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,, 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.

Dispatches from the front

In this case, automotive engineering.

Dean Lenane gave a major presentation at the recent European Manufacturing Strategies Summit in Berlin and has kindly agreed to post it on our Articles page (link above).  Look for “Organizing for Success with lessons from The master – John Boyd, OR, People, ideas, technology…IN THAT ORDER.”

In addition to being a keen student of Boyd’s ideas, Dean has had the wherewithal to put them into practice. As CEO of CRH North America, he grew the company from $20 M annual revenue to more than $350 M in a span of seven years. He documented some of this experience in The Turnaround, also on the Articles page. Now, as Managing Director, Europe, for Fisher Dynamics, he is continuing to experiment. I think you’ll find  his presentation innovative, exciting (if you’re into this sort of thing), and useful.

One thing I might point out is Dean’s concept of “providing coherent strategy” beginning on slide 69. You may recall that the objectives Boyd set on p. 2 of Patterns of Conflict were:


Focus and direction

• To make manifest the nature of moral-mental-physical conflict
• To discern a pattern for successful operations
• To help generalize tactics and strategy
• To find a basis for grand strategy

[“Focus and direction” was Boyd’s translation of Schwerpunkt.]

In order to  do this, he needed to harmonize grand strategy, strategy, and tactics so that success at one level wasn’t undone by failure at another — the “win the battles but lose the war” phenomenon.  It took him a while to get there, but Boyd finally gave an answer on slide 141.

Dean’s concept of “coherent strategy” serves the same function for manufacturing, and I would suggest for all commercial enterprises. To give one example, he insists:

This requires that a solid understanding of how things work at a tactical level be possessed by those making the strategic decisions.

By implication, a large staff structure of persons without actual front line experience and management by a mandarin class of professional managers without actual detailed knowledge of the specific business and products is anathema to a fast maneuver approach as these will slow down the decision loop. Slide 76.

Compare to Boyd’s slide 176:

– In accepting this idea we must admit that increased unit complexity (with magnified mental and physical task loadings) does not enhance the spontaneous synthetic/creative operation. Rather, it constrains the opportunity for these timely actions/counteractions.

Or put another way

– Complexity (technical, organizational, operational, etc.) causes commanders and subordinates alike to be captured by their own internal dynamics or interactions—hence they cannot adapt to rapidly changing external (or even internal) circumstances.

I think you’ll find what Dean has developed over the last 15 or so years to be an important addition to the expansion of Boyd’s ideas beyond their original domain of war and another instance of the Conceptual Spiral in action.

Good luck.

Fit for success

Fit for Purpose: How modern businesses find, satisfy, and keep customers
David J Anderson and Alexei Zheglov
To be released by Amazon on November 29, 2017

Fit for PurposeWhen I first read the title “Fit for Purpose,” it seemed a little passive. Something like “meets specs,” which is necessary but suggests that somebody else is driving the market. I don’t know Alexei personally, but David is the founder and chairman of Lean Kanban, Inc., which provides training and consulting in “Lean Kanban” and related management tools based on a philosophy similar to Boyd’s. I’ve spoken at several of their events and keynoted Lean Kanban Central Europe 2015. (The charts and a related paper are available from the Articles page, link above).

But when I got deeper into Anderson & Zheglov’s book, it became clear that although their methods would certainly help developers meet specs, “purpose” could be something much more active and powerful.

Developers, whether of software, cars, or airplanes, occasionally forget that the real purpose of their efforts is to produce something that will delight their customers so much that they come back for more, and tell their friends, family, and colleagues. So David and Alexei subtitled their book not “Better ways to develop widgets,” or some such, but “How modern businesses find, satisfy, and keep customers.” As they insist, the only “purpose” that counts is the customer’s:

Before you can evaluate whether your products or services are fit-for-purpose, you need to be able to identify your customer’s purpose.

Continue reading

More After Boyd

More stuff to read after you’ve OD’d on Boyd’s Discourse.

  • One reader suggested Nicholas Taleb, particularly Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile
  • Another recommended Reality is not what it seems, by Carlo Rovelli and The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, by James Hillman

Please add your suggestions in the Comments.

If you’d like more on how the IDF operates, here are two by Martin van Creveld:

Command in War

  • Command in War (also one of Boyd’s favorites; the quote on Organic Design chart 29 starts on p. 199).
  • The Olive and the Sword, a Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force

The important thing is not to take any of these as gospel (same applies to Boyd’s briefings, too) but as sources of ideas. For example a previous post mentioned four elements of the IDF culture:

  • Complete the mission
  • Perform every action to perfection
  • Follow through at any cost
  • Be “ruthlessly candid” in debriefings

On page 196 of Command, van Creveld cites:

  • Individual daring
  • Maintenance of aim
  • Improvisation
  • Resourcefulness

Are these different translations of the same concepts? Complementary? Contradictory? Would any apply to you? How would you build them in your organization? How could you demonstrate that your program is working, i.e., that you’re having a positive effect on organizational performance?

Bigger than all of us

Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?

There was a time when companies were urged to set overarching goals to inspire the troops. In many of these companies, though, the troops noticed that when tough decisions needed to be made, considerations like “Don’t embarrass your boss” and “Pump up the CEO’s bonus” seemed to be the real guiding principles.  In other words, instead of inspiration, employees got hypocrisy.  At the very best, they got platitudes, akin to “We want to do good while making our employees happy and providing a superior return to our investors.” Kumbaya.

Boyd, oddly enough, liked the idea of a higher guiding principle. He wrote:

A review and further manipulation of the ideas and thoughts that make up these different ways suggest that for success over the long haul and under the most difficult conditions, one needs some unifying vision that can be used to attract the uncommitted as well as pump up friendly resolve and drive and drain away or subvert adversary resolve and drive. In other words, what is needed is a vision rooted in human nature so noble, so attractive that it not only attracts the uncommitted and magnifies the spirit and strength of its adherents, but also undermines the dedication and determination of any competitors or adversaries. Patterns of Conflict, 143.

It turns out Boyd may have been on to something. A recent article in Quartz references a new book, Peak Performance, by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness:

While researching their book, Stulberg and Magness interviewed countless scientists and world-renowned athletes. They found that people who exhibited this kind of “superhuman” strength were able to do so only when they chose to focus on a purpose greater than themselves.

Continue reading

United Air Lines – an OODA loop perspective

In other words, what’s their orientation?

I’m not too good at reading minds, much less corporate minds, but one thing stands out: For all practical purposes, domestic airlines in the US today are monopolies. They have left just enough market share at their primary hubs to avoid the threat of federal action, and this limited capacity means that open skies treaties won’t significantly increase competition.

When your orientation says “monopoly,” you act like a monopoly. In particular, without the threat of the marketplace, you have a lot of flexibility in the levels of service you provide — your quality — and in what you can charge. Play this game well and you can maximize the amount of money to be paid out to the the people who control the organization and to those who can fire them. Continue reading

Quick update on the march to Imperial Class

Although “Imperial Class” was originally about airlines, the same phenomenon applies to a variety of other services that can be segmented into “luxury” and  “common.” From the NYT:

In the Haven, as this ship within a ship is called, about 275 elite guests enjoy not only a concierge and 24-hour butler service, but also a private pool, sun deck and restaurant, creating an oasis free from the crowds elsewhere on the Norwegian Escape.

Said Kevin Sheehan, Norwegian’s former chief executive, who helped design the Escape with the hope of attracting a richer clientele: “That segment of the population wants to be surrounded by people with similar characteristics.”

In an Age of Privilege, Not Everyone Is in the Same Boat,” by Nelson D. Schwartz (very slightly edited for brevity).

The premise of “Imperial Class” is that in the limit, they won’t even want you on the same plane with them, and the airline will find it simpler and more profitable just to eliminate coach class entirely.

For earlier pieces on this theme:

If it can happen to Target

It can happen to you.

Joe Castaldo tells the tale of Target’s expansion to Canada. Less than two years after opening its first store, Target Canada filed for bankruptcy and closed. The episode cost the parent company some $2 billion, not counting the damage it did to its reputation.

Why?  Read the article and you’ll have no problem finding the reasons. Lots of them.  But what struck me is that the most critical problems were clear not just in retrospect but to many of the participants at the time. Continue reading

Systems thinking—still in short supply

By Hans Norden
Special to Slightly East of New

I’m observing how there is, at least within management education, a dichotomy between two paradigms; one that builds decisions on the belief that money is the highest value (see Small is Beautiful by Fritz Schumacher) and another that builds decisions on systems thinking, or quality; improving the capability of a system. It’s interesting how Boyd described Orientation as the Schwerpunkt of his thinking; the paradigm through which to observe one’s environment, including new and unforeseen circumstances as they unfold.

It seems to me that people have a hard time even opening their minds to beliefs that are in conflict with their mental programming; they even reject the idea of just trying it on for size, so to speak. It was an intelligent investment banker who explained to me why Deming was not widely used, not because his ideas were too complicated but because people simply do not believe that they are true!!!??? They experience a ‘short-between-the-ears’ when their Orientation fails to make sense out of their Observation of Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge. Subsequently, their lack of Fingerspitzengefühl suppresses their curiosity. (After Chet’s presentation, why was there neither a single question nor any opposition? In other words, a dialogue in which they engage the messenger.) Continue reading