Safety in spirals

“The safety of the enterprise lay in its novelty.”  Confederate Col John Singleton Mosby, commenting on his successful nabbing (NY Times) of Union Gen Edwin Stoughton well behind Union lines. A nifty example of a special operation.

Of course, the safety of the enterprise also lay in Mosby’s ability to do the daring deed and get his rear end out of Dodge before the enormous blue army all round him noticed his presence. Which required generating a continuous stream of quick-witted novelty. Where does all this novelty come from?

Conceptual Spiral is Boyd’s take on novelty (available from our Articles page). As he puts it, novelty is one of the factors that pumps risk and uncertainty into the minds of opponents, “novelty generated by the thinking and actions of unique individuals and their many-sided interactions with each other.”  He suggests that our basic tool for dealing with novelty is the scientific method:

Science can be viewed as a self-correcting process of observations, analyses/ synthesis, hypothesis, and test.  Engineering can be viewed as a self-correcting process of observations, analyses/synthesis, design, and test … Science, engineering, and technology produce change via novelty.

Now, you know that as Mosby was making his way towards Stoughton on the night of March 9, 1863, he didn’t have his head down, just following a map. He had his eyes, ears, and mind wide open. He had to deal with lots of unexpected stuff, and do it quickly. Because as far as we know he didn’t have telepathy or some sixth sense for locating Union patrols, he had to engineer himself a way in and out and do it on the fly, and this process of evolving orientation as you go along is what Boyd represented by his famous, circular OODA loop. Note the circular nature of the definitions, above.

Periodically, Mosby’s orientation (I’m simplifying Mosby’s 23-man team down to just Mosby — obviously Einheit was critical because a dangerous raid deep into enemy territory is no time to be herding cats) would tell him that it was time to act, and that action typically flowed via the implicit guidance and control link. There’s no evidence, for example, that Mosby issued a lot of written orders during the raid. A nod of the head, a wave of the hand, and a word or two and his team would know what to do.

So you can see the blending of the circular OODA loop updating Orientation and trying (experimenting) with actions, with the IG&C link actually initiating those actions. A learning loop and an acting process. And although Mosby was probably proceeding fairly slowly and deliberately because he didn’t want to alert Union pickets or worse, blunder into them, he was definitely trying to out-think his opponents, and that’s the OODA loop speed that counts.

Check out Conceptual Spiral, and then may I recommend my paper on the subject, “John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral and the meaning of life” also available from our Articles page?

4 thoughts on “Safety in spirals

    • Hi Larry,


      No doubt — you always have a plan, but unfortunately the situation (including the opponent) sometimes doesn’t go along with it. One way to think about strategy is that it’s how you generate and discard plans.

      I’m a little puzzled by “knowing how you’re going to act in any situation.” Sun Tzu pointed out that you can’t say beforehand what you’re going to do: “the ability to gain victory by changing and adapting according to the opponent is called genius.” (Cleary, p. 113). You “respond to circumstances in an infinite variety of ways.” (Griffith, 100) Mosby was probably confident that when the action started the “training of his troops and his own quickness of mind would bring victory” (as biographer David Fraser described Rommel.)

      • I am just thinking that knowing how you will act (training) is a part of knowing one’s self. He knew how he was going to act in every situation, but those situations will never come up.

        In a new or changing environment your advantage will always be greater or worst, but never the same (at least that is a good rule of thumb). If your advantage changes, then your situation will change also.

        In other words, in battle or in war, you are not really adapting to a situation, but the advantage or disadvantage that situation represents.

        I am not saying Mosby knew how he was going to act in a new environment. I am saying that deconstruction and construction comes from action, but needs something to deconstruct from and construct towards.

        This “something” is “self”, or in a group an orientation.

  1. Typically what you’ll find, is someone is exploiting an opportunity, or weakness. Be it military, political,. or commercial. One side recognizes and comes to grips with the weakness, and “orients,” “decides” and “acts” (adjusts) accordingly. With that specific opportunity diminished or gone, the other side must re-orient and find another course. That could include finding another weakness, or more of the same,which is limited, in terms of a price war, which taken to logical ext ream ends up costing both sides, in one form or another.

    Ideally, the objective to establish a position of a continual ability to work an advantage, to be creative, innovative, adaptable, be it qualitative, quantitative, including the quality of product or service, new ideas and options.

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