The Agile Boyd

People who know more about Boyd than the OODA loop often associate him with agility. I’ve heard him described as the High Priest of Agility, much as his predecessor, the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz is sometimes called the Mahdi of Mass.

This post starts an occasional series on agility within Boyd’s framework. I was prodded into action by an article by Mike Doheny, Venu Nagali, and Florian Weig,  “Agile Operations for Volatile Times,” which you may have seen in the McKinsey Quarterly. I don’t know about you, but I find it a little depressing that nearly a generation after The Machine that Changed the World, we are still reading articles touting agility. Tells you something about the state of the art.

Here’s the key sentence:

Notably, these companies aren’t just spotting and mitigating supply chain risks. They are also seeking ways to use volatility to gain advantages over rivals.

What they’re suggesting is that “agility” has something to do with how you “use volatility to gain advantages over rivals.” I couldn’t agree more, leading to the question of how agility fits into Boyd’s framework, which certainly concerns itself with gaining—and exploiting—advantages over rivals.

Oddly, though, mentions of agility are rare indeed in Boyd’s works. If you search Patterns of Conflict, for example, “agility” occurs precisely once, as an item in a list attributed to the German general, Hermann Balck:  By example, leaders (at all levels) must demonstrate requisite physical energy, mental agility, and moral authority to inspire subordinates to enthusiastically cooperate and take initiative within superior’s intent. (chart 118) That’s it. Interesting that he singles out mental agility. Even more interesting that the title of this page is “Observations related to Moral Conflict.”

The situation is even more sparse for “Destruction and Creation,” Organic Design, Strategic Game, Conceptual Spiral, and The Essence of Winning and Losing. Not a mention anywhere.

So how is Boyd associated with agility? That’s what we’re going to explore in this series. It turns out that agility does indeed play a central role: You’ll have a hard time understanding his strategy, much less applying it in your own organization, without a deep understanding of his concept of agility. But Boyd did not throw around the term loosely … when he used it at all.

3 thoughts on “The Agile Boyd

  1. I remember him mentioning agile when he referenced Guderian’s “Verbal Orders Only” and pushing decisions to the lowest level possible (as alternative to rigid, top-down, command&control structure)

    and in facebook today with regard to a reference to “Why America Needs a Grand Strategy” … I got to mention volatility:

    wallstreet likes turbulence, they make money both going up & coming down … so does MICC and taste for perpetual war. Grand Strategy could significantly damp down things.

    alternate between naked shorts & rumors to drive it down … and then reverse with pump&dump; reference to everybody does it but nothing to fear from regulators: lots of volatility

  2. Well, to me it seems like mental agility gets into “Orientation,” or at least the ability to maintain a correct orientation. Because contests are necessarily dynamic, orientation must keep up with a fast-changing reality, in order to keep from being “overcome by events” (OBE). That’s mental agility.

    Actual agility is the ability to exploit a better orientation when your opponent’s orientation DOES become OBE, whether by events in general or events specifically initiated by you to disorient. Again, this is just my layman’s interpretation of things, but it seems as if this is how you gain advantage over rivals — you get them reacting to the wrong things or engaging in non-productive or counterproductive activities, allowing you to basically win an “uncontested” battle.

    The image that always comes to mind for me is of Bruce Lee saying “Boards don’t hit back” in order to remind his opponent that as impressive as breaking boards is, you have to account for an enemy that moves and counters your attacks. The idea is to have your enemy so ineffectual with his countering and movement that you’re essentially back to breaking him like a board.

    The thing about business — which you point out in your book — is that you’re not directly “attacking” your competitor, but attempting to take market share, profits, and customer loyalty away from him. This has to be taken into account, but the ability to remain Oriented to a changing marketplace and to act quickly enough to take advantage of openings (faster than the competition) remains the same.

    Apple both understands what the customer wants better than rivals, but is almost always able to get to the market with said improvements faster than others. I’m not sure which version of OS X it was, but I remember that when one senior executive at microsoft saw it upon release, they said that they thought they were getting an advanced look at their latest and greatest OS under development (which I think was Windows 7) — with a slated release still 1.5 years in the future! Similarly, by the time that other phone manufacturers came out with touchscreen enabled smart phones, Apple had already built an App Ecology that continued to give their phones an edge.

    So… I guess I’m saying that the gist that I came away with was always that it was as much about Orientation as Agility. Where the two overlap seems to be that the same organizational elements that provide for orientation also enhance agility.

    • Jeff —

      Thanks. I remember reading a review about a year ago of a new tablet computer. Its gist was something like: It’s a great device and a worthy competitor to the iPad. Unfortunately, Apple has just come out with the iPad2.

      Stay tuned — you’re on the right track. Boyd’s concept of “agility” is indeed closely related to his concept of orientation.

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