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.

Do you believe in magic?

The Witch of Endor
1 Samuel 28

[11/11/2022 version updates link to annotations] There’s a whole category of leadership practices that are rarely taught nowadays. I’m thinking witchcraft, conjuring, necromancy, divination and the like. People have been practicing these arts for tens of thousands of years — they show up on cave walls and the Bible attests to their power — but you’ll search long and hard to find MBA programs that include them.

So in my keynote at the recently held Kanban Global Summit in San Diego, I set out to remedy this sad state of affairs.

Lycanthropy – a neglected art of leadership
(Shutterstock image)

You can download the PDF (12.3 MB) of my presentation, and I’ve also included a helpful set of notes and annotations. WordPress’s Terms of Service appear to prevent me from including the actual spells, hexes, and curses themselves — a liability thing, you know. This is unfortunate, because we have all had occasions when the ability to transform into a werewolf and rip out somebody’s heart would have proven extremely useful*. But I think you’ll find enough to give your leadership that extra edge you need to be successful in these trying times.

Many thanks to David J. Anderson, founder, honcho, and chief sensei at Kanban University, for inviting me back. The University’s Kanban Maturity Model provides a tested framework for incorporating the OODA loop (the one Boyd intended) into practically any type of organization.

Also, my extreme gratitude to the staff of Kanban University for putting up with all my questions, objections, and negotiations over the past three years — the Summit was originally scheduled for 2020.

And, finally, our host facility, the Rancho Bernado Inn, might be a great place for that mid-winter, or, if you’re from my part of the world, mid-summer getaway.

*If you go around ripping out peoples’ hearts without first transforming into a werewolf, that’s not magic. You may have anger management issues.

New Podcast: Boyd From End to Beginning

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with a long-time friend and colleague, Jonathan Brown, to talk about John Boyd and discuss some of the major themes of John’s work.  To make it more interesting, Jonathan asked me to take the texts in reverse order, that is, starting with The Essence of Winning and Losing, then Conceptual Spiral, and continuing to “Destruction and Creation.”

The first week’s episode made it as far as Strategic Game. Next week’s podcast takes us through Organic Design, Patterns of Conflict, and finally to D&C.

Listen to Part I here:

How Boyd finally got to the OODA loop

Chick Spinney, one of John Boyd’s closest associates, has revised his flow diagram depicting how Boyd’s strategic thinking evolved from his days flying F-86s in Korea in 1953 until his death in 1997.

Spinney Evolution of Boyds Ideas

In this chart, “ODA” is “orient-decide-act,” not “observe-decide-act.” As Chuck recalls, Boyd added “observation” in 1975, about the time he retired from the Air Force. “LWF” is the Air Force’s Lightweight Fighter program, which culminated in the flyoff between the YF-16 and YF-17 in 1974.

Note that Patterns of Conflict is about operating inside the OODA loop and says virtually nothing about the OODA loop itself. The only place Boyd develops — and draws — the OODA loop is in The Essence of Winning and Losing, 1996.

Chuck also highlights how Boyd returns to “Scientific/Philosophical Foundation Efforts” with Conceptual Spiral in 1992. Interesting to compare the two, the effects of 16 years of intense effort.

All of Boyd’s works, and a PDF of the above diagram, are available from our Articles page. I might also modestly recommend my “Origins of John Boyd’s Discourse,” which illustrates some of the domains Boyd investigated (e.g., evolution, complexity, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, etc.) as he moved along Chuck’s progression.

Boyd's OODA 'Loop," Really Final Edition

The Norwegian Defense University has just published a new version of “Boyd’s OODA Loop” in their journal, Necesse, edited by Royal Norwegian Naval Academy. I had thought that the previous version was about as close to perfection as can be found on this Earth, but alas Necesse is a peer-reviewed journal, and “Reviewer No. 2” ripped it to shreds. After I calmed down, it was clear that Number 2 was right. So the edition published in the journal is vastly improved over the last version.

As Boyd suggested in his final briefing, The Essence of Winning and Losing (all of Boyd’s works are available for free download on our Articles page), the OODA “loop” is simply a schematic representing three processes and the interplay among them:

  • Using our existing implicit repertoire
  • Creating new and therefore unexpected ways to use our repertoire in the heat of conflict
  • Creating new repertoire, principally by training when not in direct contact with an opponent
From “The Essence of Winning and Losing,” 1996.

In fact, he even called his drawing of the OODA “loop” a “sketch,” strongly indicating that there might be better ways to represent these processes, and over time, people have suggested several.

The folks at Necesse have done a magnificent job of making this rather long and complex paper readable. Although I am sure there are many people involved whom I do not know — you have my sincere gratitude — I would like especially to thank two officers of the Royal Norwegian Navy whom I know quite well and am proud to call colleagues, Commanders Roar Espevik, Main Editor of Necesse, and Tommy Krabberød, who approached me with the idea of a new version of the paper and encouraged me to press on with a major revision as a result of certain peer review comments.

You can download the paper from the Articles page. The current edition of Necesse, which contains the paper, is available at, and past issues can be found at It’s an interesting journal. There are quite a few articles in English, and, through the miracle of Google Translate, you should have no trouble with the others. The origin of the name, incidentally, is found on the last page of the journal.

Inner conflict: Dragons and OODA loops

Artem Grinblat

My fascination with dragons started when as a boy. I’ve heard that a crane would beat a snake, deflecting and countering with its beak, that tiger beats crane, overcoming its defences with a flurry of paws, that snake beats tiger, finding a gap for precision strike, and that dragon beats them all, having four legs as a tiger, tail as a snake and long neck as a crane.

As fire-breathing cat-snake-birds, the dragons might represent our fear of predators but also, as Jordan B Peterson notes in this five minutes video, our strength when we conquer or tame them. They are also a symbol of flexibility and adaptation, of being able to show and combine efficiently what might be different and even opposite traits. And we might share this flexibility with dragons.

Continue reading

Empathy in Orientation

I tweeted a link to a Forbes article on empathy this morning, “Want more innovative solutions? Start with empathy.” by Tracy Bower.

Boyd explained his notion of orientation on chart 15 of Organic Design (available from the Articles link, above):

Orientation is an interactive process of many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections that is shaped by and shapes the interplay of genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences, and unfolding circumstances.

I don’t recall any place where he defined “empathies,” or, for that matter, “empathy,” much less “projections,” “correlations,” or “rejections.”  These terms appear out of the ether, right after this chart:


where he proclaims an “Insight” that:

Interactions, as shown, represent a many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection. (OD, 11)

If you really want to have some fun, try briefing these two charts sometime.

Then, in his very last briefing, The Essence of Winning and Losing (also in Articles), he drew his infamous OODA “loop” sketch (his words), below which he recorded another “Insight”:

Also note how the entire “loop” (not just orientation) is an ongoing many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection.

The Zen of Boyd?  I don’t know. Perhaps something to ponder. For example, if you squint hard at chart 10, are there other ways you could characterize these “interactions”?  And how is the Stuka pilot Hans Rudel an interaction?  Can you come up with some more relevant interactions to make a similar point about orientation?

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.


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