Creativity under fire

An officer responds to a call reporting an active threat (active shooter) who is killing innocent people inside an office building. When the officer arrives, he is alone. Backup is at least ten minutes away and people are getting killed inside the building.

The officer makes the courageous decision to enter the building and attempt to eliminate the threat.

How would you do it? On pages 72 and following, the authors of Outcomes Based Learning describe an 8-step technique you could use. As you read through it, you’ll notice that it requires a fair amount of skill with your weapon and the ability to keep your focus in a time-critical crisis situation, not to mention a lot of courage. How would you teach officers to do it?

The way this topic might be taught is to make eight slides illustrating the actions at each step (just copy the illustrations from the book). You stand at the front and deliver a lecture. The students take notes and then take a written test, usually true-false or multiple choice to make grading easier. Those who achieve the required minimum score are certified.

The authors then conclude:

The approach outlined above is one of the most ineffective education methods in history.

They also note that it is undoubtedly the most widely used.

At best, you’ve taught people how to take a test, and since you’ll be rated on how many pass, you’ve probably taught the test. But what would happen in real life? Nowhere in all this have you trained officers to deal with situations that don’t follow the eight steps or prepared them to handle fear, smoke, screams, and bullets coming their way. In other words, how to actually clear a room.

Instead of teaching the process, the eight-step technique in this case, you might consider an alternative: Teach the outcome. What is it that you want to students to be able to do and under what circumstances, and prepare them to do that. As the authors put it:

True mastery of a skill or tactical technique is not just being able to execute the steps quickly and flawlessly in a neutral environment, but rather the ability to execute techniques under stress while reacting to unexpected variables and adjusting the techniques as needed in real-time to meet the demands of the specific situation.

The human brain actually has an internal mechanism that automatically prunes, eliminates knowledge or memory that the subconscious mind determines is not useful. … This is the reason why people often forget most if not all the knowledge they gain in high school and college.

This is confirmed by research — Prof. Ellen Langer of Harvard, for example, went into how we lose and recover memories in her book Counterclockwise. But my favorite explanation of this phenomenon was presented several years ago by Father Guido Sarducci: The Five Minute University. “In five minutes, you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of the school.”

This book will give you ideas on how to construct training programs that produce real world outcomes in real world situations and that students will remember when they need them. There is almost no limit to what these outcomes could be. They offer a few suggestions:

Attribute 1: Willingness to Question Authority
Attribute 2: Aggressiveness and Boldness
Attribute 3: Judgment and Responsibility
Attribute 4: Moral Courage
Attribute 5: Adaptability
Attribute 7: Situational Awareness
Attribute 8: Confidence
Attribute 9: Critical Thinking Skills
Attribute 10: Problem-Solving Skills (“That being said, it is also important not to fall into the “there is no wrong answer” trap. When it comes to most problem-solving challenges as we have already said there is never a single right answer but there are indeed always wrong answers.”)
Attribute 11: Initiative

Somewhere in this list, there are attributes that affect your organization, whether you are a military unit, a sports team, a business team, or an educational institution. And it won’t be that difficult to get started. You won’t need to master volumes of arcane theory in order to derive a lot of benefit: “In fact, you can most likely continue training in all of the same areas and even conduct many of the same types of training events. OBL will simply add a valuable element to the equation that will change the way you approach training and think about training.” (7)

There are many interesting side roads in the book that you should explore. Take “knowledge,” for example. Knowledge applies to everybody and every type of organization, and I think you’ll find a trove of useful ideas in the chapter “Pursuit of Knowledge.” Some data, for example, do need to be committed to memory:

The ultimate goal is not just to memorize these weapons capabilities in list form but rather be able to look at a map and intuitively visualize the range circles sprouting from each weapon. Then when you look up from the map at the terrain in front of you those same range circles unfold in your mind. … intuitive decision making is almost always preferable to analytical decision making in battle because intuitive decision making is much faster and generally more effective.

The trick is which data to memorize, and then how to tie these facts into intuitive decision making so that they don’t just become courses in the Five Minute University, regurgitated for the test and then quickly forgotten.

All of these practices, including memorization and development of intuitive execution, must support the author’s insistence, noted above, that we master the ability to “execute techniques under stress while reacting to unexpected variables and adjusting the techniques as needed in real-time to meet the demands of the specific situation.” The American strategist John Boyd coined a term for this ability. He called it “building snowmobiles,” and maintained that the ability to do this is the essential skill that separates winners from losers.*

What the authors have produced is the first practical handbook for building snowmobiles, and one that is accessible to everybody. I think Boyd would be very, very excited about this book.

A couple of notes. First on the treatment of OODA loops. The authors claim that “Taking action will by definition change the situation, requiring the pilot to repeat the process all over again, observing, orienting, deciding and acting. This cycle repeats in a continuing ‘loop,’ thus the term OODA Loop is another descriptor for Boyd’s decision cycle.”

As I have argued at length in my paper “Boyd’s OODA loop,” (available for free download from our Articles page) this model doesn’t really work very well. Boyd himself came to realize this when he drew his OODA “loop” sketch (reproduced in my paper) in The Essence of Winning and Losing. The authors of this book are well aware of this, however, and explain their use of the circular model thusly:

Whether or not the last few pages accurately captured Boyd’s thinking, they certainty capture how the average military leader interpreted Boyd’s thinking. … Most importantly, the simplified narrative is more accessible and in some cases easier for most people to apply to real-world problems.

As I also note in my paper, the circular model is a subset of Boyd’s OODA “loop” sketch and does accurately represent his model of learning, that is how to build and employ snowmobiles. Creativity and leadership under fire. And since learning is what this book is all about, I can endorse their use of the circular representation, even if it is not a good model of decisions and actions in a rapidly changing situation.

Also, a note on authorship. No author is listed, but the principle author is the leading expert on outcomes based learning, Don Vandergriff, author of many works on improving leadership in critical command situations, including Raising the Bar, The Path to Victory, and Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture.

Don told me that the Special Tactics Staff provided support and contributions. Incidentally, the general background of the Special Tactics team comes out of Tier-1 Special Missions Units and Special Forces.

I strongly recommend this book. You’ll find all sorts of interesting topics, all in a highly readable style that you will find difficult to put down. No matter what your occupation, by the end of this book, you will be building better snowmobiles faster.

*The idea is that a snowmobile takes bits and pieces from what’s readily available — in this case, what we already know — and combines them in a new way to solve a problem. Boyd describes the process and importance of building snowmobiles in his presentation Strategic Game of ? and ?, available from our Articles page.

OODA loops go forth

Most readers of this blog will be familiar with Boyd’s practice of exploring a variety of domains looking for what he called “invariants,” concepts that keep occurring in different fields. Here, for example, is his domain list from Strategic Game of ? and ?

From Strategic Game of ? and ?

The invariants he found in this collection explain the two question marks (All of Boyd’s works are available for free download from our Articles page).

What you may not be so familiar with is that the process goes both ways. That is, once he distilled out an invariant, it was often applicable to domains outside his original collection. In fact, this was virtually inevitable, as he observed near the end of his life in Conceptual Spiral (1992):

Taken together, the theorems associated with Gödel, Lowenheim & Skolem, Tarski, Church, Turing, Chaitin, and others reveal that not only do the statements representing a theoretical system for explaining some aspect of reality explain that reality inadequately or incompletely but, like it or not, these statements spill out beyond any one system and do so in unpredictable ways (14).

So the OODA loop, which started out as a concept from armed conflict — war — quickly spilled out into business, sports, politics, etc. One could argue that although these aren’t war, they are forms of conflict, thus the application of the OODA loop to them shouldn’t be surprising. But here is something perhaps less expected. This post introduces a paper from Lancaster University in England, “Rethinking reflective practice: John Boyd’s OODA loop as an alternative to Kolb.,” by Mike Ryder and Carolyn Downs (The International Journal of Management Education 20 (2022) 100703),

Let me start by admitting that I have no idea who Kolb was or is and have never heard of “reflective practice.” But what is clear is that the OODA loop is making a major leap from any form of conflict into pedagogy — the art of teaching. Here is the paper’s abstract:

The world is changing and business schools are struggling to keep up. Theories of reflective practice developed by the likes of Schon (1983), Gibbs (1988), Driscoll (1994, 2007) and Kolb (1984, 2015) are outdated and unfit for current purposes. Problems include the chronology of events, the orientation of the observer, the impact of external inputs, and the fact that neither education nor the workplace follow a structured, linear path.

In response to these challenges, we propose a new ‘solution’: John Boyd’s OODA loop. We argue that OODA loops offer the chance to reshape reflective practice and work-based learning for a world in which individuals must cope with ‘an unfolding evolving reality that is uncertain, ever changing and unpredictable’ (Boyd, 1995, slide 1). By embracing the philosophy of John Boyd and his OODA loop theory, business schools can develop greater resilience and employability in graduates, preparing them to embrace change while also embedding the concept of life-long learning to make them better equipped to face the uncertainty that the modern world brings.

I am not going to get involved in debate over reflective practice, whatever that may be. However, having taught Boyd’s philosophy and OODA loop theory in graduate business school, I heartily concur with the last sentence of the abstract.

Before you read the paper, one caution. As you will soon discover, I am cited and quoted several times, granting me considerably more credit than I deserve. That being said, this is an excellent exegesis of some of Boyd’s ideas, particularly as they affect the “learning loop,” where we tweak our orientations to keep up with that “unfolding evolving reality” and develop the intuitive actions we need to respond to and influence that world. Boyd described this aspect of the “loop” in Conceptual Spiral, particularly slides 26 – 28, and drew his famous sketch of it in The Essence of Winning and Losing (1996):

The “learning loop” component of the OODA “loop” (emp. added)

Let me illustrate with a few quotes from the paper:

The real value of Boyd’s theory is in its approach to thinking and understanding one’s orientation with respect to the wider world…

A good example might be the student who memorises a long list of management theories and develops excellent speed of recall. While this may be a useful skill to pass an exam, what the student doesn’t gain is the intuitive ability to process factors and apply them to a given situation. This requires a far deeper level of understanding than a textbook or list of management theories can provide. Much rather, it requires knowledge and understanding beyond the formal realms of any given subject: it requires speed of contextual processing, rather than speed of recall.

This is why Boyd’s theory is so useful. 

The application of the “loop,” the entire “loop,” to the process of teaching, itself, appears to me to be novel, and for this reason alone, I highly recommend this paper. I’m going to assume most of my audience aren’t professional educators (although we all end up teaching something to somebody at some point …). Whatever your occupation, however, it’s a great example of how ideas spread not by analogy but by first developing a deep understanding of their origins and meanings, and then applying this understanding to new domains.

Boyd first used this approach in “Destruction and Creation,” and, as he explains in the “Abstract” (available on the Articles page), continued to employ it the rest of his life:

Yet, the theme that weaves its way through this Discourse on Winning and Losing is not so much contained within each of the five sections, per se, that make up the Discourse; rather, it is the kind of thinking that both lies behind and makes up its very essence. For the interested, a careful examination will reveal that the increasingly abstract discussion surfaces a process of reaching across many perspectives; pulling each and every one apart (analysis), all the while intuitively looking for those parts of the disassembled perspectives which naturally interconnect with one another to form a higher-order, more general elaboration (synthesis) of what is taking place. As a result, the process not only creates the Discourse but it also represents the key to evolve the tactics, strategies, goals, unifying themes, etc., that permit us to actively shape and adapt to the unfolding world we are a part of, live in, and feed upon.

Boyd’s OODA “Loop”: What and why?

As Frans Osinga pointed out in his 2006 examination of John Boyd’s philosophy of conflict, Science, strategy and war: The strategic theory of John Boyd, the OODA loop is the best known but probably most misunderstood aspect of Boyd’s body of work. Even today, it’s very common to see people describe the OODA loop as a loop. However, when Boyd finally got around to producing a “sketch” of the “loop” (his terms), it was, as I’m sure practically all readers of this blog know, something entirely different.

From “The Essence of Winning and Losing,” 1996.

Why? The reason is that the OODA “loop” is an answer to a specific problem. It is not, for example a model of decision making — in fact, it simply requires you to make implicit and explicit decisions and link them to actions, all the while experimenting and learning.

On November 30, I gave a lecture on this subject to the Swedish Defense University in Stockholm. My host, Johan Ivari, arranged for it to be recorded and made available on the University’s web site. They broke it into two parts:

Part 1

Part 2

I had a lot of fun with this, and the students asked some great questions. I hope you enjoy it!

By the way, check out some of the other interesting videos on their site.

Magic leadership video now live!

Kanban University has posted the video of my keynote, The Lost Arts of Leadership, and How to Get Them Back, from the Kanban Global Summit in San Diego in August.

Finally, the secret to great leadership is revealed. Shutterstock image.

A couple of points:

  • The speaker’s rostrum was on a platform about 18″ above the floor, and the audience was seated pretty close to it. It made for a dynamic speaking experience, but it also explains why I seem to be bent over a lot.
  • The presentation has several animations which in the interests of readability, the version that accompanies my video doesn’t capture. If you’d like to see them, please download the PDF edition on our Articles page (each stage of a build is a separate slide). Also, I’m using an Apple Pencil to underline, circle, draw arrows and the like. You’ll have to infer these.

There were a lot of interesting presentations. You can view them all on their Conference Archive and their YouTube channel. And don’t forget the helpful and entertaining set of annotations!


Podcast with Jonathan Brown, Part II

As I’m sure you have been anxiously awaiting.  In the meantime, if you haven’t already, go check out Robert Bryce’s interview with Chuck Spinney.

Hello and welcome back to week 9 of the 12-part podcast series. Thanks again for such a positive response. ThisScreen Shot 2021-09-07 at 6.32.42 PM week we have the second part of the podcast with Chet Richards, author of Certain to Win and long-term friend collaborator with philosopher, John Boyd. We continue reading Boyd backwards as this makes it easier to apply his ideas to normal levels of competition (i.e., non-violent but competitive).

So, if you have yet to listen to part one, I suggest you go there first:  Part One.

In this podcast we will be focusing on Organic Design for Command and Control, Patterns of Conflict, and “Destruction and Creation,” and we explore how Chet has applied these ideas in his life. But first, we start with one final insight from Boyd’s Strategic Game of ? and ?

I expect this to be the longest podcast in the series. However, I think it’s worth it – not only for situations where you are stressed right now but worth it for a leadership team that is looking ahead and looking to create a more successful future. Next week, we will be back to an hour or so and the guest will blow your mind! Continue reading


My co-editor, Chuck Spinney, and I have updated page 144 of Patterns of Conflict, the “Theme for Vitality and Growth.” The last full edition of Patterns carries a date of December 1986. Even after he quit issuing new editions of the briefing, however, Boyd continued to evolve these ideas, and in 1989, he changed page 144 in a major way.

Here is page 144 in the 1986 edition:

PatternsOfConflict IIAH 144 JPEG.001

What Boyd did was replace “adaptability” with “agility” and add “orientation.” IOHAI. Unfortunately, he did not produce a new edition of Patterns with a revised page 144, so we are left with the problem of definitions for the two new terms.


He replaced “adaptability” with “agility” because if all you do is adapt, you’re in “perpetual catch-up mode,” as he explained in a conversation we had in 1992. The other side has the initiative. This will not do. Continue reading

New interview


I don’t know about you, but I find it vary painful to watch myself, particularly if I’m trying to speak extemporaneously.  For one thing, it’s too late to shout “Look at the green dot at the top of the screen!” Not to mention “Don’t talk so fast!” and “Quit mumbling!”

It gives you great respect for editors and for people who do this sort of thing well, like my two co-hosts, Matt Devost and Bob Gourley of OODA loop.

A couple of small corrections. When I was talking about my programs at the Pentagon, they included the F-14, F-15, Lightweight Fighter, and A-10, not the F-18 (which grew out of the LWF program several years after I left)*. And the magazine streaming service is Apple News+ not Amazon News+, which doesn’t exist, although I do stream music through Amazon Music Unlimited.

Skimming back over it, though, I think you’ll enjoy it. Probably not as bad as I first imagined, thanks again to my co-hosts.

*  I may have actually said “A-10.” I also had the F-5E. So much going on — it was a great time to be part of tactical air.