Who still reads Boyd?

Apparently the Russians. In “The Moscow School of hard knocks: Key pillars of Russian strategy,” 17 Jan 2017,  CNA analyst and former NDU program manager Michael Kofman
offers vivid illustrations of ideas that Boyd developed in his various papers and presentations (all available on our Articles page).  He doesn’t cite Boyd, but you’ll recognize the concepts.

I have no idea of how Kofman came across these ideas — Boyd has nine pages of sources at the end of Patterns of Conflict, so he isn’t claiming that he thought most of them up. Regardless of how Kofman discovered them, he establishes that they certainly do work, but unfortunately not for us. Continue reading

Chi, cheng, and friction at Amazon

In his only paper (as opposed to hours-long presentation), Boyd concluded that

According to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics one cannot determine the character or nature of a system within itself. Moreover, attempts to do so lead to confusion and disorder.”

In other words, to even stand a chance of reducing “confusion and disorder,” or “friction” as Clausewitz called it, you have to go outside the system.

It turns out one reason that Amazon seems to work so well is that it understands this principle. In “Amazon’s Friction-Killing Tactics To Make Products More Seamless,”  the company’s product management and engineering PMO, Kintan Brahmbhatt, gives several examples of where friction comes from  during product development and how to overcome it. All involve going outside. Continue reading

Can you think about it too much?

Research on the physiology of “choking” under pressure suggests that the reason isn’t that you think about it too much, but that you think with the wrong parts of your brain.

On those (unfortunately rare) occasions when I’ve had to sign more than about a dozen books, the first few flow naturally and reinforce the impression of literary greatness. There comes a point, though, when my hand takes on a life of its own, and I can’t finish the signature. Signature becomes scrawl. Choke.

Research indicates that the parts of the brain that smooth out our previously learned actions — areas like the cerebellum and the premotor cortex of the cerebrum — get overridden by the prefrontal cortex of the cerebrum where our conscious thought resides.  The prefrontal cortex is great for thinking, but when it starts micromanaging the cerebellum, disaster often ensues. Continue reading

Doomsday approaches, and it isn’t the Great Spiral Nebula in Andromeda

Here’s a fun way to start your weekend: Play with the new Google Translate app on Android or iOS.  I mean “fun” in the sense of “How much longer is your white collar career going to last?” You may be wondering about the connection.

If you’re in a traditional blue collar job, like manufacturing, the writing’s been on the wall for a long time. For example, “Industrial robots will replace manufacturing jobs — and that’s a good thing

There is no denying that the U.S. and Canada have been losing jobs to offshore competition for almost half a century. From 2000 to 2010 alone, 5.6 million jobs disappeared.

Interestingly, though, only 13 percent of those jobs were lost due to international trade. The vast remainder, 85 percent of job losses, stemmed from “productivity growth” — another way of saying machines replacing human workers.

All this suggests that many of those jobs that do come back from overseas will go to robots, and it doesn’t take a lot of searching on the Internet to see that this is the latest big meme.  Continue reading

The missing piece of the “hi/lo” mix debate

Editor’s note: Guest contributor Ed Beakley is a retired Naval aviator who flew the A-7 on 170 combat missions in Vietnam. He has extensive experience as a test pilot and R&D manager and is a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. He is also the founder and project leader at Project White Horse.

War on the Rocks has been posting for some time now articles on air supremacy, close air support (CAS), future of airpower, etc. I continue to follow, given that they’re well thought out and written mostly by operators. But they remain consistently flawed for one significant reason: They equate “Air Force” and “Air Power,” never addressing the role that Navy and Marine air have and so will continue to be part of the airpower equation.

One case in point, as the authors of “Rethinking the Hi-Lo Mix, Part I: Origin Story” note, expense began to diminish number of aircraft and thus gaps in ability to “cover” the world. Really? So exactly who fought the air war in the Pacific that allowed the B-29s to launch in range for the Army Air Corps war-winning strikes (fire bombing and nukes) to Japan? Leaving Navy/Marine air out of the design and operations discussion is fatally flawed. But moving to another point… Continue reading

Clearing the fog from your orientation

George Weber developed an interesting talent:

“No one noticed. I’d go into a meeting with nothing prepared, no list of points in my head. I’d just sit there and wait to see what came up. And what came up when I opened my mouth were solutions to problems smarter, and more elegant than any I could have developed on my own.” Jeff Warren, The neuroscience of spiritual awakening.

In other words, actions flowing directly from orientation via the IG&C link. Fingerspitzengefühl. But he didn’t develop it in the usual way, via long hours of practice. Or perhaps I should say “just in the usual way” because he did have a Ph.D. and spent years working his way up the corporate ladder ending as head of R&D for a major manufacturing operation.

Weber combined that experience with an intense meditation practice that he began even before he got his Ph.D. Although he had no previous experience in meditation, an incident triggered a first awakening, a kensho, that was so wonderful that he spent the next 25 years trying to get the state to last. This experience is not uncommon and occasionally ends up in literature. Fans of Trevanian may recall his particularly vivid descriptions of Nicholai Hel’s mystical experiences in Shibumi.

Then one day, the chatter in his mind stopped, and he achieved what you saw in the opening quote. Continue reading

Why can’t one aircraft do it all?

Years ago, there was a concept floating around the Pentagon called the “hi / lo mix.”  The idea was that you couldn’t afford the thousands of expensive but highly capable fighters the Air Force and Navy wanted, so you bought a reasonable block of them and filled the fleet out with a large number of less capable but cheaper “lo” fighters.

This concept reached concrete form with the F-15 as “hi” and the F-16 as “lo.”  Logical, but as Scott Bledsoe & Mike Benitez show in their paper on War in the Rocks, “Rethinking the Hi-Lo Mix, Part I: Origin Story,” this is not exactly how it happened.   Continue reading

A Pig Inside my OODA Loop

Gully Dirtgullydirt
Robert Coram
Five Bridges Press, Atlanta
January 2017

Way off in the southwest corner of Georgia, where that state, Alabama, and Florida come together, there’s a constellation of small towns that exist only to serve the farms that surround them. Peanut country. Edison is one of them. There were no Interstate highways when Robert Coram was growing up in Edison, and when they were built, the closest was 60 miles away. Television did arrive before the big highways, and on a good day, and with a tall antenna, you could pick up two stations.

In most of the rural South, life went on as it had for millennia. Outside of the towns themselves, most people did not have what we call “indoor plumbing.” If you’ve never had the pleasure of using the outdoor variety — yes, they did use the Sears Roebuck catalogue for toilet paper — Coram will fill in this gap in your experience. Continue reading

When orientation locks

Here’s what it might feel like:

It wasn’t that what first came to mind was always wrong; it was that its existence in your mind led you to feel more certain than you should be that it was correct.

From “Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project: How do ER surgeons avoid dumb, deadly mistakes? Ask their doctor.”  In other words, you go with what feels right, and that guides the data you find and how you interpret it.

When your orientation locks, you don’t stop thinking. Rather, you fall into a pattern of thinking that you can’t break out of because it feels right. At least two things can make this worse. One is the phenomenon of “incestuous amplification,” where you ignore or explain away anything that appears to conflict with the pattern, and another involves deliberate actions by your opponents — deception.

Breaking out can be extremely difficult. Incestuous amplification, well, amplifies the effect. And egos get involved. The only device that pretty much always works is to get outside the system, as the Toronto hospital in the article did.  But this involves both training — so that everybody is aware of the problem (such mutual awareness is an aspect of Einheit, of course) — and an organizational climate that reinforces the humility to admit that you’re wrong, even among friends, colleagues, and enemies.

Creating such a climate, and I think you’ll find Boyd’s EBFAS climate will work well for this, is a primary task of leadership.

Note on dis-orientation

The main role of orientation, as least as far as winning and losing goes, is to predict the consequences of our actions more accurately than our opponents can predict the consequences of theirs.  The question of how we do this opens “Destruction and Creation,” and all the rest of Boyd’s works illustrate his answer.

There are many subtleties.  For example:

  1. Nobody’s orientation is perfect, so how can we tell if we’re the one making the more accurate predictions?  This is anything but a straightforward issue, even if we could ameliorate all the problems of making inferences from limited samples (because that’s what our observations are) of the situation. For example, are we being deceived? Are we deceiving ourselves (e.g., confirmation bias/ incestuous amplification)? In both of these cases, we believe that our orientation is making suitably accurate predictions, and what’s worse, we often have the data to prove it.
  2. Once we realize that we have a problem, what do we do about it?
  3. Boyd suggested that the consequences of not maintaining as accurate an orientation as our opponents include panic, disorientation, confusion, chaos. Is this true? Always? Why?
  4. Does time matter? That is, if we make more accurate predictions, but it takes us longer to make them, do we still have an advantage? [Hint: What’s the opponent doing during these time gaps?]
  5. Does orientation include being able to predict consequences of opponents’ actions?
  6. How much more accurate do our predictions have to be in order to offset an opponent’s other advantages, in size and technology, for example?
  7. How does all this apply to groups of people, where intragroup dynamics govern the group’s actions?

Larry Dunbar sent an interesting comment to the last post, and my reply is what got me going on this one. With these subtleties (and other you think of) in mind, you might read over the quote that opened the last post and add your comments to this one.