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

Shaping and Adapting

While leading his company in Afghanistan, Marine Major Paul Tremblay was ordered to clear a much larger Taliban force that was defending an area of rugged terrain. Ordinarily, such terrain would favor the defense, not to mention the numbers problem.  Major Tremblay, however, fashioned a plan of attack based on the notion of “operating inside the OODA loop,” where relative numbers are much less relevant.

Chuck Spinney picks up the story:

Major Tremblay did not know Colonel Boyd but has been aware of his briefings since he was a 2nd Lieutenant at the Marine Corps Basic School. He is the only officer I know who has studied and applied Colonel Boyd’s ideas in a premeditated way in designing and leading a combat operation. His reinforced company level attack on the Taliban was a stunning success and based on radio intercepts, it became clear he penetrated his adversary’s OODA loops and collapsed the opposing units into confusion and disorder, exactly as Boyd predicted.  His thesis does not discuss this operation.

I’ve uploaded Major Tremblay’s recently completed master’s thesis (517 KB PDF). It’s a brilliant piece of work. Quoting Chuck, again:

P.J. Tremblay’s thesis aims to clarify what is perhaps the single most misunderstood aspect of Boyd’s theory of interacting OODA loops: the confusion of absolute speed with relative quickness, particularly as it applies to agility in Orientation and Re-Orientation. Tremblay’s aim is to improve the Marine Corps training curriculum by clarifying Boyd’s ideas and laying out a way to better incorporate them in progressively more comprehensive ways at each level in the Marine Corps’ educational system, from the lowest to the highest level.

PJ’s thesis is a case study in the kind of intellectual development and stimulation that John Boyd was trying to achieve by leaving the Marine Corps Research Center with the complete archive of his briefings and note. Boyd, an honorary Marine, would say, “Semper Fi, PJ.”

Chuck has posted the complete introduction to Maj. Tremblay’s thesis on his blog.

New version of “Evolutionary Epistemology”

Chuck Spinney has posted a new version, 2.4, of Evolutionary Epistemology, his explanation in briefing slide format of Boyd’s “Destruction and Creation.”  The biggest change is a new page 4. You can download this version from our Articles page.

Robert Coram captured the problems most of us have when trying to understand what Boyd was driving at in D&C:

Because Boyd spent more than four years researching and writing and then distilling his work down to eleven pages, the result has a specific gravity approaching that of uranium.  It is thick and heavy and ponderous, filled with caveats and qualifiers and arcane references that span theories never before connected. To read “Destruction and Creation” is to fully appreciate the term “heavy sledding.” (Boyd, p. 323)

Yet, as Chuck illustrates, everything Boyd wrote in the remaining 20 years of his life — from Patterns of Conflict to The Essence of Winning and Losing — reinforce the main points of D&C. It is the only thing Boyd produced that he never revised.

Evolutionary Epistemology is more than an explanation, however. It stands as a complement to Boyd’s paper, and, by looking at his concepts from other angles, makes the original more approachable. It takes its place alongside Patterns, Strategic Game, Conceptual Spiral, and the rest of the Discourse as another illustration of message of “Destruction and Creation.”

[Note: the link to “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop” on page 43 has been broken. Please download the latest version from our Articles page.]

Playing defense

One of the most powerful ideas in Boyd’s philosophy of conflict is that it doesn’t make any difference how potent adversaries’ weapons might be — or how brilliant their strategy — if they can’t use them.  Why might they not be able to use them?  Some reasons are simple, such as lack of proficiency. In other words, insufficient Fingerspitzengefühl or its organizational counterpart, Einheit. They know what to do but just don’t have the skills to do it.

There’s another possibility, one that Boyd especially liked, and it applies even if they’re well-trained: Get them confused, discombobulated, or better yet, infected with fear, uncertainty, doubt and mistrust.  He suggested many ways to do this, some of which are direct, such as agitprop and fifth columns, and others that fall under the category of “operating inside their OODA loops.” You can read more about this approach in Patterns, particularly around pages 121-125 and pages 46-47 of Strategic Game. Continue reading

Boyd for Business & Innovation — Final Report

Chuck Spinney explaining some obtuse point about the OODA loop

Chuck Spinney explaining some obtuse point about the OODA loop

After my presentation, retired Marine Colonel Mike Wyly joined us from Maine via Skype to relate how the Marine Corps adopted the doctrine of maneuver warfare. Mike gave us a blow-by-blow description of a process in which he played a major role. Successful doctrinal changes by large organizations are rare: If you are the CEO of an organization considering such a change, you could do a lot worse than spending some time with Mike. His paper, “Thinking Like Marines,” is conveniently available on the Articles page. Following Mike, Sean Bone, co-founder of Adaptive Leader, demonstrated tactical decision games (TDGs) they use for training leaders in mental agility and timely decision-making under conditions of stress and uncertainty. This is real-world, practical stuff that I’m sure will be a great help to many of the participants.

Finally, for a successful implementation of Boyd’s ideas in business, Dean Lenane, then-CEO of CRH North America, described how he and his small team built CRH from no presence in the US market to a major player in their industry, explicitly using the principles of Boyd’s Discourse. Absolutely fascinating. Dean has written a thinly disguised novelization of one episode in this adventure, The Turnaround, which you can (and should!) also download from the Articles page. Continue reading

Boyd for Business & Innovation — 2

Before I forget, Chuck Spinney made a point about the OODA loop that bears repeating: Boyd did not want to draw the thing! In fact, he didn’t, until the penultimate chart in his very last briefing, less than a couple of years before he died.

Why not? Probably because he was afraid any “loop” he drew would become dogma, a reasonable assumption. Chuck finally persuaded him by using the logic that if he didn’t, others would. Most likely the circular O – O – D – A loop would become fixed in people’s minds. So Boyd agreed, but he insisted on calling it an OODA loop “sketch,” and putting “Loop” in quotes.

If you look at that briefing, the purpose of “OODA loops” (not “the OODA loop”) is simply to represent the process of evolving new implicit repertoire. Now, that’s a big purpose because our ability to survive on our own terms and increase our capacity for independent action rests solidly upon it. But it also suggests that people can create other OODA loops that serve their purpose better than Boyd’s sketch, at least in specific instances. All I ask is don’t make them more complicated than what we already have.

I have uploaded my presentation, slightly edited, to the Articles page. It’s a 3.1 MB PDF, and each element of each animation is saved as a separate slide, so don’t let the number of slides put you off. You can also download all of Boyd’s briefings, including the one we were just discussing, The Essence of Winning and Losing, from that page.

Formlessness in space and time

In chapter six of the Sun Tzu text, we read:

Therefore, when you induce others to construct a formation while you yourself are formless, then you are concentrated while the opponent is divided. (Cleary trans., p. 106)

Boyd loved this concept. He called it the principle of dispersion, parodying the Army’s emphasis on concentration. The idea is that the opponent has to be on guard everywhere, while you know what you’re doing. Boyd took it even further: You can disperse not only in space, but combine it with dispersion in time, so that the opponent cannot recover from the first attack before the second is upon him. And the third. And the fourth. Think of how you reacted the last time things started happening faster than you could cope. Against a linear formation, you don’t need every attack to succeed. Often one will be enough, if it can penetrate and cause the opponent’s formation to begin to collapse. The next group of forces streaming in can complete the job. Boyd called this “operating inside the OODA loop.”

Where else do we see formations? How about football? What would Boyd’s principle of dispersion / operating inside the OODA loop look like there? For a great example, check out “Ditka vs. Ryan: The Feud That Fueled the ’85 Chicago Bears” (in the print edition as “Hate, Jealousy, and Da Bears,” p. D10) by Rich Cohen in Friday’s Wall St. J. (paywall). This should give you the idea:

“As organized and experienced as that group of players were from the Chargers, they’d seen nothing like it,” [Chicago safety Doug] Plank said. “Mad dogs. Wild men. Coming from every side. A jail break. By the end, Dan Fouts did not know where to look: Should he try to find the open man downfield, or should he simply brace for impact?”

It was this confusion, planted in the mind of the quarterback, that made the 46 [the Bears’ code name for this type of defense] hum.

When briefing the section of Patterns of Conflict that deals with Clausewitz and Jomini, Boyd would critique these guys for their emphasis on order. He usually told the story of how despite this obsession, Jomini almost discovered the idea of operating inside the OODA loop. Jomini had written of a cavalry attack, where the usual tight formation broke down, and in the resulting confusion, the attackers broke through and won. Jomini concluded that the attack had succeeded in spite of the breakdown in the formation. Boyd said, “No! It succeeded because of it.” The Union attack on Missionary Ridge, November 25, 1863, is another example. In each of these cases (and many others) there was confusion, and one side could exploit it before the other could figure out what was happening.

So it isn’t that there is a balance or trade-off between structure / form and agility / formlessness. Formlessness, as the Sun Tzu text insists, creates its own form, and as Boyd noted, this often happens in time as well as in space.

Incidentally, the idea that only one attack has to succeed also carries over into football. Here’s Plank again:

“Football is chess,” Plank said. “You can capture all my pawns, but if I tip over that king [the opposing quarterback], I win.”

[By this way, perhaps this will answer the question of why Ender’s Game is so popular among the maneuver warfare crowd.]