A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with a long-time friend and colleague, Jonathan Brown, to talk about John Boyd and discuss some of the major themes of John’s work. To make it more interesting, Jonathan asked me to take the texts in reverse order, that is, starting with The Essence of Winning and Losing, then Conceptual Spiral, and continuing to “Destruction and Creation.”
The first week’s episode made it as far as Strategic Game. Next week’s podcast takes us through Organic Design, Patterns of Conflict, and finally to D&C.
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.
The Norwegian Defense University has just published a new version of “Boyd’s OODA Loop” in their journal, Necesse, edited by Royal Norwegian Naval Academy. I had thought that the previous version was about as close to perfection as can be found on this Earth, but alas Necesse is a peer-reviewed journal, and “Reviewer No. 2” ripped it to shreds. After I calmed down, it was clear that Number 2 was right. So the edition published in the journal is vastly improved over the last version.
As Boyd suggested in his final briefing, The Essence of Winning and Losing (all of Boyd’s works are available for free download on our Articles page), the OODA “loop” is simply a schematic representing three processes and the interplay among them:
Using our existing implicit repertoire
Creating new and therefore unexpected ways to use our repertoire in the heat of conflict
Creating new repertoire, principally by training when not in direct contact with an opponent
In fact, he even called his drawing of the OODA “loop” a “sketch,” strongly indicating that there might be better ways to represent these processes, and over time, people have suggested several.
The folks at Necesse have done a magnificent job of making this rather long and complex paper readable. Although I am sure there are many people involved whom I do not know — you have my sincere gratitude — I would like especially to thank two officers of the Royal Norwegian Navy whom I know quite well and am proud to call colleagues, Commanders Roar Espevik, Main Editor of Necesse, and Tommy Krabberød, who approached me with the idea of a new version of the paper and encouraged me to press on with a major revision as a result of certain peer review comments.
My fascination with dragons started when as a boy. I’ve heard that a crane would beat a snake, deflecting and countering with its beak, that tiger beats crane, overcoming its defences with a flurry of paws, that snake beats tiger, finding a gap for precision strike, and that dragon beats them all, having four legs as a tiger, tail as a snake and long neck as a crane.
As fire-breathing cat-snake-birds, the dragons might represent our fear of predators but also, as Jordan B Peterson notes in this five minutes video, our strength when we conquer or tame them. They are also a symbol of flexibility and adaptation, of being able to show and combine efficiently what might be different and even opposite traits. And we might share this flexibility with dragons.
Operation Market Garden evokes images of the classic film A Bridge Too Far, where paratroopers led by Sean Connery fight a pitched battle against the German hordes, while hoping to be relieved by Allied ground forces advancing all the way from the Belgian border towards Arnhem. In September 1944 the Germans were on the backfoot and retreating. In the north of the Belgian borders, there was a huge gap in the German lines. The door to the Third Reich seemed open. Like water, an army attacks the gaps — the voids — and rather than trying to muscle trough the Siegfried line, Field Marshal Montgomery saw the opportunity to take the path of least resistance to bypass these defensive lines and attack the Rurh area, Germany’s industrial heart.
However a 24-hour pause not only made the allies lose momentum but also gave German commanders the opportunity to reorganize their retreating forces and send them right back to grind the allied advance to a halt. This and some other factors resulted in the what’s now called a magnificent disaster wherein more people lost their lives than during the landings in Normandy.
Of the roughly 36,000 words that Boyd left behind, only about a tenth are in the form of a paper, that is, a linear stream of text. What if Boyd had expanded his textual output by 100,000 words and written a sci-fi novel along the lines of Starship Troopers? (Some of you believe that his one paper, “Destruction and Creation,” (1976) is written in an alien tongue but that doesn’t count). One of Scottish author Charles Stross’s characters does use the OODA loop, and quite appropriately, in the The Apocalypse Codex, as I described back in 2016, and so it might be a candidate for a “What if John Boyd …?” novel.
Here’s another. New author Ian Michael is serializing his novel, Ultra-Violence, on Sundays at the Fabius Maximus site. I think you’ll find lots of operating inside the OODA loop, cheng / chi, penetration along multiple thrusts, and even some moral conflict. So far, I haven’t stumbled across an explicit reference to the OODA loop, yet — although there’s plenty of messing with peoples’ orientations — but he’s only on chapter 4.
Check it out.
Here’s an obscure tip — there is a character named “Alex.” If that doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry about it.
All forms of mission-oriented leadership, from maneuver warfare to the Toyota Production System, share a common foundation: Fire up the creativity and initiative of all members of the organization and harmonize their efforts to accomplish the objectives of the organization. Such an orientation allows them to create and exploit fleeting opportunities before their opponents can understand what is going on.
As Don Vandergriff quotes one of the principal architects of the German blitzkrieg:
The principle thing now is to increase the responsibilities of the individual man, particularly his independence of action, and thereby to increase the efficiency of the entire army. . . .The limitations imposed by exterior circumstances cause us to give the mind more freedom of activity, with the profitable result of increasing the ability of the individual.
HANS VON SEECKT, Commander of the German Army, 1920 -1926
This approach is often called Auftragstaktik, and it is hard to find any military organization that doesn’t claim to be using it.
Aspiring leaders typically concentrate on history and case studies, creating theories of success and failure in their disciplines. This is fine but won’t produce great practitioners in either war or business. As the German General Hermann Balck once told Boyd, “The training of the infantryman can never be too many sided.” Miyamoto Musashi in 1645 wrote that samurai (much less top-level commanders) should study the arts and sciences and master fields other than their own. And this was just to keep them from getting hacked to bits. And then there’s Steve Jobs with his famous calligraphy course and Zen training. Continue reading →