Happy Birthday, Alice

Sun Tzu was a great fan of intelligence and spies in particular — check out Chapter 13 if you need a refresher —  because it’s much easier to operate inside opponents’ OODA loops if you already know what they’re going to do. As luck would have it, today is the birthday of Louise de Bettignies, AKA Alice Dubois, one of the greatest intelligence operatives of all time.

To explain why, a little historical perspective might prove useful. Although the German Schlieffen Plan failed to hook around Paris and end World War I in 1914, it left the Germans occupying a fair portion of northeastern France for the next 4 years. From January to September, 1915, this area provided the theater of operations for de Bettignies, whose network alerted the British to German plans and tactical movements  and almost took out the Kaiser himself. Among other feats of derring-do.

There are several bios of her, but historical fiction might be a good place to start. To this end, Kate Quinn has written a most readable — “page turner” wouldn’t be too strong — story of her operation, The Alice Network. I recommend it highly.

Happy Birthday, Louise.

Creating mission-oriented leaders

Don’t you want your organization to run better? Of course you do: Get rid of the office politics, cliques, backstabbing, passive aggression — morale goes up, blood pressure goes down, objectives are routinely exceeded, competitors / opponents get trounced. Hence, the size of modern CEO offices, which need to be that big to hold all the books on how to actually do it.

Among the many approaches, “agility” proposes to use time to shape the competitive environment, and, if necessary, react to changes before they become fatal. Nestled within the agile approaches, there is a school that insists the best way to do this is to fire up creativity and initiative throughout the organization and harmonize them to accomplish the objectives of the organization. Note that “throughout” includes everybody from new hires to the aforementioned CEO.

Boyd’s philosophy is obviously in this category. He proposed an organizational climate, often known by the acronym EBFAS,* whose purpose was to produce organizations that could shape, reorient to, and exploit rapidly changing situations.  Boyd regarded conflict as characterized by deception, surprise, ambiguity, stress and threat, which can lead to fear, mistrust, and a breakdown of cohesion. “Reorient to” is a way of saying that you understand such situations better than your opponents. “Rapidly” implies that given time, your opponents will figure these things out; don’t give them the time.

The “E” in EBFAS stands for Einheit, for which Boyd adopted the English “mutual trust.” It is fundamental, so organizational cultures that focus on building mutual trust are sometimes called “trust based.”  Of the other letters, perhaps the best known is “A” for another German word, Auftragstaktik, often translated as “mission command.”  It has become something of a sub-genre in management literature.**

Last month, I featured an article by Don Vandergriff on Auftragstaktik, where he described the origins of the concept and why high performing organizations use it.

Don has now followed up with a well-documented piece on how to train people for Auftragstaktik .  He describes an emerging methodology within the Army, Adaptive Leader Soldier Training and Education (ALSTE), and an implementation, the Army Reconnaissance Course, that have proven to develop leaders who can excel under the philosophy of mission command. These programs reflect initiatives Don has been working on for years and documented as far back as Raising the Bar (2006).

*I’ve done several posts on EBFAS — please use the search feature in the right column if you’re interested.

**For an in-depth look at Auftragstaktik, I can recommend Stephen Bungay’s The Art of Action and Don’s recent book on Mission Command.

Deep foundation for Auftragstaktik

Don Vandergriff has a nice piece at Small Wars Journal on how Auftragstaktik developed and why.  He makes what to me is an extremely important but generally overlooked point that mission orders, which is how most people explain the term, are not what defines Auftragstaktik but represent evidence that the underlying culture is alive and working.

As a culture, Auftragstaktik implies that those who can influence the organization — top leaders, board members, large shareholders, influential members of Congress, etc. — have given careful thought to and so evolved practices for selecting, training, retaining, and promoting people who embody the philosophy and separating those who do not.

If this happens, what we call “mission orders” (or something, perhaps, even better) will be the natural outcome.



Boyd’s personal papers, II

I’ve just posted the second part of the accession list for Boyd’s personal papers. You can find it under “John R. Boyd” on the Articles page (tab above).

I don’t have the first part. If any one does and would be so kind as to send me a PDF, I’d be happy to post it, too. In the meantime, the first part consists primarily of works on history and military topics.  Many of these, and virtually all of the ones he actually used, are included in the Sources section at the end of Patterns of Conflict.

Mobile Warfare for Africa

Before there was ISIS, before 9/11, and before Syria, Libya, Niger, etc., there was the Border War in Southern Africa (1966 – 1989).

Mobile Warfare For Africa

I’m very excited about this book. Unlike so many recent manuals on counterinsurgency warfare, this one was not written by the losers (to quote an observation by Martin van Creveld).  Drawing on their own experiences, tempered by the events of the intervening three decades, two of its participants have written a nearly 400 page examination of this conflict, which presaged many of our experiences in the Middle East. What we could have learned …

It is a weighty tome, though, so it will be a while before I can post a complete review.  In the meantime, from what I’ve seen skimming the volume and its accompanying atlas, and carefully reading the first three chapters, I can recommend it to readers of this blog. And there’s even an OODA loop.


Practitioner’s notebook, May 2018

Proponents of speed, such as “going through OODA loops faster,” can site some evidence from Boyd. Perhaps the chart that makes the strongest case is this one, from Strategic Game of ? and ? which Boyd began briefing in 1987:


Seems pretty clear: If you want to discombobulate your opponents, then just “operate at a faster tempo or rhythm.”

There are a couple of problems with this approach, though. First is that Boyd doesn’t say “Operate …”  He wrote “The ability to operate …”  At the risk of undue scholasticism, this is big deal. Boyd, like a poet, agonized over every word in these briefings. It wasn’t unusual for the phone to ring and it would be John, wanting to try out several new phrasings for some line you might dimly recall.

In other words, if he meant “Operating at a faster tempo or rhythm than an adversary enables …” that’s what he would have written. So, what’s the difference between “operating” and “the ability to operate”? How can an ability to do something, as contrasted with actually doing it, produce these effects?

Another point to ponder is what, exactly, does it mean to “operate at a faster tempo or rhythm” than an adversary?

Your answers are important. Your actions will flow from your orientation, and your answers will not only reveal something of your orientation, but grappling with these questions may also help shape it.

Boyd in South Africa?

As far as I know, Boyd never made it to South Africa, but a recent book describes how the ideas of maneuver warfare were used by its forces in their highly irregular “border war” (1966 – 1990).  I have not read the book, but here is a recommendation by a colleague who is familiar with some of its primary participants.

If any of you would like to write a review, please contact me.

Maneuver Warfare in Southern Africa
Book recommendation by Morgan Norval*

Speaking of maneuver war, I want to direct your attention to a recent book titled, Mobile Warfare For Africa: On The Successful Conduct Of Wars In Africa And Beyond–Lessons Learned From The South African Border War by Roland De Vries, Camille Burger and Willem Steenkamp. The book explores Lind’s 4th Generation War concept, Boyd’s OODA loop, and utilizing the indirect approach. In fact the book is basically a text on mobile/maneuver war based on its very successful use by the old South African Defense Force. The book also has over a dozen case studies on the subject. The book also comes with a separate atlas which provides maps, illustrations and photos–including three of mine–to help understand the concepts advocated by the book. Continue reading

Fighting Smart

Col Mike Wyly*, USMC, ret., was one of the principle architects behind the Marine Corps’ doctrine of maneuver warfare. He and a group of advocates had written a number of articles in the Marine Corps Gazette and discussed and essentially sold the idea for a period of years between the end of the Vietnam War and the publication of the doctrine in FMFM-1, Warfighting, in 1989.

He recently recounted that one worry they all had was that once published and made official doctrine, it would stop evolving:

I alluded to it briefly in a response to a Gazette piece that was published, how I was in General Gray’s [Commandant of the Marine Corps] office along with John Boyd – just the three of us. General Gray had only days before signed FMFM-1. Boyd congratulated him but then got real serious and talked about how important it would be to keep the thinking – the “fighting smart” – alive and relevant. Were we ever to sit back and say “We did it”, we would lose it, Boyd warned. It would be our challenge to keep our minds open, too, in order that we stay relevant to the changing times.

The need to do so was always Boyd’s response when people asked him why he didn’t publish – even a book. Boyd worried that were he to ever do so, people would say “There it is! The answers are in the book!”, and stop thinking and lose relevance in the changing times.

Continue reading

Masterpieces are never finished

Just abandoned (attributed to Leonardo da Vinci).

I’m not claiming that the new version of “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop” is a masterpiece, although I think it’s pretty good, but I am abandoning it for now, with the exception of an occasional correction or brilliant rephrasing.  It’s available from the Articles page.

It’s a major rework: pretty much every paragraph has seen some TLC, and entire sections have been moved around.  I added a new section on whether faster is always better and also threw in quotes from L. David Marquet and the Buddha.

By the way, if you’re interested in this sort of stuff, check out the Corporate Rebels web site, https://corporate-rebels.com/, and follow them on Twitter @corp-rebels

Mission Command 201

Mission Command: The Who, What, Where, When and Why, An Anthology
by Donald Vandergriff (Author, Editor),‎ Stephen Webber (Editor
August 2017

I like good anthologies, and this is a very good one. Good anthologies can do several things, among them:

  • Provide discrete bins of thought that you can mine for nuggets — parts for your snowmobiles.
  • Let you look at a concept, in this case, “mission command,” from alternative viewpoints. Sometimes this can lead to an “Aha!” moment.
  • Expand your orientation — are you really doing all you could to engage the hippocampus? Be honest, now.

Cover of Mission CommandDon and Steve have done a great job of collecting essays that take you far beyond “What is Mission Command?”  In fact, when you get through, you may find that you know less about the concept than you thought. For example, people sometimes equate mission command with the German term Auftragstaktik.  But Auftrag doesn’t mean “mission.” It’s more like the English “contract.” When Boyd’s talking about “the German concept of ‘mission,'” he notes on Patterns of Conflict, slide 76:

The German concept of mission can be thought of as a contract, hence an agreement, between superior and subordinate. The subordinate agrees to make his actions serve his superior’s intent in terms of what is to be accomplished, while the superior agrees to give his subordinate wide freedom to exercise his imagination and initiative in terms of how intent is to be realized.

As part of this concept, the subordinate is given the right to challenge or question the feasibility of mission if he feels his superior’s ideas on what can be achieved are not in accord with the existing situation or if he feels his superior has not given him adequate resources to carry it out. Likewise, the superior has every right to expect his subordinate to carry out the mission contract when agreement is reached on what can be achieved consistent with the existing situation and resources provided.

So there’s obviously a lot more to the concept than simply “Tell people what to do and let them decide how.”   Don’s and Steve’s anthology will help you broaden your understanding and, perhaps, improve your use of the underlying philosophy in your own organization.

All the chapters are good, but I’d like to draw your attention to a couple that you might find especially broadening.

Quo vadis, mission command?

First, Grant Martin’s chapter on “Type II” mission command for situations where “the commander’s intent is ambiguous or weakly connected to the political purpose of the operation. … What should be added is how to conduct mission command when the purpose of the operation is unclear, where the scope is unbounded, and where cause and effect are not linear.”  Most business applications, in other words.  He proposes a new definition

In non-linear causality  situations, however, leaders must both assist and be assisted by their subordinates to best appreciate the context of the situation and during execution must learn and constantly adjust the appreciation of the context based on that learning. Of note: The learning must go both ways.

Boyd, didn’t like the term “command & control,” suggesting instead “leadership & appreciation.” Where does this leave mission “command”? If Martin’s idea intrigues you, you might explore other possibilities for expanding the concept. Boyd used the term “organic,” which has some of the bottom-up flavor suggested by Martin (there’s an example in chapter 5 of Certain to Win). Another idea is not to issue orders, even mission orders, at all, a possibility explored by David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around!**

The requisite physical energy***

Daniel Markert and Scott Sonnon introduce subjects that you don’t often find in leadership texts in their chapter, “Operationally fit for mission command.” For those of you not up on your neurophysiology, this one may be a little challenging. Just accept that the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and their kin are regions within the brain (or you could Google them and find out where). Markert and Sonnon address a major but often overlooked issue in leadership, that leaders inhabit human bodies:

The rapid onset of the fatigue reflex elevates stress arousal and degrades cognitive function with negative effects on shared understanding, risk awareness, creativity, and decisiveness.

They explain why this is true and what you can do about it. Recall that Boyd suggested that “Without a common outlook, superiors cannot give subordinates freedom of action and maintain coherency of ongoing action” (Patterns 74), so this is important stuff, and Markert’s and Sonnon’s chapter may start you down a productive path.

Explore, enjoy, learn, question.

Preview / buy Mission Command at Amazon


*This idea is implicit in Boyd’s EBFAS climate. Stephen Bungay develops it in detail in The Art of Action, where he, essentially, equates Auftragstaktik with Boyd’s entire EBFAS climate. Mini review in  an earlier post.

**Also covered in my presentation, All by Ourselves, available on the Articles page and in the mini review mentioned above.

***Observation by Gen Hermann Balck, Patterns, p. 118.