The Essence of Winning and Losing

Boyd’s last briefing, also called “the big crunch,” available through our “Articles” page link above.

In the 10 years after the last dated version of his major briefings, including Patterns of Conflict (available at, Boyd thought long and hard about the essential elements of his work.  About a year before he died, this is what he came up with.

It ties together all the major elements of his work, including orientation, implicit guidance and control, Fingerspitzengefühl, the OODA loop, and the notion of “operating inside the OODA loop.”  All in 3 pages.

It’s not an easy read, but it will repay many hours of deep pondering.

11 thoughts on “The Essence of Winning and Losing

  1. Hello Chet. Do you believe Fingerspitzengefühl can be taught/developed? Did Boyd? I interpreted Certain To Win and some of Boyd’s slides to say that, but I may be mistaken. Do you know if Boyd explored this at all with any of the German generals he interviewed?


    • Hi Ibis,

      Thanks for the question. Boyd certainly did think that Fingerspitzengefühl could be taught, although not all of us are going to become Rommels. You can see a little of the flavor of this in a couple of places. On page 74 of Patterns, for example, second paragraph, Boyd quotes Blumentritt (whom he did not interview) on what an officers training institution should do. If you read that over carefully, I think you’ll see that it’s to begin to develop Fingerspitzengefühl and not to memorize a bunch of facts and techniques.

      The only place where he uses the word, incidentally, is on page 45 of Strategic Game, where he talks about using insights from other disciplines so that we can develop Fingerspitzengefühl for folding our adversaries back inside themselves.

      It’s been a long time since I read the interviews with the German generals, but I don’t remember anything specifically on Fingerspitzengefühl. If you’re interested in how the Germans developed it, I recommend Martin van Creveld’s Fighting Power. You might also check out Don Vandergriff’s latest post on mission command. Here’s an extract:

      As a battle is always plagued by uncertainties and is characterized by unforeseen situations, the Prussians tried to find a concept of planning – and a system of command – that would ensure flexibility. This system should ensure that commanders in the field would react quickly to the situation at hand and take the initiative independently and without first consulting higher command to exploit an unexpected favorable situation or respond immediately to an unfavorable development.

      Note, by the way, the intimate relationship between Auftragstaktik, which is the subject of Don’s post, Einheit, the topic for which Boyd is quoting Blumentritt, and Fingerspitzengefühl.

  2. Thanks. I will be sure to check them out.

    During one of the interviews with Hermann Balck and F.W. von Mellenthin, Generals Gorman and DePuy asked the Germans to sketch out a plan for the 3rd Armored Division’s defense of its sector of the Fulda Gap. The short version is that the two Germans conferred for about 10 minutes and came up with a pretty daring plan. When the Americans asked how the Germans could come up with a plan so fast, Balck responded “Fingerspitzengefühl.” Unfortunately, the transcript does not reflect that the interviewers followed up with Balck about what he meant when he used the term. I know Boyd interviewed Balck, and Boyd obviously used the term “Fingerspitzengefühl,” so I was interested whether Boyd discussed the concept with Balck.

    Several months ago, I engaged in a debate about Fingerspitzengefühl based on Balck’s response. I argued, based on my reading of your book, Boyd’s slides and Osinga’s work on Boyd’s theories, and a number of other sources I dug up, that Fingerspitzengefühl could, in fact, be developed over time through practice and training. In my view based on my review of the sources, Fingerspitzengefühl is essentially a tool that aids a decisionmaker go through his OODA loop. Indeed, drawing on quotes by folks such as Frederick the Great and Napoleon (discussing the similar concept of Coup d’oeil), I think I made a pretty convincing argument.

    As for auftrag and einheit, I noted in Certain to Win how they worked together and with Fingerspitzengefühl, as well as the concepts of schwerpunkt and nebenpunkt. From what I have seen, there appears to have been a fair amount of literature developed on some of these topics, especially Auftrag, which was a hot topic in the 1980s. However, there is very little on Fingerspitzengefühl. A number of later articles discussed concpets that supported how I was using the term, whether they actually used the word “Fingerspitzengefühl” or not.

    In any case, thanks again. Its greatly appreciated.

    • Ibis –

      I’ll have to dig out Boyd’s interview. In the meantime, if anybody has it and can illuminate (it was published by Battelle, as I recall, in about 1980), please do.

      Concerning Fingerspitzengefühl and the OODA loop, it’s intimately associated with Orientation as an ability to sense and therefore interpret the situation, including an opponent’s intentions.

      Some people carry the concept beyond the ability to “feel” the situation and into a capacity for influencing it. In fact, the skill would be useless otherwise. In other words, you intuitively sense the unfolding situation and then, by emphasizing (as Boyd always insisted) implicit over explicit, cause it to develop in the direction you want it to go. This would tie Fingerspitzengefühl, into the implicit guidance and control link from Orientation directly into Action. Again, I think this is where Don is headed with his adaptive leadership methodology: Fingerspitzengefühl combined with implicit guidance and control, or, put another way, Fingerspitzengefühl as the Observing and (re-)Orienting mechanism, Einheit as the common outlook/orientation within the team, and Schwerpunkt & Autragstaktik as the tools applied to the specific situation and mission.

      The interpretation of Fingerspitzengefühl as a seemingly magical ability to influence the action as well as just to sense it seems consistent with how Boyd used the term ( … develop a Fingerspitzengefühl for folding adversaries back inside themselves … ) and apparently with how Balck interpreted it. Would be most interesting to find the Boyd interview.

      • I will try and track down the transcript of Boyd’s interview with the two generals. I’ve read it before and don’t recall this being a subject of discussion, but its been a while and I may well be mistaken.

        Thanks much for your responses. There’s a lot to digest there, so it may be a little while before I’m back with more questions!

      • Dear ibis —

        Thanks for your insights. Looking forward to continuing the discussion!

        And if you do find the transcripts, please post what they say about this.

  3. Hi Chet. The only discussion of Fingerspitzengefühl I’m aware of is located in this transcript, at pages 21-22.

    Interestingly, Balck is asked how many German generals possessed Fingerspitzengefühl, to which he replies 3 or 4 out of 100. It was this comment that spawned great debate amongst our little band.

    As for Boyd’s interview, I can’t find the entire thing. There is a snippet here, at pages 37-38. The source listed is “Armored warfare in World War II: Conference featuring Generalmajor F.W. von Mellenthin, May 10, 1979,” however, I haven’t reviewed that document.

    • Ibis — Thanks very much!

      We see the same thing wherever maneuver concepts are relevant. A very small fraction actually use them, and they achieve amazing results. But it also seems that the right organizational climate is necessary. So Southwest Airlines uses them a lot more than, say, Delta, and Toyota more than GM. This suggests that they can be learned.

  4. I might add that most of what Balck was saying wasn’t particularly revolutionary. Indeed, a friend of mine made a point of showing how nearly everything he says is a paraphrase of the Truppenführung.

    [Ibis — I inserted the link you sent — please let me know if this is not the right place. CR]

    • Ibis — This agrees with what I understood: that Balck was considered an extremely talented practitioner, but not particularly as an innovator of doctrine.

  5. Here’s a lil’ note I jotted down, thinking about my day job… “The purpose of training is to provide a foundation or springboard for intuitive competence (Fingerspitzengefühl).”

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