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.

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.

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

A side of tachboulah, please

The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War
Steven Pressfield
New York: Penguin 2014
398 pages

CoverLionsGateIn my last post, I suggested a few things to read once you’ve become satiated with Boyd himself (don’t worry, it happens). A reader kindly recommended Steven Pressfield’s study of the Six Day War, told from the viewpoints of Israeli participants ranging from 19-year-old troopers to Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan. I highly recommend it as a source book for illustrating the major points of Boyd’s work.

I will admit to being a huge fan of Pressfield, beginning with The Gates of Fire. I suspect that regardless of your position on the various players in the Levant, past or present, you’ll find The Lion’s Gate to be a page-turner.

Continue reading

All about agility in 400 sec.

At a special event midway through the first day, five of the presenters at LeanKanban 2015 gave short presentations on various topics.  The trick was that you had to have an intro slide, an outro slide, and 20 content slides, each of which was timed to display for 20 seconds.  In the video below, you can see the timing ball moving inexorably across the bottoms of the screens.

Mine was modestly entitled “Agility: The Power and the Glory.”  The software development community has a concept of agility, and if you search on “SCRUM” you can get an idea of how it works.  Apparently it works well because lots of development teams use it.  The way the developers use the term is the same as Musashi’s chapters 2 and 3, where he discusses tactics and techniques. This is important stuff because poor technique can ruin an otherwise brilliant strategy.20x20.001

But like Sun Tzu, Musashi goes on to insist that the real purpose of agility is to drive the terms of the conflict, to ensure, for example, that what you develop succeeds in the marketplace. Nokia, for example, didn’t go out of the phone business because of poor technique in building feature phones.  Agility should govern strategy — what to develop — as well as tactics and technique — how to develop it.

As I explain in this 20-slide talk, one of the really cool things Boyd did was to extract the essence of agility from something like “super maneuverability,” that is, a hardware concept, and move it into the pilot’s mind.  My little talk shows that this proceeded in stages first by noting the ability to handle change, then in the idea of “operating inside the OODA loop,” and finally to the concept of orientation.  This progression is critical to the concept of agility because otherwise you have a big problem explaining why the Red Baron’s Fokker Triplane from WWI, which was among the most agile aircraft ever built, didn’t even stay a front-line fighter for the whole war.

As an added bonus, I deconstruct the OODA “loop,” the big one from The Essence of Winning and Losing, in 60 seconds.

All of the little talks are worth watching, and mine begins at about 35:40.  You’ll occasionally hear voices in the background. To reduce the times needed for changeovers, we were all miked and in the excitement, we sometimes forgot this simple fact.  The MC is Markus Andrezak of the German company Überproduct in Potsdam.

20 by 20 with Pawel Brodzinski, Chet Richards, Nadja Schnetzler, Karl Scotland and Dominica DeGrandis at LKCE15 from Lean Kanban Central Europe on Vimeo.

Gators, by the way, are extremely agile.  Don’t be fooled into thinking they are just sluggish, belly-dragging lizards: They do the cheng / chi maneuver (abrupt transition from expected to unexpected) better than any human I’ve run across.

Coherent, Credible, and Wrong

The best strategist is not the one who knows he must deceive the enemy,
but the one who knows how to do it.

Polish SciFi master Stanislaw Lem (1921 – 2006)

We often think of Soviet doctrine as tanks lined up tread to tread, rolling forward until either they conquer or fall. Mass makes might. While there is a lot of truth to the Soviet, and so presumably Russian, respect for mass, it may surprise you to learn that the Soviets had, and so presumably the Russians have, a well thought-out doctrine of deception called maskirovka. The BBC ran a nice piece on the subject a few days back, “How Russia outfoxes its enemies,” by Lucy Ash.

Boyd had great respect for deception, “an impression of events as they are not,” as he wrote on Patterns chart 115, “Essence of Maneuver Conflict.” A person who is being deceived is not confused. He knows what the situation is. His orientation is coherent; his mental model of the world fits all the facts. It’s just wrong. Boyd’s primary vehicle for using deception was the cheng / chi maneuver, which he borrowed from Sun Tzu and reformulated in more modern terms as the Nebenpunkte / Schwerpunkt concept (see charts 78, 114, and many others). Basically, the deceiver shapes the orientation of the victim to expect (cheng) certain actions to take place. Think all of the stuff the allies did to shape Hitler into expecting the D-Day attack across the Pas de Calais. The deceiver then springs something entirely unexpected, the chi, and tries to exploit the resulting shock and confusion. Continue reading

What’s luck got to do with it?

One of the things that used to drive Boyd nuts was trusting to “luck”: Once you’ve run through your bag of tricks, you give up and “trust to luck.” We’ve done all we can. It’s out of our hands now.

Boyd would insist that you never do this, that you keep on building snowmobiles and learning from the results right up until the end. Keep your team from “coming unglued,” as he would put it. This is not luck but lots of clear thinking, hard work, and leadership before and during the conflict.

A little of this flavor comes from a recent interview in The Guardian by Peter Thiel, of “monopoly is good” (WSJ — paywall) fame. I had never thought of “luck” as being an atheistic god, but he may have a point:

What I do think is that as a society we attribute too much to luck. Luck is like an atheistic word for God: we ascribe things to it that we don’t understand or don’t want to understand. As a venture capitalist, I think one of the most toxic things to do is to treat the people I’m investing in as lottery tickets where I say: “Well I don’t know if your business is going to work. It might, it might not.” I think that’s a horrible way to treat people. The anti-lottery ticket approach is to try to achieve a high level of conviction, to ask: “Is this a business that I have enough confidence in that I would consider joining it myself?”

In other words, Fingerspitzengefühl as an antidote to “luck.” I think this is an interpretation that Boyd would have liked.

“Uncertainty” is reality; it’s the climate of all competition, and like climate, it affects all competitors. So as Richards’ Third Law states:

If you lost because of luck, you were a loser going in.

It would be like a general blaming his debacle on rain.

Uncertainty is really nasty stuff, so you don’t want to leave it to chance. The essence of Boyd’s approach to tactics is that you don’t have to wait on acts of God — you can create the climate of uncertainty yourself, you can build your own Fog of War Machine.

Because they’re inside their OODA loops

How small animals sometimes beat larger rivals:

Specific traits that may provide advantages to small species in aggressive interactions included well-developed leg musculature and talons, enhanced flight acceleration and maneuverability and traits associated with aggression including testosterone and muscle development.

From “When David beats Goliath,” by Anne Craig at PhysOrg. The study was performed by Paul Martin of Queens University, Kingston, Ontario.

Should not surprise readers of this column.

Cheng, Chi, and Mother Nature

John Boyd, on chart 132 of Patterns, described what you’re trying to accomplish by operating inside opponents’ OODA loops*:

“Generate uncertainty, confusion, disorder, panic, chaos … shatter cohesion, produce paralysis and bring about collapse.” Once you have these well underway, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to “subvert, disorient, disrupt, overload, or seize adversary’s vulnerable, yet critical, connections, centers, and activities … in order to dismember organism and isolate remnants for wrap-up or absorption.”

If you achieve this, it doesn’t make any difference how big your opponents are or how much great technology they have.

Why not? What do you actually see inside the victim’s organization when it’s happening? Here’s an example from the cockpit voice recorder in a tragic 2009 plane crash:

At 10:16 P.M., the plane’s impending-stall alert system—the stick shaker—kicked in. “Jesus Christ,” Renslow said, alarmed. In his panicked confusion, he pulled the shaker toward him instead of pushing it away from him. Seventeen seconds later, he said, “We’re down,” and, two seconds after that, the plane crashed, killing everyone on board and one person on the ground.

Capt. Resnlow was a highly skilled professional as was his co-pilot. So what happened? One way to think about it was that Mother Nature was operating inside his OODA loop, that is, events were changing more rapidly than his mental model — his orientation — could keep up. The result was confusion, disorder, panic and paralysis. Boyd is suggesting that in a conflict between groups of human beings, you can generate these effects by operating inside opponents’ OODA loops.

Read the complete piece “The Hazards of Going on Autopilot,” by Maria Konnikova on  You may have noticed that events in the cockpit resembled the results of a successful deception operation, a cheng / chi maneuver. A classic cheng / chi pattern is to lull your opponent into a false sense of security and then extremely rapidly, spring the trap. It’s interesting that some forms of automation inadvertently produce this same effect.


*”Operating inside the OODA loop” is one of what I’ve called Boyd’s four “big ideas.” For an explanation, scroll down to “Boyd’s Big Ideas” on our Articles page.