The OODA Loop: Why Winners Win and Losers Lose in the Game of Agility

What is OODA? Is it the same as PDCA? How can it help leaders win?

Source: Royalty-Free photo: Focused photo of F-16 fighter jet | PickPik

In the Korean war from 1950–53, American fighter pilots with their F86 Sabre jets routinely outmanoeuvred their North Korean and Chinese counterparts flying the Soviet-made MIG-15. By the end of the war, the F-86 pilots shot down 792 MIGs and lost only 78 Sabres. The victory-to-loss ratio was an astounding — 10:1.

Colonel John Boyd spent the next several decades trying to gain insights on this puzzling question — Why did the F86 fighter score such a better ratio against a supposedly superior opponent with much better speed, firepower and a narrower turn radius compared to the F-86?

Source: From Korean War To Data Science and Analytics — Sefik Ilkin Serengil (sefiks.com)

During his quest for answers, Boyd made several discoveries; the most notable would be the OODA loop — a model for decision-making in the face of uncertainty.

According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe–orient–decide–act. An entity (whether an individual or an organisation) that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby “get inside” the opponent’s decision cycle and gain the advantage. [Wikipedia]

Why Leaders need to understand OODA

Today more so than ever, leaders live in a highly unpredictable world often characterised by the acronym VUCA — volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. They face a challenging business environment threatened by geo-political uncertainties and technological advancements like the sentient Google AI. They are taking decisions in this rapidly evolving business landscape.

The OODA loop’s initial design described an individual decision-maker and focused on strategic military requirements. It further evolved to suit business and public sector operations.

One of Boyd’s colleagues, Harry Hillaker, describes in “John Boyd, USAF Retired, Father of the F16”:

The key is to obscure your intentions and make them unpredictable to your opponent while you simultaneously clarify his intentions. That is, operate at a faster tempo to generate rapidly changing conditions that inhibit your opponent from adapting or reacting to those changes and that suppress or destroy his awareness. Thus, a hodgepodge of confusion and disorder occur to cause him to over- or under-react to conditions or activities that appear to be uncertain, ambiguous, or incomprehensible. (source)

An excellent example of applying the OODA loop in a competitive business environment is Honda trying to overcome the challenge posed by Yamaha in the early 80s.

Honda, the “World’s Largest Motorcycle Manufacturer” at that time, countered Yamaha’s aggression by not building a bigger or grander factory or copying Yamaha’s approaches. Honda instead set the rules of the game by being far more agile and responsive to the market and competition. Honda launched 113 models to Yamaha’s 37. Honda did things differently.

They executed a much faster OODA cycle to seize the initiative from its competitor and fight the war on its terms. Honda ensured they kept launching new models adapted to their learning from users.

Decoding OODA

OODA is a four-step approach — Observe, Orient, Decide and Act.

It starts with observing and filtering available information, orienting to put that information in context to make the most appropriate decision and trigger the necessary action. OODA is not a single linear cycle but a recursive one. As more data becomes available and our actions trigger a response from the system around us, our understanding of the context evolves and influences our decisions.

Is OODA the same as PDCA?

PDCA — which stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act, is quite different from OODA. I have often heard several agilists talk about recursive PDCA cycles while describing iterative and incremental ways of working. SAFe describes it as a Plan-Do-Check-Adjust cycle. SAFe iterations that are fundamental building blocks of Agile development rely on full execution of the Plan-Do-Check-Adjust cycles as quickly as possible.

While PDCA and OODA are recursive, OODA puts decision-making at the core based on observing the context around to decide. In contrast, PDCA relies more on putting a hypothesis and evaluating the thesis with a plan and subsequent execution.

Is OODA more powerful than PDCA?

The big difference in both lies not so much in their theoretical constructs, which might sometimes seem similar, but in how I have seen leaders approach problem-solving.

Leaders face challenges of all shapes and size continuously. Leaders more oriented with the PDCA style of thinking jump directly to the planning stage based on preconceived notions and biases of the problem and the potential solution. These notions and biases are why we often see leaders pushing teams to adopt “best practices” from the leaders’ own experience. Those practices worked for them once but may or may not be relevant in the current context. Of course, the leaders are open to adapting and adjusting as things evolve, but their starting premise is often flawed. Before that realisation dawns, the ship is already in stormy waters. Out of the window goes your agility.

On the contrary, for leaders more oriented with OODA thinking, observing the context and orienting themselves to make the decisions is a critical first step. They would rarely assume the problem and use a variety of constructs like design thinking and others to figure out the problem first. It could be as simple as talking to people 2 or 3 levels down the hierarchy to get a perspective of the ground.

Agile and OODA

There is a fundamental challenge with the “implementation roadmaps” of many an agile transformation or any other strategic change initiative. They have planned it all, and the first step in these roadmaps is Go SAFe, Scrum, or Go XYZ. It is more about how we get the implementation rolling. Where is the stage where you listen to the field and figure out the challenges you are trying to solve?

With agile being declared the “new normal”, Leaders experience FOMO and rush to launch Scrum and SAFe transformations. Yet, the root cause of their struggles could be something else, like teams that don’t have good engineering skills. They spend tons of money and effort on getting the Scrum + Jira process right. Still, They pay no attention to ensuring the business figures what they want to build. The product backlog that feeds into Jira is rubbish. How do we expect to create good products or have agility?

This dichotomy applies to broader organisation-wide transformation decisions and also at the team and individual levels. The sprint planning discussion is not just about planning a bunch of stories but also learning from what happened in the previous sprint and adjusting our scope for this sprint accordingly. The OODA loop must continuously operate inside each of the Plan-Do-Check-Adjust steps, and that is when we can aspire for true agility.

Winners and Losers

While leaders may not realise it, I have found the following difference between leaders and organisations that win or lose at the game of agility:

  • Losers put a plan and have already painted a picture of the finish line. Winners know it’s a journey, and success will come along the way.
  • Losers expect specific outcomes as per their plan. Winners gear themselves up for the unexpected.
  • Losers focus on others’ definitions of success. Winners craft their definitions.

OODA is essentially the mindset that is open to learning from our environment. We live in complex environments today. An OODA mindset that relies more on observing the world around us and responding to an evolving context puts us on a better path toward discovering what works and what doesn’t. Winners get this simple fact more than losers helping them win in the game of agility.

The Wrap

PDCA and OODA go hand in hand. Before we set out to plan and jump into execution, let us spend the necessary time to observe and orient too. The OODA mindset is critical in today’s world, where we must make many high-stakes choices with limited information, and the consequences of failure are high. The OODA mindset helps us put our best foot forward and win in the game of agility.

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You might also want to read my book “Perspectives on Agility”, available on Amazon in print as well in Kindle format. Kindle Unlimited users read it for free. You might enjoy a quick summary of the book before you buy.

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