What was Boyd Thinking?

And when did he think it?

In his own words:

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. Abstract (c. 1987)

I took a stab at illustrating Boyd’s process:


The bubbles in the arrows show some of “perspectives” he pulled apart. The boxes along the bottom represent his syntheses, the presentations that make up his Discourse on Winning and Losing.

I was involved at the two ends, “Destruction and Creation” (1976) on the left and the two boxes — Conceptual Spiral (1992) and The Essence of Winning and Losing (1996) — on the far right.

It turns out that one of Boyd’s closest associates, Chuck Spinney, also drew a flow chart depicting how his concepts developed. Chuck was intimately involved with all the boxes on the chart:


This isn’t in strict chronological order (neither is mine), but in terms of how the ideas came to maturity, I agree completely.

Both of these illustrate the process of many-side, implicit cross-referencing across a variety of domains.  The rest of Boyd’s concept of Orientation, “projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection,” usually involved phone calls late into the night. Coram’s book describes this very well.

Incidentally, Chuck noted that early on, “ODA” stood for “Orientation, Decision, Action” which John came up with during his time running Development Planning on the Air Staff at the Pentagon.  Later, he added “Observation.”

All of the presentations and papers mentioned here, with the exception of the Aerial Attack Study and Boyd’s original Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) papers (which would be of interest only to historians of air-air combat and are summarized in New Conception) are available from the Articles page.

Chuck blogs at http://chuckspinney.blogspot.com/

Masterpieces are never finished

Just abandoned (attributed to Leonardo da Vinci).

I’m not claiming that the new version of “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop” is a masterpiece, although I think it’s pretty good, but I am abandoning it for now, with the exception of an occasional correction or brilliant rephrasing.  It’s available from the Articles page.

It’s a major rework: pretty much every paragraph has seen some TLC, and entire sections have been moved around.  I added a new section on whether faster is always better, and also threw in quotes from L. David Marquet and the Buddha.

By the way, if you’re interested in this sort of stuff, check out the Corporate Rebels web site, https://corporate-rebels.com/, and follow them on Twitter @corp-rebels

Life’s lessons learned the hard way

I was having a discussion with an old friend about the enduring habits we picked up early in our military training.  He’s retired USMC, so naturally his stories are much more dramatic than mine. But our training NCO at ROTC Summer Camp (Ft. Bragg, NC, 1968) did manage to hammer in a few lessons.  Please add your own in the Comments.

  1. Shoes do not shine themselves; beds do not make themselves
  2. There is no better time than right now to get these done; second chances only exist in movies
  3. It follows that you do not have the time to do anything over
  4. First leadership lesson. You only have one simple task: Make sure that the other 39 people in the platoon get the mission accomplished. DO NOT do anything else.

These may seem elementary, but we’re talking college students in the peace-and-love 1960s.  Apparently, moms made the beds for many of these guys, and when they got to college, nobody did.

About number 4: He made it VERY clear to me that grabbing the broom and finishing an area myself was not what platoon-leaders-for-a-day do. Over the years, I figured out that something like mission command was the best idea.

Learning these was not pleasant.  While ROTC Summer Camp wasn’t Parris Island by any means, I still remember them, so I guess he did something right. And there are harder ways to learn lessons.

Thank you again, Sergeant …



John Sayen, USMC (dec.)

I just learned that my friend and colleague, John Sayen, has died.

Here is a tribute by Damien O’Connell:

This morning, I learned that my friend and colleague LtCol John Sayen, USMC (ret) passed away last night.

He was a great guy, John. A walking encyclopedia of military history, tables of organization, and little known, but often very intriguing. facts. He wrote an unpublished and amazing history of the evolution of American infantry battalions. He never hesitated to let me share it with Marines. And he never hesitated to take questions, donate his time for interviews, or fill requests for assistance.

Thank you for those things and everything else.

We’ll miss you.

John was a brilliant writer. Winslow Wheeler selected him to write the “Introduction and Historic Overview” for his 2008 compendium, America’s Defense Meltdown (available for free download from the Project on Government Oversight), and his two historical studies of US Infantry divisions in WWII are available from Osprey Publishing.

John could and usually would pun on any subject — words are the cherished tools of all authors — and he had a way of spotting the obvious long before anyone else realized that it was, in fact, obvious.  It didn’t always work: John once came up with a scheme to get the IRS to excuse him from filing federal income taxes.  Seemed odd, since if it were possible, no one would be paying taxes. But John did have a degree from law school. And he was scary smart. This went on for several months until one day he sheepishly admitted he had run into a few “unexpected issues.” Never brought the subject up again.  In the best traditions of maneuver warfare, he knew when to break off the attack and go somewhere else.   Before ending up in jail.

We won’t see his like again anytime soon.




Christmas Eve, Namaste

A new tradition — yoga on Christmas Eve. And as is also traditional, we end the session with savasana.

Sometime next year, I’ll explore a connection between yoga and the focus of Boyd’s approach.

Mission Command 201

Mission Command: The Who, What, Where, When and Why, An Anthology
by Donald Vandergriff (Author, Editor),‎ Stephen Webber (Editor
August 2017

I like good anthologies, and this is a very good one. Good anthologies can do several things, among them:

  • Provide discrete bins of thought that you can mine for nuggets — parts for your snowmobiles.
  • Let you look at a concept, in this case, “mission command,” from alternative viewpoints. Sometimes this can lead to an “Aha!” moment.
  • Expand your orientation — are you really doing all you could to engage the hippocampus? Be honest, now.

Cover of Mission CommandDon and Steve have done a great job of collecting essays that take you far beyond “What is Mission Command?”  In fact, when you get through, you may find that you know less about the concept than you thought. For example, people sometimes equate mission command with the German term Auftragstaktik.  But Auftrag doesn’t mean “mission.” It’s more like the English “contract.” When Boyd’s talking about “the German concept of ‘mission,'” he notes on Patterns of Conflict, slide 76:

The German concept of mission can be thought of as a contract, hence an agreement, between superior and subordinate. The subordinate agrees to make his actions serve his superior’s intent in terms of what is to be accomplished, while the superior agrees to give his subordinate wide freedom to exercise his imagination and initiative in terms of how intent is to be realized.

As part of this concept, the subordinate is given the right to challenge or question the feasibility of mission if he feels his superior’s ideas on what can be achieved are not in accord with the existing situation or if he feels his superior has not given him adequate resources to carry it out. Likewise, the superior has every right to expect his subordinate to carry out the mission contract when agreement is reached on what can be achieved consistent with the existing situation and resources provided.

So there’s obviously a lot more to the concept than simply “Tell people what to do and let them decide how.”   Don’s and Steve’s anthology will help you broaden your understanding and, perhaps, improve your use of the underlying philosophy in your own organization.

All the chapters are good, but I’d like to draw your attention to a couple that you might find especially broadening.

Quo vadis, mission command?

First, Grant Martin’s chapter on “Type II” mission command for situations where “the commander’s intent is ambiguous or weakly connected to the political purpose of the operation. … What should be added is how to conduct mission command when the purpose of the operation is unclear, where the scope is unbounded, and where cause and effect are not linear.”  Most business applications, in other words.  He proposes a new definition

In non-linear causality  situations, however, leaders must both assist and be assisted by their subordinates to best appreciate the context of the situation and during execution must learn and constantly adjust the appreciation of the context based on that learning. Of note: The learning must go both ways.

Boyd, didn’t like the term “command & control,” suggesting instead “leadership & appreciation.” Where does this leave mission “command”? If Martin’s idea intrigues you, you might explore other possibilities for expanding the concept. Boyd used the term “organic,” which has some of the bottom-up flavor suggested by Martin (there’s an example in chapter 5 of Certain to Win). Another idea is not to issue orders, even mission orders, at all, a possibility explored by David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around!**

The requisite physical energy***

Daniel Markert and Scott Sonnon introduce subjects that you don’t often find in leadership texts in their chapter, “Operationally fit for mission command.” For those of you not up on your neurophysiology, this one may be a little challenging. Just accept that the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and their kin are regions within the brain (or you could Google them and find out where). Markert and Sonnon address a major but often overlooked issue in leadership, that leaders inhabit human bodies:

The rapid onset of the fatigue reflex elevates stress arousal and degrades cognitive function with negative effects on shared understanding, risk awareness, creativity, and decisiveness.

They explain why this is true and what you can do about it. Recall that Boyd suggested that “Without a common outlook, superiors cannot give subordinates freedom of action and maintain coherency of ongoing action” (Patterns 74), so this is important stuff, and Markert’s and Sonnon’s chapter may start you down a productive path.

Explore, enjoy, learn, question.

Preview / buy Mission Command at Amazon


*This idea is implicit in Boyd’s EBFAS climate. Stephen Bungay develops it in detail in The Art of Action, where he, essentially, equates Auftragstaktik with Boyd’s entire EBFAS climate. Mini review in  an earlier post.

**Also covered in my presentation, All by Ourselves, available on the Articles page and in the mini review mentioned above.

***Observation by Gen Hermann Balck, Patterns, p. 118.

Dispatches from the front

In this case, automotive engineering.

Dean Lenane gave a major presentation at the recent European Manufacturing Strategies Summit in Berlin and has kindly agreed to post it on our Articles page (link above).  Look for “Organizing for Success with lessons from The master – John Boyd, OR, People, ideas, technology…IN THAT ORDER.”

In addition to being a keen student of Boyd’s ideas, Dean has had the wherewithal to put them into practice. As CEO of CRH North America, he grew the company from $20 M annual revenue to more than $350 M in a span of seven years. He documented some of this experience in The Turnaround, also on the Articles page. Now, as Managing Director, Europe, for Fisher Dynamics, he is continuing to experiment. I think you’ll find  his presentation innovative, exciting (if you’re into this sort of thing), and useful.

One thing I might point out is Dean’s concept of “providing coherent strategy” beginning on slide 69. You may recall that the objectives Boyd set on p. 2 of Patterns of Conflict were:


Focus and direction

• To make manifest the nature of moral-mental-physical conflict
• To discern a pattern for successful operations
• To help generalize tactics and strategy
• To find a basis for grand strategy

[“Focus and direction” was Boyd’s translation of Schwerpunkt.]

In order to  do this, he needed to harmonize grand strategy, strategy, and tactics so that success at one level wasn’t undone by failure at another — the “win the battles but lose the war” phenomenon.  It took him a while to get there, but Boyd finally gave an answer on slide 141.

Dean’s concept of “coherent strategy” serves the same function for manufacturing, and I would suggest for all commercial enterprises. To give one example, he insists:

This requires that a solid understanding of how things work at a tactical level be possessed by those making the strategic decisions.

By implication, a large staff structure of persons without actual front line experience and management by a mandarin class of professional managers without actual detailed knowledge of the specific business and products is anathema to a fast maneuver approach as these will slow down the decision loop. Slide 76.

Compare to Boyd’s slide 176:

– In accepting this idea we must admit that increased unit complexity (with magnified mental and physical task loadings) does not enhance the spontaneous synthetic/creative operation. Rather, it constrains the opportunity for these timely actions/counteractions.

Or put another way

– Complexity (technical, organizational, operational, etc.) causes commanders and subordinates alike to be captured by their own internal dynamics or interactions—hence they cannot adapt to rapidly changing external (or even internal) circumstances.

I think you’ll find what Dean has developed over the last 15 or so years to be an important addition to the expansion of Boyd’s ideas beyond their original domain of war and another instance of the Conceptual Spiral in action.

Good luck.

Fit for success

Fit for Purpose: How modern businesses find, satisfy, and keep customers
David J Anderson and Alexei Zheglov
To be released by Amazon on November 29, 2017

Fit for PurposeWhen I first read the title “Fit for Purpose,” it seemed a little passive. Something like “meets specs,” which is necessary but suggests that somebody else is driving the market. I don’t know Alexei personally, but David is the founder and chairman of Lean Kanban, Inc., which provides training and consulting in “Lean Kanban” and related management tools based on a philosophy similar to Boyd’s. I’ve spoken at several of their events and keynoted Lean Kanban Central Europe 2015. (The charts and a related paper are available from the Articles page, link above).

But when I got deeper into Anderson & Zheglov’s book, it became clear that although their methods would certainly help developers meet specs, “purpose” could be something much more active and powerful.

Developers, whether of software, cars, or airplanes, occasionally forget that the real purpose of their efforts is to produce something that will delight their customers so much that they come back for more, and tell their friends, family, and colleagues. So David and Alexei subtitled their book not “Better ways to develop widgets,” or some such, but “How modern businesses find, satisfy, and keep customers.” As they insist, the only “purpose” that counts is the customer’s:

Before you can evaluate whether your products or services are fit-for-purpose, you need to be able to identify your customer’s purpose.

Continue reading

New edition of “Boyd’s Big Ideas”

Now playing on our Articles page.

This one is based on a version that I presented last year to the Weapons & Field Training cadre at the Marine Recruit Depot, Parris Island.

Cover of Big Ideas 11-2017

Don’t let the title fool you.

Between 1976 and 1996, Boyd produced nearly 350 slides comprising six briefings. Most of these went through many, many revisions. And then there’s the roughly 3,900 word paper, “Destruction and Creation.” All of these, incidentally, are available on the Articles page.

What I’ve tried to do here is sort some of this into a few categories that reflect distinctions that Boyd actually used. The idea is to make Boyd’s body of work accessible to people who didn’t have the opportunity to hear Boyd himself deliver it.  The fact is that Boyd never intended for his briefings to stand alone and for years he wouldn’t give out copies to people who hadn’t heard them.

The danger is that people will glom onto the categories I’ve selected, and this will limit their own thinking and use of Boyd’s Discourse. Try to avoid this, and, as I almost entitled this presentation, be your own guru.

Good luck!