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. 

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How Boyd finally got to the OODA loop

Chick Spinney, one of John Boyd’s closest associates, has revised his flow diagram depicting how Boyd’s strategic thinking evolved from his days flying F-86s in Korea in 1953 until his death in 1997.

Spinney Evolution of Boyds Ideas

In this chart, “ODA” is “orient-decide-act,” not “observe-decide-act.” As Chuck recalls, Boyd added “observation” in 1975, about the time he retired from the Air Force. “LWF” is the Air Force’s Lightweight Fighter program, which culminated in the flyoff between the YF-16 and YF-17 in 1974.

Note that Patterns of Conflict is about operating inside the OODA loop and says virtually nothing about the OODA loop itself. The only place Boyd develops — and draws — the OODA loop is in The Essence of Winning and Losing, 1996.

Chuck also highlights how Boyd returns to “Scientific/Philosophical Foundation Efforts” with Conceptual Spiral in 1992. Interesting to compare the two, the effects of 16 years of intense effort.

All of Boyd’s works, and a PDF of the above diagram, are available from our Articles page. I might also modestly recommend my “Origins of John Boyd’s Discourse,” which illustrates some of the domains Boyd investigated (e.g., evolution, complexity, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, etc.) as he moved along Chuck’s progression.

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:

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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. Continue reading


My co-editor, Chuck Spinney, and I have updated page 144 of Patterns of Conflict, the “Theme for Vitality and Growth.” The last full edition of Patterns carries a date of December 1986. Even after he quit issuing new editions of the briefing, however, Boyd continued to evolve these ideas, and in 1989, he changed page 144 in a major way.

Here is page 144 in the 1986 edition:

PatternsOfConflict IIAH 144 JPEG.001

What Boyd did was replace “adaptability” with “agility” and add “orientation.” IOHAI. Unfortunately, he did not produce a new edition of Patterns with a revised page 144, so we are left with the problem of definitions for the two new terms.


He replaced “adaptability” with “agility” because if all you do is adapt, you’re in “perpetual catch-up mode,” as he explained in a conversation we had in 1992. The other side has the initiative. This will not do. Continue reading

Addendum: Reading suggestions

Speaking of mumbling, you may not have caught my short list of reading suggestions. They were:

  • The Art of Action, by Stephen Bungay
  • Turn the Ship Around, by L. David Marquet
  • The Mary Russell novels, by Laurie R. King (in fact, anything by Ms. King). Start with the first, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
  • The Laundry Files novels, by Charles Stross. Again, start with the first, The Atrocity Archive. The reference to OODA loops is in The Apocalypse Codex, p. 160.  Here’s my blog entry:

New interview


I don’t know about you, but I find it vary painful to watch myself, particularly if I’m trying to speak extemporaneously.  For one thing, it’s too late to shout “Look at the green dot at the top of the screen!” Not to mention “Don’t talk so fast!” and “Quit mumbling!”

It gives you great respect for editors and for people who do this sort of thing well, like my two co-hosts, Matt Devost and Bob Gourley of OODA loop.

A couple of small corrections. When I was talking about my programs at the Pentagon, they included the F-14, F-15, Lightweight Fighter, and A-10, not the F-18 (which grew out of the LWF program several years after I left)*. And the magazine streaming service is Apple News+ not Amazon News+, which doesn’t exist, although I do stream music through Amazon Music Unlimited.

Skimming back over it, though, I think you’ll enjoy it. Probably not as bad as I first imagined, thanks again to my co-hosts.

*  I may have actually said “A-10.” I also had the F-5E. So much going on — it was a great time to be part of tactical air.

Why The Norwegian Naval Academy teaches John Boyd’s conflict theory

By Tommy Krabberød, Damien O’Connell, Chester W. Richards, Endre Sjøvold, Stein Hatlem Forsdahl, Jostein Mattingsdal and Roar Espevik

Newly published (in English) by the Norwegian Ministry of Defense on the armed forces web site:

The Norwegian Naval Academy uses Boyd’s framework as a basis for cadet education. So they started wondering: How would John’s concepts translate to the current fight against the coronavirus?

Auftragstaktik in one simple diagram

The concept of Auftragstaktik is more complicated than just “Tell them what to do, then walk away.” The root of “Auftragstaktik” is a German word for “contract,” and that’s how Boyd describes mission command in Patterns, (p. 76):

A contract, even a conceptual one, means negotiation and salesmanship, as you can see. For example, does the subordinate understand how their mission fits into the overall operational concept? Are you confident that they have the requisite tactical skills to accomplish the mission? Do they have the character and determination to see the mission through, even to change it without orders if that is what is required to meet the commander’s intent? The amount of latitude you give your subordinate and the way you phrase your mission order will depend on how you answer questions like these.

Giving an effective mission order, therefore, is a skill to be acquired not a checklist to be memorized. As such, it takes a fair amount of training and a lot of practice to get good at it. And you should not be surprised to find out that the best way to teach Auftragstaktik is via … Auftragstaktik.

Here’s an example from Chris Casey’s and Don Vandergriff’s article, “The Future of TECOM,” in the June 2020 issue of Marine Corps Gazette. It neatly encapsulates the whole philosophy of mission command:

I love this chart! On the left, you see the checklist mentality: Did they comply with the internal, organizational requirements? On the right, what Casey and Vandergriff call “outcomes-based learning”: Did they achieve the objective “within the context of the current situation and the higher commander’s intent”? During the negotiation process, the commander must ensure that there is no confusion on these matters.

Another reason I like this is that you can see all of the other elements of Boyd’s organizational climate:

  • Schwerpunkt — “the context of the current situation and higher commander’s intent;” answers the “Limitation” from Boyd’s slide.
  • Einheit — in the sense of “mutual trust,” of course, but also mutual understanding of the “context of the current situation,” what Boyd called a “common outlook” or “similar implicit orientation.”
  • Fingerspitzengefühl — In a rapidly changing situation, most communication has to be implicit. The commander, for example, must be able to read the subordinate and intuitively decide if a common outlook is established, the negotiation is complete, and the subordinate is committed.

Perhaps you can help me on this, but I don’t see any reason this approach won’t apply to business or to any competitive endeavor among organizations.

A true-to-life tale of corruption and intrigue

Book Review

Special Play$: Win the Game!
Bob McAndrew
Amazon, April 28, 2020

[Note: I worked for Bob McAndrew when he was Director of International Sales at the Lockheed plant in Marietta, GA, where they still build the C-130 Hercules cargo plane. I did not, however, have anything to do with Egypt. The true events that inspired this novel might have happened before I joined International Sales (There was an Egyptian bribery scandal at Lockheed in the late 1980s. Here’s a brief description from the LA Times:]

Here’s the problem. Your company makes airplanes both for the US Department of Defense and for sales to most of the rest of the world. The only countries you can’t sell to are the bad guys du jour — think North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, etc. This means you spend a lot of time trapsing around what used to be known as the “Third World,” where the company issues you a sick sack full of assorted medicines and wishes you the best of luck. Compared to many places we worked, Egypt was quite nice.

Another problem, apart from staying alive, is that many prospective customers tend to define “corruption” quite a bit differently that we do. This map will give you the idea (red is bad): As an American company, we were bound by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prescribes severe penalties for violating our standards of corruption, regardless of what the locals typically do.

Meanwhile, the factory was constantly churning out airplanes, and we had to go sell them to somebody. Somehow. Positions in the corporate hierarchy, not to mention salaries and bonuses, were at stake, so the pressure to move the product was high.

Finally, although we made the only aircraft of its kind — 4-engine turboprop, heavy-duty transport suitable for troops and cargo as well as humanitarian relief, all into and out of short, poorly prepared air fields — money is “fungible,” that is, it can move around and be used for all sorts of things other than cargo aircraft. So even though we had no direct competition, there were always lots of competing uses for what little money most of these countries did have. And some of our competitors for this money didn’t seem to worry as much about foreign corrupt practices as we did.

Put all this together and you can start to understand why people sometimes cut ethical corners.

Bob McAndrew tells a tale of one such campaign. If you’re interested in how big time corruption — as the US defines it — works, this is the book for you. Imagine Goodfellas meets Deal of the Century.

I’ll be honest, great literature it’s not. Every few pages, he weaves in a summary of a 49ers game, leading to their victory in the 1990 Super Bowl. I’m as big a Joe Montana fan as anybody, but I’m still trying to figure out what this adds to the story. You may find it works for you, but to me, it was distracting. And character development is a little weak. Frankly, after some 200 pages, I had no sympathy, and little empathy, for the characters and figured most got what they deserved. Was justice served? Don’t forget that this is inspired by “true events,” so Bob was constrained in what the Fates could do.

As for the story itself, though, it moves right along. You get to be a spider on the walls of all kinds of conspiratorial meetings and then watch how they play out. You’ll see how the participants ensure they are taken care of, and how they deal with potential roadblocks (no, not floating face down in the Nile.) Once you get into it, it can easily become a page turner, and with little effort, I can see a Netflix movie.

All in all, a light and entertaining addition to your quarantine reading list.