The lowdown on OODA Loops
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.