Locking our own orientation

The phenomenon of locked orientation, where we get trapped into what Boyd called a “pattern of actions and ideas,” can be deadly in a conflict. We all know this, yet it still happens.

One reason is the implicit guidance and control link from orientation back to observation that influences what we observe, creating a “cognitive bias.” Left undampened, this feedback loop so narrows our field of observation that our brains don’t register data that our eyes actually “see,” producing “inattenional blindness.” Perhaps the best known illustrations are the famous “invisible gorilla” experiments. There are many sites and videos out there, so just Google the term and watch.

Here’s some fascinating new research on the subject from the New York Times, showing that once cognitive bias sets in, we start selecting our sources to confirm it. That is, liberals began to spend more time on liberal sites and similarly for conservatives. Neither group, in other words, tries to get an objective world view by sampling a range of evidence and opinion.

As I’ve mentioned several times on this site, Chuck Spinney, a very close colleague of Boyd’s, coined the term “incestuous amplification” to emphasize how this rapid intensification can produce self-locking tunnel vision. [Note — you can also search his site for other references to the term.] One might consider this as the strategic version of placing a microphone too close to a speaker.

What can you do, given that this sort of behavior is seemingly built in to our brains? You can’t, to coin a phrase, determine the character or nature of a system from within itself, and even worse, just attempting to do so will generate further confusion and disorder. So you need outside help. This is not exactly a startling new insight — Deming, for example, considered his system of profound knowledge as primarily coming from outside the system.

Boyd called the ability to recognize and break out of locked orientation, Behendigkeit. It might be considered as the foundation for the rest of his organizational climate. How do you achieve it? Three ideas for you:

  1. Recognize the danger and that it’s very difficult to spot from inside the system. The typical response when I bring this up is to nod knowingly.
  2. Put mechanisms in place to ensure an outside viewpoint. Otherwise the cognitive biases noted the the NYT article will steer you towards sources that agree with your existing orientation and the resulting incestuous amplification will rapidly lock this orientation. The purpose of enlisting outside help is not to select sources for you but to alert you to incestuous amplification.
  3. Demonstrate that your mechanisms are working.


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16 thoughts on “Locking our own orientation

  1. Boyd would advocate observing from all possible facets as countermeasure to orientation bias.

    I did cyber dynamic adaptive resource management as undergraduate in the 60s. Part of that was instrumenting/measuring every possible resource and a philosophy of “scheduling to the bottleneck”. The state of the art at the time (and for decades afterwards) was decide ahead of time what the bottleneck resource was … and at best, measuring the single resource and making decisions based on those (limited) measurements. Later I would make claims that the relative system throughput of certain computer resources had decline by order of magnitude over a little more than a decade. The real issue was certain computer resources had gotten 50 times faster in the period, while other resources only got three times faster (which radically shifted the scheduling to the bottleneck) …. while most others hardly even noticed it was happening.

    I’ve frequently claimed because of my approach to cyber as undergraduate in the 60s … I was extremely predisposed to feel strong affinity to Boyd when I met him in the 80s (and sponsored his briefings at IBM).

    • Thanks — that is what he used to say. However it really isn’t a good countermeasure because it’s subject to the same narrowing (because of incestuous amplification driven by confirmation bias) as any other form of internally driven observation.


      • Boyd would draw a circle for the domain and viewing from every possible facet from outside the circle. There used to be talk about some oldtime executives regarding management by wandering about, they use to wander around the manufacturing floor 2nd shift talking to people as well as spend a lot of time talking to customers. This was before MBAs and management by myopic focus on numbers. There was a period where an accountant was running a manufacturing division (into the ground) and they brought back one of the old time executives who identified various manufacturing process problems by wandering around.

        Early 80s, Boyd would include in briefings that former military officers were starting to contiminate US corporate culture with their rigid, top-down command and control. However, at the time time articles were starting to appear that MBAs were starting to destroy US corporations with their myopic focus on quarterly numbers.

        Rhetoric on floor of congress, was that Sarbanes-Oxley would prevent future ENRONs and guarantee executives and auditors did jailtime. After SOX goes into effect there is large EU conference of CEOs and exchange presidents about SOX audits was leaking into Europe for companies that did business with Europe. I gave a talk on audits needing independent verification, I could still defeat SOX audit by making sure that all the computer generated reports were consistant. As an aside, SOX required SEC to do something. Possibly even GAO didn’t believe SEC was doing anything and was doing GAO reports of public company fraudulent financial filings, even showing increase after SOX goes into effect (and nobody doing jailtime). There was joke at the time that SOX was primarily a full employment gift to the audit industry (after one going out of business in the wake of ENRON). Also the only possibly benefit of SOX was provision for whistleblowers … TIPs turn up 13 times more fraud than audits.

      • Same problem. It’s nice to draw a bunch of arrows, but how do you know you’re viewing from “every possible facet”? Confirmation bias / IA operates in this process, too. And despite the arrows coming from the outside, it’s still an internal process.

  2. I can see how #3 might be hard to comment on unless one knows what mechanisms are in place. But there should be some rules that tells you when your company is experiencing IA.
    As an example(s): you may have IA when: you have a strategy session at work or at home and everyone agrees with you, including your wife.
    Or, you may have IA when: you believe your company is a success, but then you realize your purchasing agent is sweating more and talking faster than the vender he is dealing with.
    Or, you may have IA when: you manufacture equipment used to string miles of high voltage power lines. You overhear, in a phone conversation between your customer-agent and your customer, your agent comparing the equipment your company manufacturers to lawn mowers that need to have “rest cycles” during operation to keep from overheating.
    As an individual, isn’t this the time to just bail?
    I mean, I have always relied on my wife to keep me focused, so the first one has never happened. But as you look around your environment, as an individual, there is not much you are able to “do”, apart of “being” in a position advantaged so.
    IA really comes down to a structural breakdown. That is what war is good for, i.e. it pounds on and stresses structure, and ultimately makes the situation real.
    To combat IA, you may need to go to the equivalent of war in business, i.e. pound on its structure to look for weaknesses.

  3. “It’s nice to draw a bunch of arrows, but how do you know you’re viewing from “every possible facet”?”

    That begins with cherry picked, selective observations, that leads to flawed orientation, bending the analysis to fit. We’ve seen it, time, after time.

    Excellent Thread ! And thanks to Chet and Ihw0 for sharing.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but It takes a kind of intestinal fortitude, this is where Boyd, among friends, worshipped ultimate truth, in some instances very much to there own personel situational deprement.

    The courage to entertain new and unfamiliar perspectives on problems, to challenge your own instincts, positions, and create solutions might seem counter-intuitive, that you might then be uncomfortable with. Until you can prove, or disprove the hypothsis.

    There’s a Chinese proverb that goes “the fear you feel, is the ignorance within you dying.”

    • “…they were able to mass enough capital into one man’s hands to act as a sufficient rope”
      Just to clarify, the “hands” I was referring to were Putin’s, not Trump’s.

  4. I mean if the economy was the environment they were observing (after they lost theirs?) and the Capitalist orientation was the one that they used and became so far inside of.
    After all, it wasn’t until after their economy collapsed that they were able to mass enough capital into one man’s hands to act as a sufficient rope, but I have a hard time believing they would want to make the economic environment worst, now that so many of their future dreams are tied to one end of it.

    • So, I am just saying: are they really willing to lose another economy that they are so far inside of?
      As long as no body gets hurt, sure, why not?

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