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The lowdown on OODA Loops

16 October 2012

Fabius mentions our broken OODA loops from time to time. Here’s guide for the perplexed.

Don’t feel bad. It took Boyd a while, too. A big part of his problem was that he was using the OODA loop concept to do three things:

  • Control our actions in the midst of whatever we’re doing now, an operation, karate match, sales campaign, whatever.
  • Modify or even create new actions on the fly as it were
  • Keep our orientation well matched with reality.

What he came up with in his figure from The Essence of Winning and Losing (the complex one, with the big Orientation box) served all three of these functions by melding an outer and an inner loop. It is important to keep these loops distinct:

  1. The outer loop, using the implicit guidance and control link from orientation to action, generally controls actions. That is, the decision — what you’re going to do next — is made in orientation, and the action follows smoothly and rapidly. Note that the action you select had better already be in your repertoire or you risk a lot of confusion and fumbling around.
  2. The inner loop — essentially the conceptual spiral — from observation to orientation to hypothesis to test. This is how you modify actions in your repertoire and create new ones.
  3. As he explains in Conceptual Spiral, the inner loop also rejiggles orientation (to use the technical term). It is not particularly useful for controlling actions because it is too slow and too easy to disrupt.

As Boyd insists in Patterns 176, you have to engage both loops … at the same time:

Ability to simultaneously and sequentially generate many different possibilities [Note: inner loop] as well as rapidly implement and shift among them [i.e., outer loop] permits one to repeatedly generate mismatches between events/efforts adversary observes or imagines and those he must respond to (to survive).

Difficult, to be sure, but you don’t have to be perfect. Only better than your opponents.

What about “decision” in the box with “hypothesis”? Frankly, I think that’s a mistake. I know what Boyd was driving at, that sometimes you have to make an explicit decision, but it causes endless confusion. It’s better to consider an explicit decision as an action.

I have a couple of papers on my blog, Fast Transients, that go into this in more detail:

  • Boyd’s Real OODA Loop
  • John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, and the meaning of life

You can download both of these, plus the latest edits of some of Boyd’s briefings plus some interesting papers, from the Articles page.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 October 2012 4:56 pm

    I must be the densest guy in the world.

    I read Boyd’s Real OODA Loop
    John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, and the meaning of life

    Graham’s Boyd,

    Certain to Win,

    And the magic just keep escaping me. I mean it makes ‘sense’ but I don’t see it as special. Maybe it’s institutionalized and I see it as normal and straigthforward.

    Or hopefully, I just don’t get it at all! I want their to be some magic to learn.

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    • 16 October 2012 6:56 pm

      Magic is in the mind of the beholder. You are ready to build your own snowmobiles.

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  2. 16 October 2012 5:15 pm

    IMO the Orient step/module simply performs the function of identifying matches and mis-matches from the Observation step/module inputs(should do this very fast)….so the initial data base(used for matching and mis-matching) that you start with is critical! If the initial assumptions are wrong or incorrect then detecting mis-matches becomes extremely hard and you can end up with the infamous broken OODA Loop.

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    • 16 October 2012 7:10 pm

      Like, if you don’t play bridge, and you sit down at a duplicate tournament?

      Orientation does lots of things. Spotting mismatches is important, but so is selecting actions that get implemented via the IG&C link.

      One reason people may be having problems with the concept is that Boyd tried to cram so much into it.

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  3. 16 October 2012 7:22 pm

    “Like, if you don’t play bridge,and you sit down at a duplicate tournament” that is a fantastic analogy!!!

    They used to teach SIPDE in drivers ed back in school. Stood for Scan..Identify…Predict….Decide….Evade….. in order for it to work you have to know the intial “Rule Set” of that particular driving system…..if you don’t know that you are in deep trouble.

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  4. Thomas More permalink
    17 October 2012 3:41 am

    Jonh: the magic in Boyd’s formulation seems to me to be that Boyd was the first person in hundreds of years of recognize and apply a method of winning military conflicts which doesn’t rely on amplifying material sources and also doesn’t rely on fuzzy-wuzzy impossible-to-verify notions like “daring” or “surprise” or “elan” or “audacity.” Previous European military thinkers like Frederick the Great used to offer advice for winning battles like “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!” That’s all very well, but audacity doesn’t work in all circumstances. In some cases, as in the Battle of Stalingrand, relentless determination is the key.

    Boyd was the first military thinker IMHO to recognize and elucidate the fact that people don’t operate in the real world but in a mental model of the world. Boyd further recognized that by upsetting the enemy mental model of the world faster than he can re-build it in his mind, you can reduce the enemy to helplessness without physically destroying his infantry or tanks or artillery or supply lines.

    The concept of defeating an enemy without physically destroying him was mentioned by Sun Tzu (“For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill”), but Sun Tzu doesn’t tell us exactly how to do it. Boyd does.

    That’s a big deal, IMHO. Moreover, Boyd was not only a brilliant tactician, but a profoundly insightful grand strategist. Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict offers a prescription for winning global geopolitcal conflicts without attrition battles and without engaging in endless unwinnable foreign wars.

    This last takes us far afield of the OODA loop, but I think it does illustrate Boyd’s significance as a military thinker. Among Americans, only Alfred Thayer Mahan rivals John Boyd. (Speaking for myself only. And I’m woefully uninformed about matters military, so my opinion may well be completely wrong.)

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  5. OldSkeptic permalink
    20 October 2012 7:30 am

    Chet if you (as I do) like Boyd’s work, then you also have to read Stafford Beers stuff.

    They both approached this from different angles. Boyd military, Beer organisational. And came up with similar models, though Beer’s is probably more general to all organisations as he went into details about the functions required to achieved the different sections of the OODA loop (Viable Systems Model for example), plus how the different attenuators (to separate noise from signal and compress data into something comprehensible for humans) and amplifiers (to multiply management impacts) had to work. In other words how to manage complexity in real time.

    Had a few pints with Beer one time, would have loved to have had a few with Boyd. Actually I’d have loved to have put them in the same room and listened.

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    • 20 October 2012 11:05 am

      Thanks! I’ve heard of Beer — probably from his work in operations research — but don’t recall reading anything by him. Sounds like quite a character, a polymath like Boyd, and of almost exactly the same age. Interesting how both adopted austere lifestyles — an occupational hazard, I guess.

      You make an excellent point: Boyd encourages us to collect ideas from anywhere. The list of books in his collection at the Marine Corps University Library runs over 21 (single-spaced) pages, for example. If you’d like to write a post on Beer, particularly in the context of Boyd’s framework, I’d be happy to run it over at Fast Transients, which contains articles of a more technical nature than Fabius usually publishes here.

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