Learning From Military Strategist John Boyd

Today I am linking to my notes from the book, “Certain to Win” by Chet Richards. The book is about the teachings of the famous (military) strategist John Boyd. Boyd is well known for pioneering the concept of the OODA loop. The more time I have spent studying Boyd (and the OODA loop) the more I realize how relevant it is to knowledge work as well as all competitive endeavors. 

First, let’s define the OODA Loop:

The OODA loop has become an important concept in litigation, business and military strategy. According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. An entity (whether an individual or an organization) 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. 

Boyd developed the concept to explain how to direct one’s energies to defeat an adversary and survive. Boyd emphasized that “the loop” is actually a set of interacting loops that are to be kept in continuous operation during combat. He also indicated that the phase of the battle has an important bearing on the ideal allocation of one’s energies.

Boyd’s diagram shows that all decisions are based on observations of the evolving situation tempered with implicit filtering of the problem being addressed. These observations are the raw information on which decisions and actions are based. The observed information must be processed to orient it for further making a decision.

– Via Wikipedia

Take a look at a visual representation of the OODA Loop:

– Via Wikipedia Originally posted on Wiki Commons

Want more background information? Read this presentation (click here)

Introduction to the book:

“Boyd simply asked: “What does it take to win?”

“What does it take to win? This question occupies the rest of the book, which will base its answer on a concept known as agility, another word that has lost its original meaning through careless application. Boyd, however, used the term in a specific sense, to mean the ability to rapidly change one’s orientation—roughly, worldview—in response to what is happening in the external world.”

General Strategy:

“There is a school of strategy—it forms the ultimate foundation for this book—which teaches that the best strategy wins without ever engaging in battle at all.”

“Once one side considers abandoning the field, particularly if it loses the initiative, small setbacks can lead to big disasters, and collapse can occur quickly.”

“In particular, the winners were able to make things happen that their opponents may have anticipated, but not when their opponents might have expected. Our view of the world, our “orientation,” as Boyd called it, depends heavily on things happening close in time to when we expect them to happen.”

“Under stress, disoriented people become demoralized, frustrated, and panicked.”

“The essence of agility and of applying Boyd’s ideas to any form of competition is to keep one’s orientation well matched to the real world during times of ambiguity, confusion, and rapid change, when the natural tendency is to become disoriented.”

“Strategy itself begins where hard, provable techniques leave off.”

“People, ideas, and hardware—in that order!”

“If you can be modeled (“sand-tabled,” as Boyd referred to it) you aren’t using strategy at all, and you can be defeated.”

“The distinguishing characteristic of an effective focus is that all other activities of the organization must support it and that the people conducting these activities understand what the main effort is and know that they must support it.”

“The ability to rapidly shift the focus of one’s efforts is a key element in how a smaller force defeats a larger, since it enables the smaller force to create and exploit opportunities before the larger force can marshal reinforcements.”

“In any case, an arrogant disrespect for the opponent has proven fatal.”

“Boyd inferred that if you can do things before the other side reacts, you can greatly increase your chances of winning, and it doesn’t make much difference how big or how strong the other guy is.”

“In fact, speed increases momentum, which can make one more predictable”

“Ambiguity is a terrible thing, much more effective as a strategy than deception, with which it is often confused.There is no conflict, however, between ambiguity and deception, since the first provides an environment for generating the second.”

“However, the essential lesson of the decision and execution cycle is the absolute importance of generating tempo. Maintaining rapid decision and execution cycles-and thus rapid tempo of operations-requires that seniors and subordinates alike have an accurate image of the battlespace and a shared vision of what needs to be done. With this common perspective, commanders are able to experience superior situational awareness and make more effective decisions, enabling them to exercise initiative during combat.”

“Victory is achieved in the way of conflict by ascertaining the rhythm of each opponent, by attacking with a rhythm not anticipated by the opponent, and by the use of knowledge of the rhythm of the abstract.”

“Boyd’s metaphor of strategy as a mental tapestry, rather than a chart or map, suggests that at the level of individuals and small units, the action may seem confused and complex, but that when viewed in its whole, a pattern must emerge to accomplish a higher purpose”

“The basic idea is to start a number of things going and reinforce the ones that succeed. This seems reasonable, but a closer look at its strategic roots suggests that it is not enough.”

Strategy vs Planning:

“Strategy is a deliberate search for a plan of action that will develop a business’s competitive advantage and compound it.”

“Given where you are now and where you think you want to go, now, what can you do, now, to help you get there? I am going to draw a distinction between the two concepts, and consider a plan as something more specific than a strategy. A plan is an intention about how to get from where we are now to where we want to be.”

“To build a specific a plan, we have to make assumptions about what the future will bring.”

“As a general rule, it is not a good idea to bet the company on a single vision of the future.First, you will spend a lot of time trying to map out the future: “If this happens, I’ll do that.”

“It is also possible to have multiple plans operating at the same time, within an overall strategy. You can then reinforce the ones that succeed and cut off the ones that don’t. This is analogous to an important concept in maneuver warfare known as “multiple thrusts” that we will examine near the end of chapter Strategy, then, includes selecting the view of thefuture we want, creating devices to harmonize all the plans and actions designed to achieve that future, and on relatively rare occasions, shifting to an alternate future.”

A plan says, “Here’s what I intend to accomplish, here’s what I’ve got to work with, so here’s what I’m going to do.” Strategy can also ask, “Who said this is what I’ve got to work with? I can develop or buy new capabilities or partner with those who have them.”


“A goal is an intention at a point in time.”

“The point is that although goals are one way to focus people’s efforts, they should be used sparingly.”

“If you are going to use goals anyway, never impose them on someone else or on yourself without explaining where they came from and why they’re important.”

OODA Loop – Observe:

“Observe” means much more than “see.” “Absorb” might be more descriptive if it did not have a passive undertone. Go out and get all the information you can by whatever means possible is even closer.”

“How well your orientation matches the real world is largely a function of how well you observe, since in Boyd’s conception, “observe” is the only input from the outside. Anything that restricts the inflow of information or ideas can lead to mismatches (disorientations) between what you think is happening and what actually is and may also delay you from spotting (and so acting upon) these mismatches.”

“Since what you’re looking for is mismatches, a general rule is that bad news is the only kind that will do you any good. To thrive in any form of maneuver conflict, you must seek out and find data that don’t fit with your current worldview and you must do this while there is still time.”

Those who know the situation in the marketplace serve the role of spies for the leaders of modern companies. They will sometimes be bearers of bad news, and, if you follow the Sun Tzu tradition, they will bear this news to you while there is time to act.

It bears repeating that if you cannot or do not spot mismatches, and generally this means finding bad news, your orientation becomes detached from reality.

OODA Loop – Orient: 

“Orient is the key to the process.”

“Then, since decision and action flow from orientation, the ability to rapidly change one’s orientation, since it is orientation locking up under the stress of competition and conflict that causes OODA loops to slow and makes one predictable, rather than abrupt and unpredictable.”

“For an individual, though, if observe and orient were done well you just know what to do the vast majority of the time. Decision making can and should be implicit, and that quite often, orientation controls action directly without the need for explicit decisions at all.”

“Agility is the ability to move and adjust quickly and easily. It springs from trained and disciplined forces.”

“Agility is mental and physical.”

“As the battle progresses, the slower side’s orientation, its mental picture of what is happening, becomes less and less accurate. There is a well-known name for this detachment from reality that strikes the less “entropy.” The energy is still there, but it isn’t available for doing work. The insidious thing about entropy is that within a closed system, it always increases. In other words, closed systems run down.”

“The more often you’re sampling, that is, dropping balls and observing the results, the quicker you will be able to detect real movement by the mark.”

“Reorienting, which is the essence of agility, occurs when you interpret the data to conclude that you have a systemic bias or that the mark has moved..”

The main idea of appreciation is to learn what’s really going on in your organization without causing the organization to react to your observing.


“Leadership—implies the art of inspiring people to enthusiastically take action towards uncommon goals.”

“Your ultimate purpose is to survive in a threatening and confusing world. But survival per se will hardly arouse the passion and commitment you need to win. So winning requires more than the promise of survival. It must offer an idea of such power and appeal that people will, at times, neglect their other responsibilities and work nights and weekends and extend trips to make it happen.”

“What is needed is a vision rooted in human nature so noble, so attractive that it not only attracts the uncommitted and magnifies the spirit and strength of its adherents, but also undermines the dedication and determination of any competitors or adversaries. Moreover, such a unifying notion should be so compelling that it acts as a catalyst or beacon around which to evolve those qualities that permit a collective entity or organic whole to improve its stature in the scheme of things.”

“The idea is that not only does a compelling mission motivate and uplift employees, but it attracts and keeps customers and sometimes makes them fanatic adherents of the company.”

“This is the connotation of “survival on your own terms”—people don’t put in this amount effort and passion for somebody else’s terms. For this reason, the first task of strategy is to define and win agreement on what “your own terms” really means.”

Boyd observed that “appreciation includes the recognition of worth or value and the idea of clear perception . . . it is difficult to believe that leadership can even exist without appreciation.”


“…Substitute “the person who has the vision for what needs to be done” for “superior” and “a person whom he or she is going to ask to help accomplish it” for “subordinate.” It should be noted, though, that there are few examples of effective combat units that were participatory democracies.”

“Soldiers at all levels must be free to—must be required to—use their creativity, intelligence, and initiatives to work around the enemy’s weapons and generate and exploit opportunities.”

“You cannot, he admonishes, give in to the urge to check and control everybody. In the heat of battle, there isn’t time. You have to trust your soldiers and subordinate leaders to do the right thing under the stress of combat. But, and this is the key point, this trust cannot be wished for or assumed. It must be earned through training and working together.”

“While they were moving up, from squad leader to platoon leader and company commander, they generally stayed in their original units. All of the officers and sergeants shared a common background, knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and could communicate rapidly and accurately using very few words. Boyd concluded that to be most effective, training and shared experiences must expose the organization to more and more complex and dangerous situations so that people finally learn to trust each other in the confusion of conflict.”

“Once your team has achieved a high level of competence in performing individual and unit tasks, and where most communication is implicit and the need for written instructions is relatively rare, then you can start leading through missions—as opposed to by assigning tasks, for example.”

“Once your team has achieved a high level of competence in performing individual and unit tasks, and where most communication is implicit and the need for written instructions is relatively rare, then you can start leading through missions—as opposed to by assigning tasks, for example.”

A maneuver warfare military believes it is better to have high levels of initiative among subordinate officers, with a resultant rapid Boyd Cycle, even if the price is some mistakes.

“If we have built sufficient trust based on mutual experience, I know what you are capable of, and I trust you to do it if you agree to it. You trust me not to order you to do something that you cannot do or that will endanger you for no important strategic reason.”

“Although “mutual trust” gives us all a soft, warm feeling, how does it actually help win? Simply, it speeds execution of OODA loops. The reason? For starters, it permits implicit communication among team members, where very little needs to be written down.”

“Mutual trust / cohesion is unique among harmonizing agents in that it encourages individual initiative. This point is worth stressing because as we all know, there are ways to achieve, perhaps better would be “enforce,” a sort of harmony by eliminating initiative.”

“Another less egregious but more common way to destroy trust is to succumb to the temptation to control everything.”

“Boyd called this an “obsession for control,” and assigns it much of the blame for the bloodbaths that occurred from the mid-1800s to the end of WW I. Most people realize that over-control is the opposite of trust. It is impossible to overestimate the damage you can do to yourself through over-control. One of the tasks of senior managers is to spot this tendency and retrain or in the worst case remove the micromanager.”

“In fact, the whole notion that we can “control” other human beings is a fallacy. Psychologist Michael Popkin, founder of the highly successful “Active Parenting” program, calls it the “Paradox of Control: The more you try to control a teen, the less you can influence that teen.The reason? Control eventually leads to resistance, and resistance to rebellion.The more you try to control people, the less control you get.”

“The duty of senior managers is to design the garden, decide what they want to grow, and prepare the proper conditions. Obviously to do this well, they must be highly experienced gardeners, with a sure feel for the soil conditions, the nature of their plants, the climate, and the local rabbit population. Once conditions are right and seeds are in the ground, the plants grow themselves—bottom up, as Boyd used to emphasize. With seeds planted, and favorable climate and soil conditions, the “system” implements itself.”

Business & The OODA Loop:

“First, there is the Basic Rule of All Competition (BRAC): You are not smarter than either the customer or the competition. ”

“Managed structural changes that enabled their operations to execute their processes much faster.” Not only were their processes quicker, but Honda knew or learned how to exploit this advantage to achieve a decisive result in the marketplace. cycle time, to create opportunities in the marketplace and then provide products that customers wanted to buy more than they wanted those of the competition.”

“W. Edwards Deming, a quote from whom opened this chapter, recommended looking at the world in terms of “special” and “common” causes. If in your organization you have a small number of people making mistakes and performing poorly, it’s probably their fault. You should spend your time working with them, or transfer them to other jobs, or if neither of those options is feasible, remove them. If it’s much more than 10%, though, then it’s the system’s fault and you should put your effort into fixing the system and quit blaming or exhorting the people in it.”

“What all of this suggests is that individual brilliance alone cannot account for strategies where smaller, less technologically advanced forces win, since, following Deming, such effects should only account for something less than 10% of battles. The study cited above suggested that the true number is over 25%, more than can be ascribed to numbers or technology.”

“Lind notes, and this is especially relevant to business, that the focus is often a concept rather than a unit, and so shifting it requires a mental as well as a physical change.”

“Quick OODA loops will allow you to better track your environment. In particular, you will be able to tuck-in tighter under your customers’ wings, and more rapidly discover their needs and wants and respond to them. An agile company can also track changes in customer preferences better than its slower competitors, since it will bring in data from the world.”

“Under this paradigm, there is always a lag: the customer has needs and some time later, you discover them. To turn this into an active tool of strategy, you should ask yourself where these needs and wants come from. Too often they represent successful attempts by competitors to shape the marketplace—customers “want” something because a competitor has offered it.”

“There is a principle of strategy that says that when your strategies start becoming aggradations, where each new feature is intended to correct problems found with earlier versions, then it’s time to throw the whole thing out and start over.”

Intuition, Self Discipline, & Practice:

“Literally a fingertip feeling or sensation, it is usually translated as “intuitive skill or knowledge.” It provides its owner an uncanny insight into confusing and chaotic situations and is often described as the “ability to feel the battle.” Zen and other oriental philosophies talk at great length about intuitive knowledge, but they also stress that it comes through years of experience and self-discipline.”

“The end result is to become so good at your profession that it really does seem magical, which, of course, is what real magic”

“The trick is to expand our envelope of intuitive capabilities so that the vast majority of the time, we don’t need to utilize a slower explicit decision process.”

“This level of skill can be deceiving when seen by others (again, think of a stage magician), because people who have it often don’t look like they’re working harder or doing things faster. They just, as Musashi insisted, get to a useful result sooner.”

“Now you are ready to begin acquiring a true intuitive competence. How? By using these skills in ever more complex circumstances so that you build an intuitive feel for situations where there is a lot of stress and the answers are not clear. We do this through incessant practice, incorporating exposure to an ever-widening variety of new and challenging types of situations, and with feedback from knowledgeable individuals (otherwise we’re practicing our mistakes.)”

“Musashi insisted that practice imitate the real world as closely as possible. The Zen masters of Musashi’s age emphasized the ultimate role of objective reality, and much of their practice was designed to minimize the possibility that one’s existing orientation would cloud one’s perception—the risk in that “implicit guidance and control” link from orientation back to observation”

The End.

Read The book Certain To Win on Amazon

About Miguel Barbosa

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27. March 2014 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Psychology & Sociology, Wisdom Seeking | Leave a comment

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