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Chet on TEMPO….Rao on OODA


At Fabius Maximus, Dr. Chet Richards reviews TEMPO by Dr. Venkat Rao, enjoying the book as much as I did, if not more. Chet has some particularly incisive comments, positive and critical, in his review, which I suggest you read in full:

Book Review: Tempo

…Rao draws on Boyd in several places, as well on sources ranging from the topical, such as Gladwell and Taleb, to the foundational (e.g., Camus and Clausewitz), to the downright obscure – know anything about The Archeology of Garbage? Do the words wabi and sabi ring a bell?

The result is a synthesis, what Boyd called a “snowmobile,” that combines concepts from across a variety of disciplines to produce a cornucopia of new ideas, insights and speculations. You may be confused, challenged, outraged, and puzzled (some of the language can be academic), but you’ll rarely be bored because every chapter, often every page, has something you can add to the parts bin for building your own snowmobiles.

Let me highlight just a couple, of special interest to folks familiar with Boyd’s concepts. Near the end of the book, Rao introduces an expanded version of “legibility”:

A piece of physical reality is legible if it is obviously the product of coherent human agency, a deliberate externalization of a mental model. When human and natural sources of order are harder to tease apart, you get greater illegibility (p. 133 – and I warned you about the academic language).

Then a couple of paragraphs later, he claims that:

Used with adversarial intentions, Boyd’s OODA can be understood as a deliberate use of illegibility to cause failure.

At first, this seems silly. Boyd only considers conflict between groups of human beings (Patterns of Conflict, 10), so all uses of his strategic concepts would seem to be prima facia examples of legible phenomena. On the other hand, and this is an example of what makes Rao’s little book so valuable, some commentators, such as Stalk and Hout in 1990’s Competing Against Time, point out that victims of a Boyd-style attack can rarely identify the cause of their problems – often blaming bad luck or incompetent, self-serving and treacherous idiots in their own organizations. Boyd made this clear in his own work, such as in Patterns of Conflict, 132, when he suggested that his victims would exhibit a variety of traumatic symptoms including confusion, disorder, panic, chaos, paralysis and collapse – indicating unrelenting attack by forces outside the scope of their own mental models…

Chet concludes with a suggestion for Venkat (with which I concur):

…As for where to go from here, Rao might write more about tempo. This will seem strange to him, I’m sure, but pages go by with hardly a mention of the concept. This means that we need another book from him. I’d suggest expanding on some of the concepts that he raises but doesn’t find space to develop. Here are three ideas: […]

But you will have to go over to Fabius Maximus to read the rest. Venkat, in turn responded to Chet over at his blog, Ribbonfarm:

Chet Richards’ Review of Tempo on Fabius Maximus

….Overall, Chet comes to the conclusion that Tempo resonates with the Boydian spirit of decision-making. I don’t entirely get out of jail free though:

Perhaps his unfamiliarity with the original briefings, however, led him to  make one characterization that is incorrect, although widely believed:

The central idea in OODA is a generalization of Butterfly-Bee: to simply operate at a higher tempo than your opponent. (118)

Guilty as charged. I didn’t spend enough time exploring how OODA gets beyond merely “faster tempo” to “inside the adversary’s tempo.” That’s something I hope to explore in a more nuanced way in a future edition. Over the last 6-8 months, I think I’ve come to understand the subtleties a lot better, and the challenge is to now spend more time thinking through clear definitions and examples….

I think everyone who has explored the OODA Loop concept, including John Boyd himself, initially gravitated to the aspect of cycling “faster” than one’s oponent because it is a natural assumption that resonates with our own experiences. We have all seen competitions where one player or athlete was “quicker” in reading situations and arriving at the right intuitive decision – usually most of us have been both the faster as well as the slower and more hesitant person. It’s the first scenario that springs to mind and being “faster” gives an obvious comparative advantages. Obvious does not mean “only” though.

What made the “faster” interpretation of OODA Loop really stick in the culture though, IMHO, was this unfortunate but easily understood graphic:


As a result, we get critical arguments that the OODA Loop is really something germane only to binary situations similar to the high pressure aerial combat that Boyd experienced in the Korean War or as a tactical fighter pilot instructor (or Musashi’s sword fighting) and not something generally useful in military strategy. An odd argument, given that Clausewitz liked to use binary metaphors to describe the nature of war.

The next graphic, which better illustrates the simultanaeity and dynamic nature of the OODA Loop, with other potential avenues of exploitation than just going “faster” (which will swiftly hit diminishing returns in any event) does not lend itself as easily to nearly instant comprehension:


With these cognitive relationships operating continuously, mostly subconsciously with automaticity and in an iterative fashion, a different set of meanings to the phrase “inside your oponent’s OODA Loop” than just going “faster”, like a formula one race car zooming around a track.

5 Responses to “Chet on TEMPO….Rao on OODA”

  1. Matt Says:

    Yeah, I see that too with OODA. A lot of guys in my industry throw around the concept to impress others, but they really do not take the time to dig into the heart of the concept or really understand it.

    Also, I liked Chet’s reference to snowmobiles. It is a theme that is extremely inspirational and useful to me, and I am a big fan of analysis and synthesis. 

  2. zen Says:

    Hi Matt,
    Me too. Most of the material I have read on creativity in education, psychology and neuroscience point to three different cognitive avenues for creative thinking – insight, synthesis and lateral/horizontal/divergent thinking exercises. The first we can’t typically control (though there is *some* evidence that we can precipitate it or make insight more likely) and the other two are fundamentally different approaches, at least initially ( horizontal thinking can lead to synthesis or insight but you usually have to have pretty good competency in one field first to see profound analogues elsewhere)

  3. Ed Beakley Says:

    Fred Leland also did a review on TEMPO (http://www.lesc.net/blog/book-review-tempo-timing-tactics-and-strategy-narrative-driven-decision-making-venkatesh-rao) and also started a discussion on the Linkedin "Disciplies of Boyd Strategy" group page.  Chet made an interesting comment related to the U.S. Women’s Soccer coach:
    "Everyone always talks about increasing the tempo," (Pia) Sundhage said Thursday. "We needed to decrease the tempo and control the rhythm." [Sundhage is the coach of the US women’s soccer team — watch them play the Japanese for the World Championship Sunday, July 17 at 2 pm ET on ESPN. Quote is from "Pure Brawn and Horsepower As Soccer Gets More Technical, the U.S. Women Still Thrive on Physical Play," by Matthew Futterman in the 15 July 2011 Wall St. Journal.]

    I commented that I don’t have a clue what "decreaasing the tempo and controling the rhythm" means.   No one decided to decipher.  I am a long time reader, studier and even user of OODA as an analysis synthesis tool,  but some recent writing leaves me wondering.  Chet’s other comments on Fred’s post plus his comments in the book review about tempo and being "inside the opponents loop"  and what Boyd said about the two raise some issues that word definition could help.

    What do we mean by speed, pace, tempo, rhythm in regard to OODA? And what is inside?  One flaw in the process even if you O-O-D-A well and who’s out of sync with who?

    Since reading TEMPO, I have been exchanging e-mails with Rao on my ongoing work on analysis of the Battle of Midway through the lens of O,O,D,A centering around the destruction of Nagumo’s ability to command control – in effect complete inability to reestablish tempo once lost. All of this was in spite of poor observation and ability to orient on both sides, yet Spruance given Nimitz direction for both aggressiveness AND prudence acted so as to afford the best possibility and flexibility of outcome. This most certainly includes the one decision he was most criticized for – the withdrawal on the night of 4 June.

    Venkatesh’s comment is most telling:

    “What you are describing in the Midway case as Spruance’s reasoning is actually classic tempo/OODA thinking in my opinion. I think of the idea of “getting inside the opponent’s tempo” as having more to do with making more information-dense moves than your opponent, not necessarily moving at a faster raw tempo. i.e. it’s about how much information each “move” processes rather than the raw ratio of your moves to mine. So an experienced martial artist, for instance, may be only making 1 move for every 3 by his opponent, but his moves may have 4 times the “information processing.”

    "In this case, it appears that in a symmetric case of equally poor information on both sides, Spruance moved in ways that opened up his action to more information saturation, by amplifying feedback. In my technical field of control theory, there is even a rigorous mathematical idea called “persistence of excitation” which loosely translates to ‘if you don’t have enough information about the system, any action, even random action, will help you identify the system properly and will be better than operating using bad information.’ “

    Could one conjecture that "rhythym" is indicative of what is intrinsic to the organization and technology one owns/uses and "tempo" is a function of the mission application?

  4. zen Says:

    Hi Ed,
    You don’t ask small questions 🙂 I can’t speak for Chet, nor do I have your historical grasp of the Battle of Midway but here is how I would answer/define in terms of OODA with additional comments:
    SPEED: The velocity of mental processing; how long it takes to neurocognitively move through the Loop to arrive at a decision-based action
    Pre-Freud, Pre-James, neurological processing speed was a major area of investigation for the budding field of psychology in the mid 19th C. because they could set up observable, falsifiable, quantifiable experiments. Helmholtz discovered a time discrepancy with reality and neuroscientists today can find discrepancies not only between ppl but within the same brain depending on the task, the complexity, a person’s genetic predisposition and experience
    PACE: the speed at which an entity is operating in a continuous series of complete OODA Loops which can be reactive (to environmental stimuli) or pro-active ( deliberately setting a pace that confounds the advantages of an opponent)
    Organizations and people have a pace which represents maximum efficiency over a given unit of time. At the extremes of pace we become less efficient, dysfunctional or even risk harm (note: the messenger who died at Marathon).
    TEMPO: [ clarification required]
    In normal English "pace" and "tempo" are synonyms. "OPTEMPO" in military parlance relates to the pace of equipment/supply/whatever usage.  Suspect Boyd would have used tempo and pace interchangeably but I am not sure when OPTEMPO entered the military vocabulary and could conceivably have entered into Boyd’s thinking. This is a Dr. Chet question I can’t answer.
    CONTROLLING THE RYTHM: Having the initiative in setting an advantageous action-reaction pattern with an opponent
    You are "inside their Loop" when you are creating patterns of behavior to which they are responding without themselves gaining the initiative.
    On Venkat’s comment:
    "“getting inside the opponent’s tempo” as having more to do with making more information-dense moves than your opponent, not necessarily moving at a faster raw tempo. i.e. it’s about how much information each “move” processes rather than the raw ratio of your moves to mine."
    I am inclined to agree. This gets to cognitive efficiency in the sense of both speed and complexity (handling multiple variables). A simple word to use might be "deeper" instead of "faster". More of the potential moves derived from the information are recognized, considered, evaluated and more information in an absolute sense.
    Anyone who wants to jump in this discussion is welcome. I am parsing possibilities here.

  5. Ed Beakley Says:

    Thanks for "taking on the "not small question." I read TEMPO at the same time I read "Shattered Sword" which is a take on the Battle of Midway from the Japanese side. I find it hard to believe that if one is aquainted with OODA, they would not see how badly the Japanese executed the individual pieces on 4 June 1942.  The question is why and I think worthy of some investigation with lessons learned possible for today’s environment in regard to how decisions are made in crisis.

    Boyd’s work is all based on competition and to "getting inside" the opponent’s loop,  but the decision process of O-O-D-A can be applied and is observable in many activities including response to disasters like Katrina or Deepwater Horizon.  I would venture that looking at how OODA is done irrespective of the other side’s attempt or process can be valuable, and indeed hurricane’s don’t do OODA.

    What struck me with the Japanese at Midway (sparked by Rao’s thoughts) is they had "commander’s intent,"  they had the "eastern mindset" in terms of deception and subtletness of plan, and they in fact established a "tempo" of what was to happen and when – dismantle Midway by air attack, carriers then await US carrier response while the ground fgorces take the island.  Their initial "action" of "observation" was weak based on the "plan" and not on what might be possible.

    Spruance with also minimal "observation" launched under the premise developed out of the "battle experiments" of the 30s which said the carrier that strikes first will win.  The resultant battle was all over the place, but completely destryed the Japanese tempo of operation based on rigid compliance with commanders intent.  Even after devastating losses their decision process of trying to observe and orient to what was happening was based on original mission rather than truely getting oriented to reality.

    I’ll close here to say that here that there’s a lot of stuff written on Boyd and OODA, most talks "intent" and concept of "getting inside" and always makes the point its not just speed through the loop.  The ideal is the folding one’s adversary back in on himself, sneakily if possible.  I think there’s a need for a lot more thinking on the OODA parts and how to do them better.  Dueling loops maybe possible, but reality to me says you can’t really observe that or mesasure the cause-effect in most cases.  Time might be better spent insuring you do your side correctly and as Rao stated make best informed decisions to be in place to adapt.
    Thanks again,

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