Imagine for a second you’re a fighter pilot in the Korean War. You’re in an American made jet, the F-86 Sabre, and head to head is you’re oponent who’s in the faster, nimbler, more maneuverable, all around better Soviet made MiG-15. Definitely not a pretty situation to be in. Yet, this is what American fighter jet pilots faced in combat during the Korean War. The result? The Americans destroyed the MiG-15s in air-to-air combat at a ratio of TEN to ONE.
How could a less capable piece of tech overcome a more advanced piece of tech? Was it training? Was it luck? Was it sheer determination? These were some of the questions I think that were going through John Boyd’s mind as he began to develop the foundation for his Observe, Orient, Decide, Act loop – the OODA loop.
Developed by a distinguished US Air Force Colonel, John Boyd, the OODA loop has become an instrumental approach to make decisive and agile decisions. While it’s origins lay in military applications the OODA loop is utilized in other areas including business, litigation, law enforcement, manufacturing, and software development.
A Simple Breakdown of OODA
Observe – Viewing the situation clearly as it plays out and not only from your personal perspective, but from a point of view outside of yourself to view the situation as a whole.
Orient – Aligning or adjusting your position, but also considering and viewing different possible outcomes. Those outcomes according to Boyd are shaped by cultural traditions, genetic heritage, analysis & synthesis, new information, and previous experiences.
Decide – Creating a hypothesis based on the information from observing and orienting and deciding to act on that hypothesis
Act – Taking action and tesing the hypothesis made in the Decide phase. After acting, one must repeat the loop by starting to Observe once again.
The Most Crucial Aspect in the OODA Loop
It turns out American fighter pilots were so successful in Korea (and later in Vietnam – with the American F-4 vs the Soviet MiG 21), because of their ability to view better and react faster than the Soviet pilots. It was a combination of having a bubble canopy design (for better visibility) and fully hydraulically powered flight controls (for quicker reaction). The Soviet’s jet had a canopy with multiple panes (and struts that blocked the pilots view) as well as only hydraulically assisted controls (meaning they weren’t able to react as fast as the American pilots).
Because the Americans were able to observe the actions of their enemy better than their enemy and were equiped to act faster once they saw what was happening, they were able to conquer the skies in the Korean War.
In business this can be a crucial competitive advantage (think product launches in new tech, or services). The companies that can quickly adapt and change to the ever changing business environment find the most success. The concept of being agile or nimble comes to mind. I won’t go too indepth, but you can definitely see how the OODA loop could apply. You can also definitely see (as hindsight is 20/20) once highly successful companies that didn’t apply the OODA loop (Kodak, Blockbuster, MySpace, Sears, Radio Shack, Borders, Toys R Us, GM – to name a few).
I was thinking about speed chess and how players of speed/blitz chess are employing OODA loop, but at a much more rapid level. Both sides are on equal footing in terms of observing the board, but after the first move is made you can see the rest of the OODA loop unfold, and with speed chess this all done with the added pressure of a timer. If you haven’t seen this in action see this fun video of Magnus Carlsen (World Chess Champion) play Chess Hustlers in New York.