The magic of the OODA loop

Observe, orient, decide, act: words to live or die by. Right now, Persephone is disoriented — on the run, cut off. It’s time to go on the offensive, work out where she is and what’s going on, then get the hell out of this trap.

I found myself reading this on page 160 of Charles Stross’s sci-fi novel, The Apocalypse Codex. Stross had mentioned the OODA loop in an earlier book in this series, so I wasn’t exactly shocked when I read it. But it was such a graphic illustration of how Boyd actually used the loop, as opposed to the usual “she observed, then oriented …” that I just had to send it to Chuck Spinney.

He reminded me that Boyd used to say that we had succeeded when the OODA loop began appearing — without attribution — in Superman comics. This being 30 years later, and the Man of Steel not perhaps enjoying the popularity he once did, I’m going to declare victory.

One nitpick: Boyd would have preferred “seize the initiative” to “go on the offensive,” but I think Stross’s formulation works better rhetorically and in this case means about the same thing. Thus, “go on the offensive” would be another way of saying “get inside their OODA loops,” and, as Persephone understands, the key is orientation.*

I ran across Stross’s work in a tweet by Paul Krugman announcing the seventh book in the Laundry Files series (The Apocalypse Codex is the fourth). The premise is that we live in a multiverse, and the creatures known as demons, devils, and spirits are actually inhabitants of other universes. What gives them entree to our space is mathematics, particularly complex and clever proofs. In other words, real magic, as contrasted with stage illusions, is applied mathematics. As computer science has evolved, more people are creating more intricate codings, which can be considered types of proofs, and so are opening up more gateways for these entities to move across.

As a reformed mathematician (Ph.D. 1971), I recall many times when, working alone late at night on some complex and convoluted proof, the appearance of a demon would not have been at all surprising. So his novels do have a nice basis in reality, and like all good storytellers, he just carries it that one little extra step. With OODA loops.

*Generally “go on the offensive” would not be synonymous with “get inside their OODA loops.” More on this and other OODA loop lore in my paper, “Boyd’s real OODA loop,” available along with all of Boyd’s works on our Articles page.

High water line

We’re about 13 feet above sea level and around 15 miles from the nearest beach.  This is the “Lowcountry,” though, and there’s a tidal estuary about 3 miles from us and a flood plain with a small river less than a half mile west.  The NOAA flood maps suggested that a category 2 storm could under the worst conditions push a 3-6 foot storm surge up that river and towards us.

I was up early Saturday morning and glued to Weather Underground as the north side of Matthew’s eyewall brushed past Calibogue Sound, one of the primary avenues for drainage in our area, right at high tide.

We certainly weren’t anywhere nearly as badly hit as Hilton Head Island, where the county is just now beginning to let people back in, but we were only maybe 18″ of water level away from water coming into the houses here.

Storm surge or rain? The bag marks the high water line (click for gallery view).  The

flood plain with its small river — generally a small creek — is less than .5 miles to the right. It turns out from examining debris lines around the pond between us and the river that the flooding was from the community drainage system, which got overwhelmed by 11.5 inches of rain. I don’t know whether the surge also came up into the flood plain or how high it might have reached.  Fortunately, not to us.

[Note: The ponds, or “lagoons” as the real estate people call them, is part of our drainage system. Water from the streets and yards drains into the ponds, which then overflow into the flood plain.  There’s a grating at the bottom of the small pool that is supposed to feel runoff into the pond. As  you can see, it’s having a few problems. In a storm surge, water would be coming up the other way, from the flood plain and then over the banks of the pond and towards us.]

Safe and sound

Back home after a 4 1/2 hour drive from Athens.

Whoever is managing the clean-up effort here in South Carolina knows what they’re doing. We came down the back way through Augusta, Allendale, Fairfax, and Hardeeville.

Work crew on US 321 between Estill and Hardeville, SC

Work crew on US 321 between Estill and Hardeville, SC Many thanks for their heroic efforts!

Although we saw dozens of trees that had blocked the roads only 48 hours ago, we had no delays.  We’re talking 2-lane secondary highways for the most part.  The SCDOT web site was pretty accurate, and we augmented the traditional way with intel we picked up from locals at our frequent refueling stops.

Still have some more work to do.

Still have some more work to do.

Unfortunately, my poor little golf cart wasn’t so lucky on our cut-through trails.

Strangers in a fairly hospitable land

We left Hilton Head Wednesday morning and have been staying in Athens, GA, about 200 miles to the northwest.


Storm shutters in place!

The eyewall brushed the Island early Saturday, doing extensive damage to the south end, but reports from people who stayed suggest only minimal damage to our neighborhood about 20 miles to the west.

In the meantime, the University of Georgia operates several gardens, and thanks to the efforts of my brother, who is a Georgia Master Gardner, we toured three of them, and picked some okra (click for gallery view).

On Saturday,  the nearby town of Madison held a fall festival and chili cook off.  It’s a beautiful little town, and we spent more time than I’m going to admit browsing antique shops.


Madison is the seat of Morgan County

Our county, Beaufort, won’t give us any return information, although many other areas are allowing residents back.  Another family from our development tried to get back and were put into a “post-storm” shelter. Although residents who stayed report no damage to the property and no problems moving around, and power is on, they were told they could be there as long as 72 hours.  Now, I’m not going to second guess our emergency management folks, but the danger is that fewer people will heed evacuation “orders” (here in South Carolina, there doesn’t appear to be any penalty for simply ignoring them) next time.

Einheit: New Research

In Organic Design, Boyd had suggested:

Arrange setting and circumstances so that leaders and subordinates alike are given opportunity to continuously interact with external world, and with each other, in order to more quickly make many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections as well as create the similar images or impressions, hence a similar implicit orientation, needed to form an organic whole. (23)

New research out of UCLA and Caltech has found evidence of a physiological basis for this:

“Observational learning is the cornerstone for our ability to change behavior,” said senior author Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery and psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “It’s human nature to want to learn from other people’s mistakes rather than commit your own.”

Said lead author Michael Hill, a former UCLA and California Institute of Technology scientist now based at the Swiss National Science Foundation: “The ability to quickly learn from others can give humans a critical edge over other species. The skill also contributes to someone feeling he or she is a member of one culture versus another.”

They were able to identify neurons in a part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, that were active in these situations:

The findings suggest that individual nerve cells in the person’s brain used the details gleaned by observing the other players to calculate which deck to choose a card from next.

“The anterior cingulate cortex acts as the central executive of human decision-making, yet we know little about the neuronal machinery at this level,” said Fried, who is also a professor of neurosurgery at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University.

Perhaps as we learn more about how the brain works in such social situations, we can design programs and organizational climates to build Einheit more rapidly and more effectively.

[All of Boyd’s briefings are available for free download from our Articles page.]


Double Ace

Double Ace: The Life of Robert Lee Scott Jr., Pilot, Hero, and Teller of Tall Tales Robert Coram’s bio of Robert Scott, Brig Gen USAF (1908 – 2006), is now out.  I’ve ordered it and will post a review here.

cover of double aceAlthough General Scott isn’t well-remembered now (a Google search for “Robert Scott” didn’t include him in the first 10 pages of results), after WWII, he was famous as a daring fighter pilot and author of God is my Co-pilot. I met him several years ago when he was running the Museum of Aviation at Robbins AFB, about 2 hours south of Atlanta down I-75. This is an incredible museum, incidentally, with a collection of Air Force aircraft second only to the USAF Museum at Wright-Pat.  You’ll find the L-5E Sentinel (cruising speed 90 mph), the SR-71 (“Over 2,200 mph”), and pretty much everything in-between, including the P-40 Warhawk flown by Scott and the Flying Tigers.

If you can spend a day or two in this area, you won’t be too far from Andersonville and the National Prisoner of War Museum (my dad was a POW of the Japanese from  April 1942 – September 1945).  Boyd emphasized humane treatment of prisoners — and widely publicizing that fact — as a great way to encourage enemy troops to defect. Obviously there have been exceptions, but all-in-all, I think we have done this pretty well since the Civil War.

While you’re down here, check out nearby Macon, one of the capitals of Southern music, including Otis Redding, Little Richard, and the Allman Brothers.



The torch of chaos

Yesterday’s quote on the Page-a-Day calendar of Zen sayings was:

The torch of doubt and chaos is what the sage steers by. Chuang Tzu.

If you Google that quote, you can find lots of references, even a book by that title.  I’m not terribly familiar with Chuang Tzu, a younger contemporary, so the legend goes, of the much better known Lao Tzu. But I know that Boyd was heavily influenced by classical Taoism. The sources for Patterns of Conflict, for example, include Gary Zukav’s The dancing Wu Li masters and Fritjof Capra’s The tao of physics. I might possibly be somewhat to blame — I sent him his copy of Alan Watts’ Tao, the watercourse way (a great beach read, incidentally) — but he had other associates who were much more familiar with Taoism and Zen than I.

His study of these ancient ideas reinforced his natural tendency towards harmony and flow on the inside to produce non-differentiable, that is, abrupt, jerky, and disorienting, change on the outside. These ideas come through explicitly on charts 12 and 117 of Patterns of Conflict and underly practically all the rest of his work, particularly his notion of “operating inside the OODA loop.” Continue reading

The Power of Fingerspitzengefühl

An e-mail appeared a few weeks ago asking an interesting question about Fingerspitzengefühl:

I am particularly interested in the concept of Fingerspitzengefühl, which I interpret as an intuitive understanding of a situation. This concept sounds something like what my wife described to me about her work. She’s a surgeon who talks about being able to “see with her fingertips” during an operation. This sounds a lot like “Fingerspitzengefühl”. What do you think?

I think he’s right. We sometimes regard Fingerspitzengefühl as the simple component of Boyd’s organizational climate, EBFAS (for an explanation, please see my paper and accompanying presentation, “All By Ourselves,” available for free download from the Articles page.) But Boyd certainly did not. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to conclude that it lies at the core of his philosophy — simply put, if you don’t have Fingerspitzengefühl for some capability, then you don’t have the capability in any meaningful sense. Continue reading

A Boyd Potpourri

I’ve had a long, if not particularly distinguished, involvement in sales.  Starting with Fuller Brush over a college summer, then with professional services — beltway bandit stuff — domestic and foreign military aircraft, and public relations.  Along the way, I’ve picked up great respect for people who can sell for a living; sort of consider them the infantry of the business world.

So I was delighted when sales guru Anthony Iannarino asked if I’d do a podcast on John Boyd and applications of his strategies to business.  I’ve known Anthony for a while, and can attest to his knowledge of Boyd, so I hope you enjoy our session: Chet Richards on Strategy, Morale, and Agility in Warfare and Business – Episode #65.

In addition to the books that Anthony recommends at the bottom of his post, I’d also recommend the three papers from my section of the Articles page: “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop,” “John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, and the meaning of life,” and “All By Ourselves.”  These amplify some of the points in Certain to Win and include research that I’ve done since that book was published.

Anthony also includes a link to “LKCE15,” LeanKanban Central Europe 2015 in Munich last November. Click on “Videos.”  LeanKanban is a recent application of some of the ideas that underly lean production and maneuver warfare to the problems of software development. My suspicion is that LeanKanban philosophy, if not the specific techniques, will also improve throughput time, cost, and quality (simultaneously!) in other forms of white collar work. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, check out some of the material on LKCE15 and consider going to LKCE16 in Hamburg this fall.

You can download all of Boyd’s materials (for free) from our Articles page.


Unlike Patterns of Conflict, where Boyd went through so many versions that he finally quit numbering them, he only distributed one edition of his paper, “Destruction and Creation,” which carries the date 3 September 1976.

“Destruction and Creation” asks the question:

Actions must be taken over and over again and in many different ways. Decisions must be rendered to monitor and determine the precise nature of the actions needed that will be compatible with the goal. To make these timely decisions implies that we must be able to form mental concepts of observed reality, as we perceive it, and be able to change these concepts as reality itself appears to change. The concepts can then be used as decision models for improving our capacity for independent action. Such a demand for decisions that literally impact our survival causes one to wonder: How do we generate or create the mental concepts to support this decision-making activity?

He gives an answer later in the paper, then spends the next 20 years illustrating his concept for creating and updating mental models (it may not be entirely obvious, but that’s what Patterns, Organic Design, and Strategic Game are).

Somewhere along the way, fairly early, perhaps only a year or two after D&C, he coined the term “OODA loop.”  Originally it was just that, a loop, a circular process of observe, then orient, then decide, then act. I’ve heard him brief it just that way.

But problems soon began to crop up. For one thing, it’s slow. For another, quality of decision and “speed” through the OODA loop can trade-off.  That is, to go faster, you may have to hurry your decision making.  A British writer and officer, Jim Storr, simply pointed out that real organizations don’t behave as if they were cycling through OODA “loops.”

In the last work of his career, The Essence of Winning and Losing, published shortly before he died, Boyd finally produced a sketch of the OODA loop that resolved these problems.  I’ve just posted a revised version of my paper “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop” that looks at what he came up with and why. This version notes that although he rarely wrote “OODA loop” by itself before his last briefing (lots of mentions, though, of “operating inside the OODA loop”), “rarely” doesn’t mean “never.”  There are, as best I can tell, three times in the 320 or so pages that separate “Destruction and Creation” from The Essence of Winning and Losing where Boyd does mention the OODA loop per se.  None of these, though, are accompanied by any description, definition, or explanation, much less a figure or diagram.

And I’ve done some wordsmithing and added an epilogue on the bookends theme.

You can download this edition, as well as all of Boyd’s works and lots of other interesting stuff from the Articles page.