An Orientation for IOHAI

Unlike “agility,” Boyd did define “orientation,” in Organic Design for Command and Control (1987).

Before giving his definition, he offered a preliminary thought, on page 13:

Orientation, seen as a result, represents images, views, or impressions of the world shaped by genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences, unfolding circumstances and the processes of analyses and synthesis. (Emphasis in original)

Sharp eyed readers will note that by adding “analyses and synthesis,” I’ve brought the definition up to his final version in The Essence of Winning and Losing (1996). I think what Boyd is doing here is trying to ease readers into his definition, which, as we shall see shortly is complex. He’s going to define it as a process, which suggests inputs and outputs. In the representation above, he’s describing the outputs. 

With that as an introduction, he offers his definition on page 15:

Referring back to our previous discussion, we can say: orientation is an interactive process of many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections that is shaped by and shapes the interplay of genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences, unfolding circumstances, and the processes of analyses and synthesis. (Emphasis in original)

One small problem

Fine, but we run into a problem if we try to use this definition for IOHAI. For a long time, I was puzzled when people criticized the inclusion of “genetic heritage.”  It is simply one of the factors that makes us different as individuals and so have different orientations.

But if you read through the slides immediately preceding IOHAI, starting at about Patterns of Conflict 139, you can see Boyd is talking about groups, teams, societies, even nations. I can assure you from long personal experience that Boyd did not subscribe to any theories of racial superiority, so we could not include genetic heritage in any definition of group orientation.

We’re left with the problem, then, of creating a definition of “orientation” to use for IOHAI. Since he didn’t include orientation in the original version of slide 144, and even after defining it in Organic Design, he didn’t go back and revise that slide, we’re on our own.

“Orientation” runs like a backbone through every segment of the Discourse on Winning and Losing. In fact, Boyd called it the Schwerpunkt, the most important part of the OODA loop (Organic Design, 16 & 26). As the “theme for vitality and growth,” IOHAI needs a concept of orientation that will work for it. In a previous post, I gave the logic behind Chuck’s and my decision. Briefly, we combined a couple of concepts that relate to group orientation:

  • common outlook/overall mind-time-space scheme (Patterns 74)
  • similar implicit orientation (Organic Design 23)

Without a functioning ouija board, we can’t be sure (and even then, if Boyd wanted to say something he had had plenty of time before he died), but we’re confident we have a good one by comparing the definition above to how he describes “similar implicit orientation” on OD slide 23:

… in order to more quickly make many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections as well as create the similar images or impressions, hence a similar implicit orientation …

Should seem familiar by this point. Just as an aside, one might ask whether group orientation under any of these definitions is the same as Boyd’s cultural attribute of Einheit. 

Orientation in Action

Although Orientation might first appear to be a purely mental function, with outputs of images, views, or impressions, in every one of these, its ultimate output is action. He made this explicit in his OODA “loop” sketch in The Essence of Winning and Losing:

Basic OODA Loop No Blue.001

What’s involved in action? Well, in most situations, you have lots of potential actions that vary between tweaking what you’re doing now and trying something completely different. Which one are you going to try? The one that you predict will work the best at this point in time, given the current unfolding and imperfectly understood situation.

Now compare that to what he wrote in “Destruction and Creation”:

Actions must be taken over and over again and in many different ways. Decisions must be rendered to monitor and determine the precise nature of the actions needed that will be compatible with the goal. To make these timely decisions implies that we must be able to form mental concepts of observed reality, as we perceive it, and be able to change these concepts as reality itself appears to change. The concepts can then be used as decision models for improving our capacity for independent action. (Emphasis added)

In other words, one of the primary purposes of orientation, if not THE primary purpose, is to predict the effects of the various alternatives and then select one.

Miyamoto Musashi

Miyamoto Musashi, from Wikimedia

When engaged with an external actor — opponent, competitor, customer, etc. — this comparison and selection must be accomplished quickly so as not to lose the initiative.  This suggests that the comparison of myriads of potential actions is done inside orientation by, for example, the brain acting as a massively parallel computer performing some sort of pattern-based selection.  You might compare to Gary Klein’s concept of “recognition-primed decision making.” Interestingly, Boyd’s first claim to fame, energy-maneuverability theory, was pattern based.*   

More than a mental construct?

We still, though, have orientation, whether in individual or group form, as a purely mental process. It’s continuously taking inputs from the external world and producing outputs there, but it sits firmly inside the brain. Or does it?  Right at the end of his life, Boyd took Action and put it inside orientation itself. My eagle-eyed observers from above have surely noticed that I left out part of Boyd’s OODA “loop” sketch. Here is the last sentence of it:

Also note how the entire “loop” (not just orientation) is an ongoing many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection.

Originally, I thought this was some sort of cutesy throw-away line. But now, 25 years later, I think it may be the most profound sentence Boyd ever wrote because the “entire loop,” of course, includes action. Action and observation, previously external onlookers to orientation are now invited inside to the party. Referring back to the definitions above, we can restate this sentence as: 

Also note how the entire “loop” (not just orientation) is orientation.

It’s not too challenging to see observation as part of orientation, but action? What is Boyd trying to tell us? Anything?


*Boyd included several examples in New Conception for Air-to-Air Combat, available from our Articles page.

2 thoughts on “An Orientation for IOHAI

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