Business agility, fighter pilot style

In the late 1950s, John Boyd had a standing bet with any pilot who arrived at the Air Force Fighter Weapons School outside Las Vegas: meet Boyd, a school instructor, in the air at 30,000 feet, get on Boyd’s “six,” and in forty seconds or less, Boyd would turn the tables on you. For a cocky fighter pilot, the challenge was irresistible. Many tried, but Boyd never lost the bet.
The repeatability of the whole exercise surprised nobody more than Boyd himself. Why did he always win? Was it just natural ability or was it a skill that could be taught to others? He spent the remainder of his life answering those questions and in the process, he created an analytic framework for thinking about the nature of adversarial conflict and answered the question, “What is agility?
These days, agility is all the rage in business discussions, particularly in information technology circles, but our understanding of the word is shallow. Consequently, we have little idea how we might increase it systematically. We’re left with a vague notion that agile companies are somehow “faster” than others, and the sense that fast is good. Boyd can help us break through the mental logjam.

The OODA loop

After years of thinking about the nature of conflict, Boyd finally arrived at a model for how humans engage in any activity, his famed OODA Loop. The OODA Loop describes how to make decisions and act on them using a four-stage model: Observation, Orientation (perhaps better labeled Interpretation), Decision, and Action.

The OODA Loop applies both to individuals and organizations.
At the individual level, you might observe the reaction of both a customer and your boss during a new product planning discussion. You would orient on that information (interpret it) using your previous work experience and the opinion of an external market analyst.
At the organizational level, observations might be conducted with focus groups and market research surveys. Orientations might then be conducted by a strategy group, taking into account the corporate skill set, product position, and market competition.
The decision and action steps could be small (develop a feature enhancement) or large (create a new business unit). The OODA Loop works equally well for each of these situations at the appropriate scale.

Agility, OODA loop style

If Boyd had only gone that far, we might never be studying the OODA Loop today. On the surface, the OODA Loop is a simple, codified decision-making process, like many before it. Boyd’s genius lay in thinking about what happens when you push the OODA Loop to the max. Boyd identified two important characteristics of how the OODA Loop operates in the real world:

  • Tempo: In an aerial dogfight, a fighter pilot has to make decisions in fractions of a second. But Boyd noticed that there is a huge advantage in making decisions even faster than your adversary. With increased tempo, the adversary is kept in a position of always reacting to whatever you did previously, just as you start to do something new.
  • Fast Transients: Boyd also saw that agility is composed of more than rapid decision-making. During a dogfight, Boyd found that wild, unexpected maneuvers (“fast transients”) could disorient his adversaries. When you act outside the standard set of expected responses, your adversary is surprised and left wondering what you might be trying to do. This slows him down and causes him to question his strategy and tactics.

To consistently win the fight, you need to create a fast-changing, unpredictable environment for your adversary. Just as your adversary thinks he understands what you are doing, you want to change the environment in an unpredictable way. The result is to sow confusion and disorder within his own decision-making process.
This is particularly true if your adversary is an organization rather than a single individual. Confronted with a rapidly-changing, unpredictable environment, a large organization will start infighting, as multiple individuals generate conflicting orientations, decisions, and actions, even from the identical observations. Consequently, the adversary’s OODA Loop will operate at an even slower tempo as he tries to resolve the internal conflicts. This, in turn, compounds your advantage. Ultimately, infighting can lead to the adversary’s complete self-destruction as his OODA Loop “locks up” and he cannot react to the environment any longer. He’s paralyzed and you fully control the situation.

Organizational implementation

So, decide quickly, execute quickly and whenever possible do something unexpected. That’s simple enough, but your success or failure will still depend on your implementation of these ideas. Remember that your adversary is reading this article, too, so you’ll want to create the fastest OODA loops possible and eliminate as much internal conflict possible. How can you best accomplish this? There are two critical steps that you need to take:

  • Small Loops: First, create small OODA loops. As you might expect, the more people involved with any of the processing steps in the OODA Loop, the slower the loop will operate. Throw 50 people into a room to analyze your market research data, and you’re bound to create an argument. If you reduce the number to five people, you’ll likely end up with a smaller argument and a quicker resolution. Reduce the number to one and you’ll have no argument, but you’ll increase the possibility of interpretation mistakes.
    Thus, decentralize your decision-making and execution with smaller teams, each going after smaller objectives. Some of those teams will misfire and fail, but many won’t, and by using smaller teams, you increase the organizational tempo. Further, with more teams, you’ll generate more unexpected ideas (fast transients), leading to greater confusion of your adversary.
  • Communication of High-Level Intent: With a shift toward distributed decision-making, you risk chaos. To prevent that from happening, structure the organization with two levels. A small team at the top needs to make broad, strategic decisions and then communicate that high level intent to execution teams that in turn drive the tactics for how to realize those objectives.
    For instance, the decision to invest broadly into a new market must be made at a high level since it will require a significant amount of organizational resources, but the details for exactly how the resources will be allocated and what projects will be run needs to be pushed down the organization. Many organizations do this today, but most have far too many levels of hierarchy in the middle, increasing the bureaucracy and diluting the results.

Boyd has given us one of the most powerful analytic frameworks for understanding adversarial combat. Whether you’re a fighter pilot, a CEO, or an IT manager, you can apply the OODA Loop to your work. You’ll move faster and win more often.
Dave Roberts is SVP of Strategy and Evangelism at ServiceMesh. He blogs here, and tweets as @sandhillstrat.