Peeringly deeply

De rerum natura.

Here’s Boyd’s definition of “insight” again:

Ability to peer into and discern the inner nature or workings of things. 


My first reaction when I read this was “Yawn.” I mean, who wouldn’t want the talent to “peer into and discern the inner nature or workings of things”? And in fact, up until it suddenly appeared in slide 144, Boyd hadn’t attached much importance to it. Just to give one indication, he began Patterns of Conflict with “key qualities that permit one to shape and adapt to an ever- changing environment.” Interestingly, “insight” isn’t among them. Why in the world would insight suddenly deserve a place among the five ingredients needed for vitality and growth (in other words, for life)?

Boyd thought long and hard about every line in his briefings, and bounced them off his colleagues in the Pentagon, at happy hour, and by phone. So there’s probably more here than is obvious on first encounter. For example, Boyd defines insight as an an “ability,” so can we develop it or is it innate? Is it a black art hidden to all but an initiated few, or it it something we can all improve? What’s so special about it?

We might get some idea of what Boyd had mind, and why he thought it merited inclusion in the “Theme for Vitality and Growth,” by looking at how he himself had used it.

Patterns of Conflict.

“Insight” occurs nine times in Patterns before page 144. Seven of these are as page or section headings, and the other two occur in the phrases “provides little insight into …” and “we gain some insight into …” We also find “insight” seven times in Organic Design, once in Conceptual Spiral, and twice in The Essence of Winning and Losing. The word doesn’t appear at all in the Abstract, “Destruction and Creation,” the “Revelation,” or Strategic Game of ? and ?

The headings introduce sections that highlight and summarize conclusions from the material that precedes them. They are Boyd saying “Aha! Look what I found in all this!” which has the flavor of “peering into and discerning the inner nature or workings of things.” In that sense, they are mini-analyses, potential snowmobile pieces he found when disassembling whatever it was that he was looking at in the passages immediately before them. And if you examine at these sections closely, they are not only “here they are,” but how they work. As an aside, if you were to look into the same domains, you might find different pieces.

He’s taken a concept, guerrilla warfare, for example, broken it down, and now has a better idea of how the pieces work, the pieces in this case being such things as crises and vanguards, support of the people, penetrating the adversary’s moral-mental-physical being, generating many non-cooperative centers of gravity and so on.

Why Insight?

This is interesting, but it strikes me as more a rhetorical device than a concept meriting a place in IOHAI. So let’s move on. Perhaps his deepest development of insight occurs in Organic Design for Command & Control, the next briefing he completed after Patterns. This is the first place where he proposes its significance.

On page 3, he outlines the then-current focus on hardware as the solution for C&C “fiascos,” as he terms them:

more and better sensors, more communications, more and better computers, more and better display devices, more satellites, more and better fusion centers, etc.—all tied into one giant fully informed, fully capable C&C system. This way of thinking emphasizes hardware as the solution.

On the top of page 4, he proposes an alternative approach that “emphasizes the implicit nature of human beings.” For such an approach, he claims that we

Need insight and vision, to unveil adversary plans and actions as well as “foresee” own goals and appropriate plans and actions. 


And then on page 5:

Why insight and vision? 
Without insight and vision there can be no orientation to deal with both present and future.

The importance of this statement is driven home on page 26, where he simply calls orientation “the most important part of the O-O-D-A loop.”** 

In any case — and I’ll discourse upon orientation more in a later post — insight and vision are essential elements in maintaining an accurate orientation.

Developing insight?

Is it a mystical property some are born with? Can you develop it as a by-product of arcane practices such as sorcery or Zen? Boyd doesn’t say much about this, but near the end of his last major briefing, Conceptual Spiral, he drops a big hint. He was very proud of this chart — the result of many hours on the phone with many people, including me — so I’ll reprint it in its entirety:

Continuing Whirl

He’s referring back to a chart from 8 pages previously:

Science and Engineering

In other words, the OODA loop, as embedded in the OODA “loop” (Boyd hadn’t drawn the OODA “loop” sketch when he wrote CS):

The loop in the OODA Loop

To put this another way, you develop insight through what some have called “deliberate practice,” the same way you develop Fingerspitzengefühl. With that in mind, we might rephrase Boyd’s original definition as

Insight: Fingerspitzengefühl for peering into and discerning the inner nature or working of things.

Roots and sources.

I don’t know where Boyd got the idea of including insight within IOHAI. Perhaps he just thought it was obvious. As noted above, it wasn’t among the four attributes that he began Patterns with: variety, rapidity, harmony, and initiative, although three of the four elements of IOHAI do appear there.## But the more you investigate how it is used elsewhere, the more you can appreciate why he included it in IOHAI.

Here are a couple of precedents.

A related concept, deep understanding, a level of knowledge more profound than surface appearances, occurs in many fields. The Toyota Production System, for example, includes a practice called the “Five Whys” for drilling down to the root cause of a problem, such as a mis-assembled part. The idea is not simply to fix that part, or even to fix its immediate cause, say a misaligned tool, but to ask “Why was the tool misaligned?” and keep drilling down until we know whether the fix is more training, better preventive maintenance, or perhaps a better tool or even redesign the part or kaizen the production process so that an alignment tool isn’t required at all.

Finally, the recognition of insight as a key ingredient in life is ancient. Going back at least a couple of millennia, one finds that Buddhism contains a concept called “vipassana,” often translated as “insight.” The Wikipedia entry notes that “It is often defined as a form of meditation that seeks “insight into the true nature of reality.” Similarly, in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shuryu Suzuki insisted that “To understand reality as a direct experience is the reason we practice zazen.” As with most ancient concepts, especially of a religious nature, “insight” has accumulated a variety of meanings and interpretations over the centuries, but they all have some sense of getting beyond surface appearances.

I knew John for more than 20 years, up until his death in 1997, but I never had any indication that he practiced any Eastern philosophies. He was, though, familiar with many of their concepts: The sources list for Patterns includes such new age titles as The Dancing Wu Li Masters, The Tao of Physics, three editions of the Sun Tzu book (including Griffith’s with his famous introduction), and Tao, The Watercourse Way. Point is that insight and the practices to develop it have a long and distinguished pedigree, and so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Boyd included it in his “Theme for Vitality and Growth.”


**An exaggeration because as a “loop,” if any part is missing or locks up, the entire mechanism ceases to function. But it does illustrate the importance Boyd attached to orientation.

##Yes, three.

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