What does a “broken OODA loop” look like?

In a comment to an earlier post, Duncan Kinder had suggested that: Broken OODA loop = madness. This got me to thinking about what a “broken OODA loop” might be. Could Kinder be right? [Readers not familiar with the concept might want to glance over “Boyd’s Real OODA Loop,” available from the Articles page at Fast Transients.]

“Delightful Madness ” by Cyril Walker


Boyd never used the term “broken OODA loop,” but he did outline what he expected OODA loops to do, on page 1 of The Essence of Winning and Losing (also available from the Articles page.):

Without OODA loops, we can neither sense, hence observe, thereby collect a variety of information for the above processes, nor decide as well as implement actions in accord with these processes.

Or put another way:

Without OODA loops embracing all of the above and without the ability to get inside other OODA loops (or other environments), we will find it impossible to comprehend, shape, adapt to and in turn be shaped by an unfolding evolving reality that is uncertain, everchanging, and unpredictable

Then, on page 3:

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

A “broken loop” would imply a process that is no longer “ongoing, ” no longer performing its functions of “projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection.” The upshot is that we can no longer “comprehend, shape, adapt to and in turn be shaped by an unfolding evolving reality that is uncertain, everchanging, and unpredictable.” “Madness” is most apt.

For More Information (and a picture of a OODA loop)


Special Note:  The artwork image:  “Deligthful Madness” by Cyril Walker, oil on canvas.

(a) Other posts about OODA loops:

  1. Boyd’s Real OODA Loop, Fast Transients.
  2. John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, and the meaning of life, Fast Transients.
  3. The lowdown on OODA Loops.
  4. How OODA loops break.

(b)  Posts about America’s broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop (OODA loop)

  1. The housing crisis allows America to look in the mirror. What do we see?, 8 March 2009
  2. The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
  3. The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009
  4. We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009
  5. A great, brief analysis of problem with America’s society – a model to follow when looking at other problems, 4 June 2009
  6. Does America have clear vision? Here’s an “eye chart” for our minds., 15 June 2009
  7. The weak link in America’s political regime, 16 September 2009
  8. DoD did not consider troop levels when devising our latest Af-Pak war plans, more evidence that their OODA loop is broken, 8 October 2009
  9. Attention fellow sheep: let’s open our eyes and see the walls of our pen, 16 October 2009
  10. America’s broken OODA loop in action: a swarming attack by ankle-biters in our intelligentsia, 26 February 2011
  11. Today’s geopolitical analysis.  Let’s laugh while America’s wealth flows down the drain., 11 August 2011
  12. A look at an enemy of America, and a discussion about the execution of al-Awlaki, 13 October 2011 — Facts are less important than our tribal loyalty.
  13. Facts are an obstacle to the reform of America, 20 October 2011
  14. Chuck Spinney explains our broken OODA loop, 25 September 2012

A picture of a OODA loop in action

From The Essence of Winning and Losing (1996):

John R. Boyd, “The Essence of Winning and Losing” (1996)

13 thoughts on “What does a “broken OODA loop” look like?”

  1. Kinder is right. If you cannot accurately understand and act and react to reality then you probably are mad. The question is how mad, to what degree are you mad.

    Which reminds me, here is a link to one of the best Law Enforcemnt movies I ever saw and yet it really isn’t about Law Enforcement it is about life. And the OODA loop in verbal form might just be this line from the movie. “If the rule you followed brought to this — then of what use is the rule?”

  2. Just re-read the account in Andre Beaufre’s book “1940: The Collapse of France”, of the breakdown of the French Army upon the German crossing of the Sedan River in May, 1940. I was going to take issue with your use of the term madness but in this instance it was madness.

    According to Beaufre, the frontline troops fought well but the rear echelons, especially the artillery, became convinced that there had been a break out and they destroyed their guns and fled. The artillery had been subjected to the full weight of the Luftwaffe all day and this no doubt desroyed morale.The sense of panic reached the High Command and created a deep sense of dispair and inanation. Much has been written about how the slow and antique French communications led to the French defeat but Beaufre insists that at the critical juncture they had a surfeit of information, it was just wrong and the sense of panic was transmitted over the telephone.

  3. While not totally ruling out madness, there is another view I have been thinking about over the last several OODA loop discussions. I have a close friend who has lived with epilepsy her entire life and her brain functions differently. She has been in several serious automobile accidents because she is not able to process information and make a decision quickly. She can observe but tends to skip from that to the other steps out of order. If she gets frustrated enough she will just go from observe to act; hence the cars crashes. She has stopped driving which everyone on the road should be grateful.

    Just a thought, although I am not sure where to go with it from here but thought I would lob it out there.

    1. beej,

      Thanks — interesting and most cogent observation.

      It’s worth pointing out again that the observe-then-orient-then-decide-then act paradigm, while logical, is not very useful. the main reasons are: 1) too slow; 2) too easy to disrupt; 3) you can only act after going through all three other steps of the loop, that is time and quality trade off.

      After years of worrying about this, Boyd suggested that the circular, sequential process best describes learning. Most of the time in tactical situations, like driving a car, actions need to already be in our implicit repertoire and thus be able to flow smoothly and rapidly from our orientations.

      I go into this is in mind-numbing detail in my paper “Boyd’s real OODA Loop,” available from the Articles page on Fast Transients.


  4. William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience depicts how the process of religious conversion relates to individuals whose lives had been disintegrating. Wikipedia entry.

  5. Speaking of “Things Fall Apart,” the quote comes from William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (Note that, concerning Yeats, according to Auden, “Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry.”

    “Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

  6. Pingback: OODA Loop and How to Use Social Media For Business (Part 8)

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