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John Robb on the OODA Loop

John Robb at Global Guerrillas had a nice primer on John Boyd’s OODA Loop recently and he put on a twist that I thought was very useful:


….I’m Inside Your OODA Loop

How does all of this apply to conflict?  The simple answer is that conflict, in its most basic form, is a contest between decision making loops.  The side with the FASTER and BETTER decision making loop wins any conflict.  Why?  They adapt quicker.   Here’s some more detail:

A FASTER decision making loop means that you accomplish a successful OODA loop quicker than an opponent.  If you can do this, you are inside your opponent’s OODA loop.  This means that by the time your opponent responds to your last actions, you are already onto your next ones.  Get far enough ahead and the opponent’s decision making process will collapse and victory is assured.

A BETTER decision making loop?  That’s question that can lead to endless debates and theory crafting.  My approach to improving a decision making loop?  Connectivity.  The more connected a loop is, the better the decision loop is.  Connectivity falls into three categories:

  1. Mental — improves decisions by connections to a superior mental model of the current situation.  A superior model/strategy is predictive of events. It can tell you what data is important and what isn’t.  Weak strategies/tactics fall apart upon first contact w/enemy.
  2. Physical   — improves observation through connections to better sources of data, cleaner w/less distortion  – improves action by making it possible to actually accomplish the desired decision in the real world
  3. Moral — better orientation due to connections to strong traditions, extensive experience, and collected wisdom.  Training can help here.

The opposite is true also.  Damage an opponents connectivity, and their decision making loops are less effective.

One of the difficulties with discussing OODA is that many people who either oppose the concept or do not know much about it, will explain the OODA Loop only as ”getting inside your opponents OODA Loop” in terms of the capacity to “go faster” -i.e cycle through your own OODA Loop faster than your opponent, making more decisions, taking more actions, leaving them in the dust, disoreinted and going into a downward spiral to defeat. Usually, misrepresented like this:

Ok, well going “faster” is a small part of it, but not sequentially and there’s neurological limits on this that arrive pretty quickly in terms of thinking speed in any case. Robb’s use of “BETTER” helps capture more of the critical and subtle qualitative nature of the ”Orientation” box:

What are some of the possible effects of a “virtuous cycle” of better decisions?

Position yourself with more options
Gain new perspectives (“Observation”, “Orientation”)
Position yourself with the greatest comparative advantage (best option)
Lock in a comparative advantage
Position yourself with the longest potential decision tree (no quick “dead ends” or “cul de sacs”)
Change the tempo of interaction in your favor
Change the rules of interaction in your favor
Prevent a conflict with additional potential oponents
Lower your costs or increase theirs
Assure minimum gains
Arrive first
Increase or decrease the distance between yourself and your opponent
Broaden or narrow the field of conflict
Gain time
Seize or maintain the initiative
Define or redefine “victory”
Foreclose a critical option or set of options to your opponent
Force your opponent to act on your terms (“Check”)
Lower the morale of your opponent

Confuse, mystify or mislead your opponent
Attract allies or supporters
Increase your resources or potential maximum gains
Repair, remediate or replace previous losses

John is correct that “connectivity” helps you gain many of these benefits. 


 “Being on the winning side is a lot more fun!”

ADDENDUM (Some interesting commentary on OODA):

Adam Elkus

I’ve Got the OODA Blues

Joseph Fouche:

Libeling Boyd

How Not to be Like Boyd

Who’s Afraid of Genghis John?


Variations of the OODA Loop 1: Introduction
Variations of the OODA Loop 2: The Naive Boydian Loop
Variations of the OODA Loop 3: The Sophisticated Boydian Loop
Variations of the OODA Loop 4: Pseudo-Boydian Loops
Variations of the OODA Loop 5: Post-Boydian Loops
Variations of the OODA Loop 6: Bibliography


21 Responses to “John Robb on the OODA Loop”

  1. Larry Dunbar Says:

    It seems to me that the first three effects that you list, as coming from a "virtuous" cycle are the opposite of what you speak. It seems to me that a virtuous cycle, while an advantage to your position, would limit your options, narrow your perspectives, and limit your position. From a limited position, your advantage also becomes limited, because your leverage doesn’t change much, which may be a good thing. Corruption destroys transparency and virtue is without corruption. 

  2. slapout9 Says:

    After listening to Polar Bear’s Boyd tapes I believe most people have it wrong . It is not about getting inside the other person’s OODA Loop……. it is about Creating(and showing to your enemy) an OODA Loop that fools him into believing something that isn’t true while ignoring what is true.

  3. joey Says:

    I’ve a question, although I can see how a understanding of the OODA loop can be of benift when teaching someone at a tactical or operation level in war, is it of any benift at the strategic level, where sheer complexity favors clear and simple goals, and the ability to stick to them, ie not to shift your focus every time you see a opportunity to preempt your opponent.
    Napoleon once said, never interrupt your opponent when he is making a mistake, it seems to me that Napoleon lived his life inside his opponents OODA loops, at the tactical and operational level, almost comically so at times,  but those same abilities that made him supreme when his troops were on the march, were it seems counter productive when applied to grand strategy.
    Am I missing something here?

  4. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    Part of conflict and the “fog of war” can be obfuscation, misdirection, surprise, etc … just specific kinds of large variety of possible “Acts” … while maintaining superior “Observe” & “Orient”.

    One of the things that Boyd would stress in briefings (which has been hard to capture in OODA-loop) was constantly observing all possible facets; one might try and include it as part of having superior “Observe”.

    Superior “Orient” tends to imply better understanding. Understanding can result in narrowing options (discarding non-optimal possibilities) … false understanding also tends to narrowing options (selecting wrong possibilities)

    Corruption can be viewed as a kind of conflict and lack of transparency then is form of obfuscation and misdirection. In the late 90s, I was asked in to NSCC to look at improving the integrity of trading transactions. After working on it for some time, I was called in and told it was suspended; that side-effect of the integrity improvements would have significantly improved transparency and visibility … which is an anathema to wallstreet culture. This was also highlighted in the congressional Madoff hearings by the person that had tried unsuccessfully for a decade to get SEC to do something about Madoff.

    currently reading “Civilization: West and the Rest”, characterizes Napoleon’s grand strategy as unified Europe … that Napoleon would show “profit” from campaigns … more economic benefit to France than cost of the campaign. Losses at sea cut France off from the economic contributions of its colonies. This and operation of French gov. resulted in France borrowing at 6percent to finance its operation while enemies were able to borrow at less than 4percent to finance their operations.

  5. Alex Olesker Says:

    This is important analysis on the parts of Mark and John to help counter all of the misunderstandings of Boyd’s concepts that seem to be going around.
    I think, however, that two fundamental misunderstandings are driving most of the confusion. The first is that people act as if the OODA loop is prescriptive when it’s really descriptive. Boyd isn’t telling you to decide before you act or observe before you orient – implicitly or explicitly, we all do this. The value of the OODA loop concept is not it’s ability to shape our decisions, but to give us a common framework, vocabulary, and narrative to talk about the decision cycle, as Mark does here.
    Next, I think the "Faster! Faster!" fallacy, and the equally fallacious criticisms of the Boyd Cycle on those grounds, comes from misunderstandings of the somewhat ambiguous word "act". It doesn’t mean to physically do something, it means carry out your decision so that you can restart the cycle. That "action" may be to do nothing, to re-evaluate the surroundings, to change the way you orient, to wait for an adversary or partner to make the next move, etc. In this sense, having a faster OODA loop really is an advantage, because this allows for more decisions to be made, granting agility. Judging from his writing on Destruction and Creation, it seems that Boyd would say a faster cycle necessarily leads to a better cycle, as trial and error, the evolution of ideas, and the reforming of mental models makes for better decisions.

  6. A.E. Says:

    Well, the problem is, as Sean Lawson noted, Boyd himself can’t really seem to decide whether it is prescriptive or descriptive. In his corpus he strongly argues that a sounder OODA Loop lead to victory, while simultaneously arguing against a dogmatic interpretation. Which one is it? There is a structural tension between Boyd’s reading of military history and proposed operational concepts and his idea of what the OODA should be. 
    Additionally, there is a very neo-positivistic sheen inherent in his use of scientific metaphors and concepts to describe the OODA and Destruction and Creation, etc, unlike Clausewitz’s rather straightforward acknowledgments of how his own use of scientific language fits with military reality. 
    While Boyd is valuable, we should also be aware of the problems with his literature that add to our own confusion.

  7. slapout9 Says:

    The answer is to combine Boyd’s General Theory with Warden’s Rings so you have proper Targeting. It dosen’t matter how fast you are if you are aiming at the wrong Target.

  8. Joseph Fouche Says:

    The core of Boyd’s thought is creating a "fatal disconnect between the enemy and reality through a combination of mental, moral, and physical isolation".
    Boyd’s metaphors, like those of the Sun-tzu and Clausewitz, are not literals. Nations, armies, and fighter pilots don’t think in explicit loops. Armies don’t roll down hills like boulders and break their enemies like egg shells. War is neither a wrestling match, a card game, or some three headed beast. Clausewitz, the Sun-tzu, and the Zen koan seek to shock their audience out of the rut of routine and dogma. Boyd, though his brevity was closer to the Sun-tzu and the koan in brevity. Part of that brevity came from his choice of media: the briefing slide, like the bamboo strip, is not as amenable as an unfinished manuscript to explain a choice of metaphor. 
    Unfortunately, the average human mind wants a checklist instead of enlightenment. So many parse Boyd’s slides, Clausewitz’s incomplete books, and the Sun-tzu’s lost passages looking for the checkbox hidden behind every letter, space, or imagined gap and miss the World for the dots and tittles of fine textual criticism. 
    Boyd’s central metaphor is the system subject to entropy: if you isolate it than its inner disorder has no outlet and its inner entropy will build up to such a point that its inner disorder will consume its inner order. Victory is keeping your system open enough to vent your entropy, creating harmony through the triumph of inner order over inter disorder. Defeat is being boxed in and consumed by your own innate tendencies to disintegration. 
    The key Boydian image I keep in mind is an alternate vison of Operation Barbarossa that Boyd hints at in Patterns of Conflict: the Wehrmacht concentrates the bulk of its forces on the northern thrust towards Leningrad (Army Group North) and Moscow (Army Group Center) while leaving only a screening force on the southern front where historically Army Group South made its advance. This hypothetical, a metaphoric extension of the Leuctra/Leuthen refused flank across thousands of miles, seeks to disconnect the USSR physically, morally, and mentally through one giant shock rather than the multiple physical and Cannae-like killboxes the Germans created in the real 1941 attack. Given the real logistics challenges on the Eastern front, this scenario may be as fanciful as an army of unicorn-riding Care Bears invading the USSR in 1941 but it is a useful metaphor for grasping the larger reality behind Boyd’s diagrams and cryptic briefing slides. 

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    M. Fouche writes:

    Unfortunately, the average human mind wants a checklist instead of enlightenment.

    When I first came across Boyd’s ideas, I had the impression that the OODA loop was somehow already familiar to me, and after a while I realized that what I was hazily remembering was Kipling’s account of the mongoose, Rikki-tikki-tavi, fighting the king cobra, Nag.  I’ve read the story again since then, and it doesn’t in fact contain what I thought it did — a circling battle in which the mongoose turns more tightly and faster than the cobra, thus getting out of range and behind his foe– but the idea I somehow had that both speed and "turn-tightness" are of the essence still seems to fit pretty well with what little I understand of Boyd.
    In my reading, speed and accuracy are both necessary, speed (across the entire loop) being the bit that people usually "get", while accuracy (continually updated observation unobscured by false expectation or cloudy judgment) is what gives the tighter turning circle.
    But I’m the amateur here — how does that match up with others’ impressions?

  10. Joseph Fouche Says:

    @Charles: I’d agree with the OODA loops emphasis on speed and accuracy. I’d add one caution on speed: sometimes the speed or tempo (to use Zen’s term) you need is slower than the enemy’s rather than faster.
    Example: any plan to "trade space for time" seeks advantage by intentionally protracting and lengthening the Boyd cycle rather than intentionally accelerating and shortening it. 

  11. Joseph Fouche Says:

    @Charles: You’re emphasis on accuracy is also key, not just to the understanding of the OODA Loop but understanding all of Boyd’s theory: victory in a Boydian context is not just a qualitative cycle where more connectivity automatically equals better orientation. Victory is a qualitative cycle where accurate or correct connectivity equals better orientation. Selective disconnectivity or isolation coupled with selective connectivity or intimacy is more important that connectivity alone. Does a failure to connect with every input under the sun open you to being blindsided by the input you failed to connect to? Yes, but to orient is to choose. And orientation, even if it’s disorientation, is inevitable as long as you draw breath.

  12. Joseph Fouche Says:

    You might even define Boydian strategy as the use of the engagement connectivity for the for the purpose of the war. But that would be plagiarism.

  13. Joseph Fouche Says:

    You could even derive a trinity of war from Boyd’s theory, something like:
    1) Moral: "primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force" 
    2) Physical: "the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam" 
    3) Mental: "its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason"
    Unfortunately, if Boyd’s theory acquired its own trinity, it would make it useless for any war that wasn’t divisible by three.

  14. Ken B. Says:

    I’m no scholar but it seems to me Boyd’s OODA loop is a model. Like all models it is more useful in some cases then others. Arguments at the margins of it’s usefulness  may not  be productive. I think the OODA loop has  more usefulness at the tactical level then the strategic.  I thought Boyd’s "conceptional spiral" was an acknowledgement of limitations of the loop model.

    As an example I’ve read a number of sources   on the Tet Offensive.  From one point of view it would appear that the American military was well inside the insurgency OODA loop but the real action was political and  inside the power corridors of Washington, the so-called Wise Men.  Westmorland was evidently unaware of this.

    BTW I came across a cognitive model very similar to Boyd’s in a paper called "Time stressed decision making. The model is referred  to as (Stokes 1991) and uses "cue sampling / pattern matching / prioritizing, option selection / action" the link is here http://www.humanfactors.illinois.edu/Reports&PapersPDFs/TechReport/93-01.pdf

    I found J. Fouche’s remarks very  interesting, in particular the closed vs open system.

    Good post and comments.

  15. slapout9 Says:

    Boyd’s M&M’s (the 6 matches or mis-matches per the Polar Bear Boyd tapes)are more his total doctrine as opposed to just an OODA loop.

  16. 4GW « The Image Says:

    [...] Robb was talking the other day, and Zenpundit  later expanded, about how to enter into another’s OODA loop. I suggested one, but I have [...]

  17. seydlitz89 Says:

    Why not add my two bits?
    Agree with AE.  It’s not strategic theory which is by necessity retrospective.  OODA is doctrinal speculation since the model itself does determine action, how could it not?  Boyd himself misunderstood Clausewitz and saw him as promoting a certain approach (following BHL Hart), which Boyd hoped to "correct" by advocating a different approach which was of course prescriptive . . .
    Which doesn’t mean that OODA doesn’t have it applications, as long as it’s viewed from the cockpit of an F-86 . . . that is exclusively tactics.  At the operational and strategic levels it serves as a model of friction.  The fixation on tactics is particularly pronounced with Boyd’s one sided interest in the Panzer generals who of course were tactically proficient but strategically unsuccessful, to say the least.  In fact his whole approach seems to be radically "unpolitical" which from a Clausewitzian perspective is absurd.  
    I have yet to see anyone on the Boyd side effectively counter Jim Storr’s critique as presented in The Human Face of War . . . 

  18. zen Says:

    Hi Seydlitz,
    I have high regard for Colonel Storr’s book but not his premises regarding the OODA Loop. Storr begins with (p.12):
    "In the early 1990′s much military thinking revolved around the so-called ‘OODA Loop’.17 The OODA Loop suggests that the basic process of command and control (C2), described as Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action, is circular and iterative process. Military advantage is supposed to accrue from being able to go around the loop faster than one’s opponent"
    In other words, OODA as the first diagram above rather than the second. Everything flowing from that premise would be incorrect or at least only a superficial tactical ("faster-faster") expression of the OODA Loop.  
    Storr misunderstands Boyd much as Boyd misunderstood Clausewitz, perhaps the reason is that he seems (as I infer from his footnote) to be relying upon a 1985 source (Bill Lind’s Manuever Warfare Handbook) rather than something from the time period (1990′s), from Boyd himself or more recent scholarship by Chet Richards or Frans Osinga.

    OODA however is only a very small fraction of The Human Face of War, an otherwise excellent tome.
    My view of OODA is that it is primarily descriptive but it can be applied prescriptively as a tool to improve the information efficiency of organizational systems, albeit not by using it as a step-by-step checklist ( "Time to Orient guys….") or as metacognitive introspection to examine one’s own reasoning process. I think OODA fits remarkably well with what neuroscience research is indicating about the distributed and modular nature of the brain and it’s impact on learning and cognition.

  19. zen Says:

    "It dosen’t matter how fast you are if you are aiming at the wrong Target."
    "Fast is fine, accuracy is everything"
    Apocryphally attributed to both Wyatt Earp and Xenophon

  20. seydlitz89 Says:

    Hi zen-
    So, how much of what we read today regarding OODA is Lind, and how much is Boyd?  I have yet to read a comprehensive response to Storr from the Boydians, which is my point.
    Osinga has his own issues which we should discuss at some point.  
    Don’t see how OODA can be both "descriptive" and used as a model for action, since the model would prescribe action, how could it not?  The potential outcomes in an adversarial relationship/interaction between political communities are not really modeled by your second version of OODA since it misses the "political component" as I have mentioned.  Where is the interaction between the individual and his/her political community?  Or the interaction of political communities?
    That it fits neuroscience as we presently understand it would concur with the tactical applications I limit it to.  Once we get into communities (following Niebuhr) we’re in to a completely different logic, with completely different social action orientations.  To model this would you not require a whole different sphere of action orientations which you have not addressed at all?
    Boyd wasn’t much of a "people person" (if you follow what Coram writes) so his insights into group dynamics would be limited.  Politically, Boyd who referred to Nixon as an "sob we need to get rid of", was something of a radical for a military officer (as portrayed by Coram again) so what would he have thought of Bush II or even Obama?  I find it curious that most Boydians today seem more conservative, whereas Boyd himself, were he alive, would probably be quite radical.  Not too difficult imagining him supporting the "Occupy movement" today btw . . 
    Social science is quite different than the physical sciences since we don’t really operate with "paradigms" as you know, it’s what makes us "people" rather than "organisms".  I think Boyd perhaps saw them as one in the same, but that would be hard to carry forward imo . . . 
    Nice discussion. 

  21. Joseph Fouche Says:

    “I find it curious that most Boydians today seem more conservative, whereas Boyd himself, were he alive, would probably be quite radical.”

    It would be interesting to know what the Colonel thought about 4GW and other ideas thought up by his acolytes.

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