Book Review: Patterns of Strategy

Patterns of Strategy
Patrick Hoverstadt and Lucy Loh
Routledge (London & New York) 2017
368 pages

Patrick Hoverstadt and Lucy Lot (H&L) have written an excellent addition to the library of anyone trying to apply Boyd’s concepts to business. The authors are experienced consultants with an enviable client list, so I don’t intend to critique their strategies, some 80 of them, or even their concept of “strategy.” They work for them, so more power to them.

HoverstadtAndLohCoverHowever, they do cite Boyd as one of five “geniuses” who “brought new thinking that has depth, rigor and has radically challenged the conventional thinking in their respective fields.” (xvi) So I will make a few observations on their use of Boyd’s material.

One area where purists might question their understanding of John’s ideas might be in their use of a multitude of strategies, which they at one point characterize as “strategy recipes” that “you can follow, or at least start to recognize.” Your first impression might be that such an approach would not have sat well with Boyd, who detested recipes and checklists of any kind when it comes to human conflict. There are, however, productive ways to use long lists. One of Boyd’s favorite books, for example, was Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, which offers some 25 strategies and 20 tactics for the aspiring samurai. In Boyd’s philosophy, Musashi’s strategies and tactics might best be considered as parts for your snowmobile or maybe even ideas for prototypes. You still need to build your own, but you can pick up a lot of ideas from Musashi.

So it is with H&L, where they illustrate 80 strategies. You can get a lot of ideas from 80 strategies, but if you understand’s Boyd’s purpose, you won’t try to shoehorn your particular situation into any one of them.

The other area, and as I’ve written before, Boyd has only himself to blame for this, is the confusion of the OODA “loop” with a real loop, which implies that a faster “loop” is always better. As many have noted, this is often not true. Bill Lind and TX Hammes, two authors who have written extensively on modern warfare, have pointed out that the only way to “speed up” a cyclic OODA mechanism is to skimp on Orientation.  H&L are much closer to where Boyd finally ended up when they associate speed not with decision cycle time but with (re)Orientation.

In pursuing the circular approach, though, and this may cause some discomfort to Boyd purists, H&L have hit on a key differentiator between war and business. In conflict, that is, a 2-player, zero-sum situation, keeping your Orientation better matched to reality than your opponents’, while maintaining an “implicit repertoire” of potentially effective actions that you can employ primarily via the implicit guidance and control link from Orientation to Action (whew!), is critical.

Boyd never abandoned the circular OODA loop, but, as he pointed out in Conceptual Spiral, the function of the circular process embedded within the OODA “loop” is two-fold: tweaking Orientation, and generating hypotheses, including trial hardware and software, for testing in the real world. Learning, in other words. There are those who will tell you that in business, the learning component of the “loop” is generally the one that dominates. H&L quote one such: “An organization’s ability to learn, and to translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” (Jack Welch).

Business is at least a three-player (you, competitor(s), customer(s)) game, where the customer’s decision is the goal. What you do to your competitors is important only in so far as it swings customers’ decisions your way. So you can see how it might be that a circular treatment of Boyd’s OODA “loop” could be more useful for business than as a model for action in direct 2-player forms of conflict, like the martial arts and war. If you’re interested in such OODA “loop” lore, I recommend my paper, “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop,” available, along with all of Boyd’s works, from our Articles page.

There are lots of gems sprinkled away in the text, any of which could be parts for your snowmobile. Here’s one: “The organization with the most flexibility in the system will have the most influence on the system.” (79) You’ll probably find many more, but remember H&L, and for that matter Boyd, are not revealing eternal truths for you to memorize. Instead, read like Boyd would have: scribble notes in the margins, cross-index, point out inconsistencies, highlight intriguing passages, find something that you otherwise wouldn’t have.

As a final aside, if H&L have written the latest in the line of business books influenced by Boyd, you might also consider what was probably the first, Competing Against Time, by George Stalk and Tom Hout. I can’t recommend either of these too highly.

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Patterns of Strategy

  1. Very much enjoying this post. For me, there is a real need to consider how Boyd approached issues. He was a deep thinker(see Calport; “deep work”)
    Away from an addiction to instant solutions, in favour of catalysed thinking. All the elements are available to us, but require the essential ingredient of original thinking authentic to us as individuals.

    • Richard — thanks. Without that essential ingredient, you’re just following a script someone else wrote and so become predictable.

  2. Another perspective on this —

    “as parts for your snowmobile or maybe even ideas for prototypes. You still need to build your own, but you can pick up a lot of ideas from Musashi.”

    An aphorism in marketing I was taught by a master in the distant past: people want a snowmobile, not a box of parts. That’s been my experience in business, where most people —
    managers, professionals, etc. — lack the deep knowledge of their job needed to assemble their own solutions — even out of prefab parts.

    My guess is that is also true for officers in the Army. Hence it’s reliance on lists, acronyms, and similar pre-fab solutions for common situations and problems.

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