Sir John Richard Boyd?

Unlikely because he was a US citizen, and then he died in March 1997.  However, he has been enormously influential in British politics over the last several years.

In particular, he has been a significant source of ideas and inspiration for Dominic Cummings.  Readers who are not citizens of the UK may not recognize Mr. Cummings. He ran the successful Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum and now holds the position of chief advisor to Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the UK.

Although I was unaware of the fact, Cummings’ interest in Boyd has been well documented in the British press.  For example:

It’s one thing to have Boyd in your bookcase, but how did Cummings actually use Boyd’s ideas? A movie came out last year that dramatizes the Brexit campaign and focuses on Cummings’ role,  Brexit: The Uncivil War https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brexit:_The_Uncivil_War.  It’s available for a most reasonable purchase on Amazon. Read the review in the LA Times here.

Lets Take Back ControlKeeping in mind that we are watching a screenplay, albeit “based on real events and interviews with key people who were there,” and not a campaign documentary, here are some of my impressions:

  • Building snowmobiles. Cummings starts with analyses, just as “Destruction and Creation” recommends. A lot of the writings on the walls in campaign HQ are potential parts he has found.
  • The OODA loop (the circular one): Note how Cummings’ major focus (his Schwerpunkt in Boyd’s terms) modifies as he completes more cycles through the observe-orient-hypothesis-test process.
  • Observation: Cummings refuses to be limited to ideas from established politicians, even for significant funding. Pay close attention to the measures he takes to ensure that he doesn’t get trapped by the existing Brexit establishment. Also, note how, in the best Toyota tradition, he “gets his hands dirty” out drinking beer, shooting pool, and just listening directly to potential voters in their pubs and homes.  Compare with Remain’s reliance on focus groups.
  • “Across a variety of domains.” Cummings gets the idea for the final version of his Schwerpunkt from a book on parenting (he is about to become a father while all this is going on).
  • Orientation: Cummings evolves his orientation by combining insights from potential voters with inferences from cutting edge data analytics. At one point, he says he’s used patterns in social media to discover 3 million primarily young people who have never voted and so aren’t on anybody’s list. Compare that with the Remain team, who get locked into previously useful ideas, like “If the status quo is ahead before the campaign, it always wins on the day” and “It’s the economy, stupid.” It’s as if they didn’t execute any learning loops at all.
  • Operating inside OODA loops: Watch for dialogue that suggests the Remain team sometimes has problems figuring out what Cummings is doing. This is typical of what the victims of such attacks experience. Vote Remain concentrates on making points about jobs and risk to the economy and making sure they can counter the Leave campaign in these areas. This is the domain of tactics and strategy, and who knows, they may have won there.
  • Strategy and Grand Strategy: Cummings, following Boyd, moves the realm of conflict from strategy to grand strategy. For a quick refresher, read over Patterns 139 – 144 again. To accomplish this, he synthesized an attractive message, a unifying vision as Boyd would put it, his Schwerpunkt, and stuck to it.
  • Now wrap all this up into IOHAI and see what you have.

I’m not a citizen of the UK, so I have no stake in Brexit or British politics. But it’s important to disregard the specifics and study Cummings’ methods as an example of Boyd’s philosophies explicitly applied. If you voted Remain in 2016 or Labor in the 2019 election, you might pay especially close attention.


End thoughts:

  1. All of Boyd’s papers and briefings are available for free download from our Articles page.
  2. Dean Lenane has written a thinly disguised first-person account of applying Boyd’s concepts to business, The Turnaround, available on our Articles page.
  3. If you’re confused by “observe-orient-hypothesis-test” when you were expecting OODA, I explain in “Boyd’s OODA Loop,” also available on the Articles page,

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