After Boyd

I get asked from time to time what to read after finishing Boyd’s Discourse (All of Boyd’s briefings are available from the Articles tab at the top of this page).  If you look at the Sources section of Patterns of Conflict, or the “Disciplines or activities to be examined” page from Strategic Game:


the answer would appear to be “most anything.”

Let me toss out a few suggestions from the last few years; please add your favorites in the comments.

  1. Turn the Ship Around!, by L. David Marquet (USN, ret.)  This is the best illustration marquetI’ve seen of the power of Einheit. It shows how you can achieve the USMC’s goal of being able to read each others’ minds:

    We believe that implicit communication—to communicate through mutual understanding, using a minimum of key, well-understood phrases or even anticipating each others’ thoughts—is a faster, more effective way to communicate than through the use of detailed, explicit instructions. We develop this ability through familiarity and trust, which are based on a shared philosophy and shared experience. Warfighting, p. 79.

  2. The Art of Action, by Stephen Bungay. An in-depth treatment of the origins and effects of what Boyd called his “EBFAS” climate, an organizational culture that accelerates learning and facilitates operating inside opponents’ OODA loops. Bungay You’ll note that Bungay’s use of Auftragstaktik is somewhat broader than Boyd’s.
  3. Anything recent on human evolution. The theory of evolution by natural selection forms one of the two pillars of Boyd’s work (Patterns 11), so anything you can extract from that domain might prove useful. The field is changing so rapidly that I hesitate to recommend anything specific. However, last August, Scientific American published The Story of Us, a collection of essays that summarize the latest findings. It has just been released as an eBook, entitled Evolution: The Human Odyssey.
  4. This might be 3b: Anything on the latest in genetics (including epigenetics), the mechanism behind both human development and human evolution and another field that’s changing so rapidly that I hesitate to recommend anything specific.  Lots of good books out there, plus you can follow @physorg_com ‏on Twitter.
  5. Neurophysiology. This was where Boyd was spending a lot of his time just before he died (see, for example, charts 16 and following in Strategic Game.)  The ability of the brain to change itself, called “neuroplasticity,” was just becoming apparent in 1997, and I’m not sure we really understand that much about it now. Anyway, you can’t understand orientation and its effect on actions without understanding how the brain works. Did you know, by the way, that scientists have recently discovered neural connections between parts of the brain that perform higher order functions (thinking, in other words) and those that govern emotions? Might explain why Patterns 132 works as it does. Connections between brain physiology and genetics are also becoming more apparent. Check out “Intelligence and the DNA Revolution” from SciAm, August 2017.
  6. Anything recent from any other field (“domain” as Boyd called it), including those that weren’t even named when Boyd was alive. Keep in mind, though, that Boyd is all about making connections across domains, not memorizing today’s knowledge about any specific one. When he defines “orientation,” for example, the phrase “many sided” refers to “across multiple domains.” Worth also rereading the “Abstract,” if you haven’t in a while.
  7. The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross. A lot of people make a show of turning upapocalypse codex their noses at fiction. This is a mistake. Many authors best known for non-fiction have turned to stories and novels to breathe life into their ideas: From Musashi (carpenter analogy) and Jesus (parables) to modern authors on things military such as John Schmitt (“Operation VERBAL IMAGE” in MCDP 6, Command and Control, 1996), David Hackworth (Price of Honor), Pat Lang (Strike the Tent trilogy), and Bill Lind (Victoria).  Sun Tzu included many tales of lore to illustrate his points. And I suppose we should add the venerable Martin van Creveld’s Hitler in Hell to this list.
    I did a post last December on Stross’s novel, and in particular, how one of the main characters uses the OODA “loop.”  In short, much more like Boyd suggested than the “observe-then-orient-then-decide-then-act” misconception that appears in places that mention the subject. Read the passage I quoted and you’ll get the point immediately. Similarly, you won’t soon forget Bill Lind’s political philosophy, and so, perhaps, his ultimate goal, after reading Victoria.
  8. I’ll close with my own stuff. But first, if you’re familiar with Boyd’s work, but haven’t read Chuck Spinney’s Evolutionary Epistemology in a while, I strongly EvEpis2.4Coverrecommend it (Articles tab, again).  I’ve completed a couple of companion papers to Certain to Win that you might find interesting (“John Boyd’s real OODA loop” and “John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, and the meaning of life.”). Both are available from the Articles tab.  And I did dabble a little in fiction, also available on that page, but I’m not sure that it reveals much about Boyd’s philosophy.
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9 thoughts on “After Boyd

  1. I don’t know if I have read his discourse or not. As I have said, or at least suggested, I am not sure I would have had much in common with Boyd, if I had sat down and had a discourse with him, in person.
    In that context, to let the military have a more disciplined position over me, than what my father had, I don’t think it would have been possible. So following orders would have been, at least at the start, problematic. Boyd, to me, is all about command and control.
    Had I won the lottery, and had been drafted into the military, that would have been a different story. The Vietnam War was over, and I would have had a chance to break from my father and see the world.
    However, I think I would have come to the same conclusion that I have now, i.e. there is only one.
    On the other hand, I am not sure I would have understood the whole “Orientation” thing as Boyd had, which I am still trying reconcile with my conclusion. 🙂

  2. I think it can be helpful to get a better idea of the underlying ideas Boyd built his thought on. There might be better sources now, but Chaos: Making a New Science by Gleick was a great intro to non linear dynamics. (and got me interested enough to go get a masters in math) For the more mathematically minded Stephen Strogatz’s Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos was a great intro textbook.

    Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Weatherford. It provides an in depth look at the war leader who probably embodied what Boyd was trying to capture in his thoughts better than any other warlord, and it provides context for the non battle-y parts of his success.

    Order Out of Chaos by Ilya Prigogine. Another one where something newer might be better, but the idea of Dissipative Structures is important (in general and in Boyd’s thought) and I don’t think people have a good grasp of it.

    I probably could list another dozen-ish things (Best and the Brightest or Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions come to mind but I figure people that visit here would probably have read them already) but those three will do.

    • “It provides an in depth look at the war leader who probably embodied what Boyd was trying to capture in his thoughts better than any other warlord, and it provides context for the non battle-y parts of his success.”
      I read Weatherford’s book. In the end, Weatherford pretty much shows that the Mongols, as a society, lost their Orientation, which probably started with their “win” over China, by being better “Chinese” than the Chinese.
      What began as a steep vertical, soon became a very flat horizontal.
      I liked the part where he said, to paraphrase, if you want to strike terror in Russians, tell them the Mongols are coming.
      Pretty much, the Mongols were the first Jihad the Russian had ever been exposed to.

      • There is another Boyd intensive book called Empire of the Summer Moon, Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian Tribe in American History, by S.C. Gwynne. Although not stated, the author looks at an example of another type of leader that took a different philosophical approach to Boyd.
        Philosophy covers 3 domains, i.e. structural, cultural, and ethical domains. While Genghis Khan advantages were mainly cultural, Quanah Parker’s where structural.
        Genghis Khan’s main structural advantage was to spread his DNA as far across the area of conquest as possible, where as Quanah Parker had a white mother, and let his culture resolve itself into its competitor. I am thinking that Comanche culture thought that as long as the Comanche DNA remained within the system, Native Americans remain.
        In other words, as long as the DNA structure of Native Americans remained in the environment observed, it will adapt to that environment given half a chance. So 50/50 instead of zero.
        So far the Native American culture has suffered much, but, structurally, Native Americans remain in the game.
        Structurally, the Mongols, while Genghis Khan’s DNA is around 10% within the contested area, the Mongol society remains out of the game, because of cultural restraints.
        Something Russians should be glade of.

  3. ““But the geneticist Professor Steve Jones describes how Unilever actually did solve this problem — trial and error, variation and selection. You take a nozzle and you create 10 random variations on the nozzle. You try out all 10; you keep the one that works best. You create 10 variations on that one. You try out all 10. You keep the one that works best. You try out 10 variations on that one. You see how this works, right? And after 45 generations, you have this incredible nozzle. It looks a bit like a chess piece — functions absolutely brilliantly. We have no idea why it works, no idea at all.” – Harford.”

    • Thanks!! Sort of how natural selection works. Sort of assumes that the randomization process produces enough variation for selection to work. That’s where the humans (Fingerspitzengefühl) come in.

      • Not understanding how something works is more of a security issue than evolutionary. I mean how can you secure your design, if you don’t know how it works?
        Under that scenario you stand the possibility of your nozzle becoming iPhone, i.e. racing towards the Peter Principle. Under that principle you’re leaning forward in the race, but you know a wall is up ahead and the Peter Principe says the wall has the “incompetence label attached .
        Leaning into innovation is a good position to be in, but leaning forward is a bad posture to be in when you hit a wall, if you are the head of a brand.
        But, evolutionary speaking, that’s probably why many executives look for a more secure position in the brand and at a position a little lower down than the spine.
        Some executives thrive there.

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