Diseases of Orientation, II

In this case, the danger of an inward focus, particularly in groups. As Boyd explained, this something you want to do to your competition. No reason to do their jobs for them. Let’s start with this quote from Strategic Game, which I also used last week:

Mentally we can isolate our adversaries by presenting them with ambiguous, deceptive, or novel situations, as well as by operating at a tempo or rhythm they can neither make out nor keep up with. Operating inside their O-O-D-A loops will accomplish just this by disorienting or twisting their mental images so that they can neither appreciate nor cope with what’s really going on. (emphasis added) SG 47

What does it look like from the inside? It can be hard to detect because for most people trapped in such an environment, inside is their world, it is what’s really going on.

Here’s an example from Google:

[Note the internal focus (emphasis added):] Working at a large, successful company lets you keep your isolation. If you choose, you can just ignore all the inconvenient facts about the world. You can make decisions based on whatever input you choose. The success or failure of your project in the market is not really that important; what’s important is whether it gets canceled or not, a decision which is at the whim of your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, who, as your only link to the unpleasantly unpredictable outside world, seems to choose projects quasi-randomly, and certainly without regard to the quality of your contribution.

It’s a setup that makes it very easy to describe all your successes (project not canceled) in terms of your team’s greatness, and all your failures (project canceled) in terms of other people’s capriciousness. End users and profitability, for example, rarely enter into it. This project isn’t supposed to be profitable; we benefit whenever people spend more time online. This project doesn’t need to be profitable; we can use it to get more user data. Users are unhappy, but that’s just because they’re change averse. And so on.  Jay Yarow writing at Business Insider, “A Google Employee Says Google Employees Are Too Confident, And Too Isolated From The Real World.”

So what’s wrong with this? The danger is that if and when Google runs into potentially life-threatening competition, little peccadilloes like these turn destructive. As Boyd had suggested a few charts earlier in Strategic Game:

• The ability to operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than an adversary enables one to fold adversary back inside himself so that he can neither appreciate nor keep-up with what’s going on. He will become disoriented or confused;

which suggests that

• Unless such menacing pressure is relieved, adversary will experience various combinations of uncertainty, doubt, confusion, self-deception, indecision, fear, panic, discouragement, despair, etc.,

which will further

Disorient or twist his mental images/impressions of what’s happening;


Disrupt his mental/physical maneuvers for dealing with such a menace;


Overload his mental/physical capacity to adapt or endure;


Collapse his ability to carry on. SG 44

In other words, when times get tough, these isolated centers, these “many non-cooperative centers of gravity” as Boyd termed them, will start to fight each other for increasingly scarce resources. Note that confidence turns to doubt and then panic as the real world intrudes on their once happy little home. Fortunately, Google has people like Avery Pennarun, the employee who wrote the excerpt. Now if they’ll just listen to him.

PS — my guess is that they’re seeing the effects of their ludicrous hiring “policies.” See for example, “Would Google hire you? 10 test questions to find out.” I understand that some sanity has now intruded into Google’s HR practices; they should hope it isn’t too late.

6 thoughts on “Diseases of Orientation, II

  1. “Mentally we can isolate our adversaries… ”

    “Working at a large, successful company lets you keep your isolation.”

    Your article makes it seem like those who are quoted are talking about the same thing, when they use the word “isolation”. I don’t believe that is true. Isolation in Boyd’s term means to kill, but that is not the only thing it means. It means to make them un-observable.

    the second “isolation” means to obtain a position of the greatest advantage within an environment (orientation). The people at Google are working in a position that obtains, for them, the greatest advantage. When they lose that advantage, either from isolation or from a change in the environment, they either need to reposition by generating diversity, or they need to strengthen their position by enforcing conformity, i.e. grow legs or go back to a place in time where they had all the resources they needed, instead of wanted..

    I think what you are suggesting is that the people at Google need to do a little isolation themselves before the environment they are observing can no longer support them.

    In that case, those who can will–those who can’t will teach.

    • Larry,

      Thanks – interesting question.

      Here’s how Boyd defined “isolation” on page 36 of Strategic Game:

      Physical isolation

      occurs when we fail to gain support in the form of matter-energy-information from others outside ourselves.

      Mental isolation

      occurs when we fail to discern, perceive, or make sense out of what’s going on around ourselves.

      I’ve omitted “moral isolation” because the article didn’t address it. That will come later as the organization comes under stress.

      So what do you think? Same thing, just in a different environment?


      • Yes, in my opinion, they are exactly the same. Either way something is unobservable. I am just thinking that is not what isolation means in the sentence: “Working at a large, successful company lets you keep your isolation.”

        These people are not unobservable, they are simply working inside an environment that their positions gives them some kind of an advantage. This is a position, or in other words, an orientation.

        Now, orientation has an isolation component to it, but that component is a form of energy, and the energy is not entropied. In other words, the energy they represent in the so called “isolation” is available to the distribution of energy within the loop. Eventually, as it entropies, the loss of this energy in observation will start to influence decision making, disrupt the orientation, or make Google unobservable.

        Unless the other form of isolation becomes available, i.e.support is gained or observed, physical and mental isolation represents entropy. So all isolations are not the same. Those working at a large, successful company are not a part of the entropy, but, as I think you are saying, nearly so.

        So I am just thinking that when the time comes for Google to move, i.e. possibly when having your project canceled means death, that tipping point will be determined not only by the energy available, but close to isolation; but also by the energy not available, in isolation, but is starting to be observed.

    • For those not familiar with Strategic Game, Boyd talks about the ultimate effect of isolation — death — on page 28:

      Living systems are open systems; closed systems are non-living systems. Point: If we don’t communicate with outside world —- to gain information for knowledge and understanding as well as matter and energy for sustenance -— we die out to become a non-discerning and uninteresting part of that world.

  2. You know, in one the classes I am taking, one of the instructors works as a consultant. Anyways, his thoughts were:

    “Organizations that need me the most will not hire me nor even if they did would they take my advice. Organizations that hire me often are already doing comparatively better than their peers and are simply looking for that last bit to improve upon.”

    After reading that you are a consultant too, I wonder if this is also the case?

    It seems that the US is in the process of doing what the article says. The logical conclusion is that the 2 organizations that NEED help the most would be:

    1. The US Congress
    2. The Pentagon

    They seem to be “eating” themselves (note the petty inter-service fights and budget battles). These seem to be intensifying as of late, as is the dysfunction of the US Congress.

    Most troubling of all, the Islamic fundamentalist groups appear to have done a good job of “disorientating’ the US. To be honest, I don’t think that they are the threat that people say they are (how many people have died of terrorism versus say, a heart attack since 2001)?

    But that’s the problem. An inability to allocate priorities right. That and the deception games.

    – Chris

  3. In the 60s&70s, online computer conferencing and widely distributed information online was in its infancy. A couple of the early virtual machine based online commercial operations had fairly early moved to specializing in financial information for more affluent financial industry.

    However, one of the other virtual machine based online commercial operations … started offering their online computer conferencing facility for free to the (IBM user group) SHARE starting in August 1976 … archives are here:

    I made arrangements for them to regularly send me all the “VMSHARE” files for distribution on the IBM internal network. The most difficult problem I had was with the IBM lawyers who were concerned that customer information would contaminate IBM employees. I was also blamed for online computer conferencing on the IBM internal network in the late 70s and early 80s. Folklore is that when the executive committee were informed of online computer conferencing (and the internal network) 5of6 wanted to fire me. Old reference (the activity had started being referred to as “Tandem Memos”):

    Tandem Memos – n. Something constructive but hard to control; a fresh of breath air (sic). That’s another Tandem Memos. A phrase to worry middle management. It refers to the computer-based conference (widely distributed in 1981) in which many technical personnel expressed dissatisfaction with the tools available to them at that time, and also constructively criticized the way products were are developed. The memos are required reading for anyone with a serious interest in quality products. If you have not seen the memos, try reading the November 1981 Datamation summary.

    I had also originally attempted to get Boyd’s briefings at IBM done through the employee education department. They initially agreed, but as I provided them more information about “Patterns of Conflict” (later “Organic Design for Command & Control was also added), they changed their mind. They said that IBM spends a lot of money educating managers on the handling of employees and they thought exposing general employees to Boyd would be counter-productive (i.e. somewhat viewed management/employee relations as competitive). They suggested that I restrict attendance to Boyd’s briefings to only senior members of competitive analysis departments.

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