mentioned that the biggest fear of senior managers is that their middle manager are always lying to them (http://www.lkce15.com/videos/ and click on his keynote.)  As luck would have it, it was answered at least in part when a friend of mine sent me Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, Leadership BS, a couple of months ago. Pfeffer has collected data over the years to show that in the vast majority of organizations, people lie simply because there are incentives to do so and few penalties for getting caught.

So putting all this together, I did a keynote at this week’s Executive Services Planning Summit in San Diego that concluded that one of the defining characteristics of lean/agile/maneuver — basically an organization run “according to Boyd” — is that people don’t lie to each other. In such an organization, the more people trust each other and use the other elements of the EBFAS climate, the better they can employ the lean / maneuver practices specific to their line of work.

Conversely, one characteristic of a “lean” practice is that using it also reinforces the EBFAS / trust climate.  Thus using lean practices over time “matures” an organization, and that maturity will help the organization use those practices more effectively and even develop new ones.

This should be a familiar idea to those who practice lean / maneuver. For example, here’s an observation on trust from the US Marine Corps’ basic doctrinal manual MCDP-1, Warfighting:

We believe that implicit communication—to communicate through mutual understanding, using a minimum of key, well-understood phrases or even anticipating each others’ thoughts—is a faster, more effective way to communicate than through the use of detailed, explicit instructions. We develop this ability through familiarity and trust, which are based on a shared philosophy and shared experience. (page 79)

Note that “shared experience” means using their practices together, just as Boyd recommended on p. 18 of Organic Design and pp. 74-79 of Patterns of Conflict. All of Boyd’s briefings are available from our Articles page, as is Why do they lie to us?