Get Off The X (and other OODA Loop lessons from fighter pilots)

The concept of the O-O-D-A Loop (pronounced like Good-a, but without the G) was created by Colonel John Boyd of the United States Air Force. Colonel Boyd flew during the Korean War, wrote tactics for the USAF Weapons School, and later served in the Pentagon doing mathematical analysis. But he really made a name for himself as an influential military strategist.

The O-O-D-A Loop was Colonel Boyd’s model for explaining decision making and was first used to better understand how fighter pilots could more consistently win their dogfights by being more agile than their opponents. Agility, to Colonel Boyd, was more important than technology or strength. The applications for brand marketing are extensive.

First, let’s break down what the O-O-D-A Loop stands for:

  • Observe – collecting information and data from the outside environment.
  • Orient – analyzing the collected data to look for differences from expectations and to (re)develop one’s perspective.
  • Decide – choose a path forward.
  • Act – execute that path forward.

It is important to note that the O-O-D-A loop is not a continuous linear process. Feedback is gained each step of the way. When the feedback implies that something has changed that may alter the relevance and applicability of any of the previous steps, the mind begins the process again.

While the writing and research on the O-O-D-A loop has been extensive, I’m going to simplify things here for our purposes. Essentially, there are two ways you can leverage the O-O-D-A loop to win versus your competitors:

1 – Disrupt (and slow down) your competitor’s O-O-D-A Loop.

2 – Speed up your own O-O-D-A Loop.

Disrupt Your Competitor’s O-O-D-A Loop

The core of the model is that we make decisions based on our determined observations and orientation. The more things stay static in that there is no need to re-observe or re-orient, the quicker we can get to the decision phase.

For example, think about a game of football. If your opponent is running with the ball straight down the field, your mind can easily plot a path that gets you to him before he reaches the end zone. The math is pretty simple, and it just becomes about pure speed and strength. You decide where you are going, and you act on that immediately.

However, if the opponent does something other than runs in a straight line…say he makes a stutter step one way or another or makes a sharp cut…your mind now has to re-start the O-O-D-A loop. You have observed something different than expected and now you must re-orient before deciding the path to take.

The sheer fact that you are forced to react to your opponent’s decision puts you at a disadvantage. The more different the information you are receiving is than what you expected, the more time it takes you to process it and re-determine the correct decision (much less act on it).

In classic cartoons (think The Roadrunner or Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry), it was not uncommon for a character to come across a big X on the ground that said, “Stand Here,” only to have some very large hazard (think boulder, train, etc…) interrupt their way in a very painful way. What if they had stepped left or right, though? What if they had gotten off the X? The predetermined decision of where and how to attack them would have been off because the inputs would have changed.

The goal for you and your brand marketers, then, is to constantly be thinking about how you can get off the X. How can you disrupt your competitor’s thinking to force them to be slower to act? How can you introduce new and unexpected information that sends them back to the start of their O-O-D-A loop over and over?

There are several ways you can do this:

1 – Be Unpredictable. This doesn’t mean that you need to be wild or un-structured. But you can build a level of unpredictability to your strategy. Professional poker players do this to win. While an amateur may always bet big and go all-in when they get pocket Aces, the pro will break up their strategy to remain unpredictable. 70% of the time they may lead in with a big bet. But 30% of the time, they may play their Aces like they are holding nothing at all.

In this way, they APPEAR to be unstructured, but they are actually quite the opposite. In fact, the APPEARANCE of unpredictability is often enough to slow your opponent down. Just the idea that what they are observing may not be reality forces them to consider more options and take more time in the orientation phase – delaying the time to decision and action.

2 – Disrupt. According to Brand ManageCamp 2018 marketing conference speaker Soren Kaplan, we have two choices – Disrupt or Be Disrupted. One involves a proactive stance – the other reactive. Your choice on this matter also dictates where your competition will be. If you choose to actively disrupt your brand and your category, you will force your competitor to re-observe and re-orient. You will no longer be standing where they expected you to be. You will be off the X.

3 – Diversify. Fighting a battle on more than one front forces your competition to process more information, react to more stimuli, consider more potential decisions. The more they consider, the slower they are to act. And, by the time they do act, you will likely have changed the landscape once more!

4 – Take Risks. A willingness to take risks is, in and of itself, a way of being unpredictable. Risk-aversion leads you down predictable paths. Paths that can easily be mapped and planned for by your competition. Risk-acceptance greatly increases the number of potential paths, thus increasing the number of paths your competition must consider… While they are considering, though, you are doing!

Keep in mind, the purpose of doing all these things is to remain unpredictable in a strategic way. You have to balance all of this with a constant eye towards your customer/consumer. The risk is that too much non-strategic unpredictability could create a less than ideal brand experience for your customer. To re-visit the football analogy, the player with the ball is still, predictably, trying to make his way to the end zone. He is just, ideally, doing it in a way that disrupts his opponent’s O-O-D-A Loop.

Speed Up Your Own O-O-D-A Loop

The other side of the O-O-D-A Loop coin is your own focus on building agility. All other things equal, the quicker you can get your organization through the O-O-D-A loop, the quicker you can act and impact change.

As Colonel Boyd asserted, agility often beats raw power. It is certainly true in fighter jets – smaller, faster, more agile aircraft can often outmaneuver, outperform, and outfight larger, more powerful opponents. It is no different in business.

Startups are notoriously lean and fast. Without the burden of excess layers or history, they are able to move quickly and decisively. As they grow up and get bigger, though, things typically slow down. More people are involved, the stakes seem higher, there is more information to process, there is the pull of momentum.

The goal, then, has to be to figure out ways to observe, orient, and decide quicker and more effectively. There are several ways to accomplish this:

1 – Constantly Look For What Is Different. Remember, every time something changes, the O-O-D-A loop restarts. However, what if you don’t recognize that something has changed until some time has passed? All that time you spent going down the decision phase is now wasted – because the world has changed. Hence, the quicker you can determine something has changed, the quicker you can re-orient and get to the right decision and action. Observation has to be a continual activity. Remember, upfront we discussed the fact that the O-O-D-A loop is not linear. Through each phase, you must have a process for providing feedback and identifying DIFFERENCES TO EXPECTATIONS. Whomever identifies those quicker will get to the right decision quicker.

2 – Train To Win. The other way the O-O-D-A loop is non-linear is that you can SKIP steps. Think about when you are driving your car. When you see the car in front of you light up its break lights, you automatically begin pressing on your own breaks. You are so familiar with what those lights mean, that you do not have to orient yourself in order to make a decision and act. Your brain can skip the orientation step due to the familiarity of the situation.

The goal in business is to create as many of those situations as possible. Train for common occurrences in a way that allows you to skip steps and move directly to action. Of course, you still have to continually observe and be able to pick up on things that don’t fit with your expectations. Going back to the brake lights, what if the car in front of you has broken break lights? If you are not observing, you may not catch the fact that the car is actually slowing down but not displaying the red lights. In that case, if you are paying attention, your mind will pick up on the inconsistency and it will adjust your response accordingly. But it will be slower than when you were able to skip the step – because now you have to re-orient based on the new observation.

The brake lights coming is a KNOWN stimulus. You already know what you are going to do and can thus move quickly. UNKNOWN stimulus forces you to re-orient. There are more factors to consider and more possible decisions, so it takes longer. Focus on increasing your database of KNOWN vs. UNKNOWN stimulus while maintaining the ability to quickly identify unexpected differences and you will optimize your O-O-D-A loop speed.

3 – Simplify Your Response Choices. In 1952 a researcher named William Edmund Hick determined that the more choices a person has, the longer it takes them to make a decision. A sample experiment goes something like this – put your finger on a light switch and then see how long it takes you to flip it when a specified stimulus is provided (say, a clap). Now, put a second decision in the mix. If it is just 1 clap, you flip the switch and put your hand on your head. If it is 2 claps, you flip the switch and put your hand on your hip. Notice, the first decision has not changed. Regardless of the number of claps, you still have to flip the light switch. However, the introduction of a second decision will actually slow down the time it takes you to complete the first one. You will flip that switch slower because you of the extra complexity of the entire task. Every choice you add in the process will slow the choices before them as well.

The implication is that you should focus on narrowing and simplifying the choices available for consideration. The simpler the response, the quicker it can be made. That doesn’t mean that you should only think simplistically. It does mean that you should look to eliminate unwarranted complexity…

4 – Flatten Layers and Reduce Fear. The most common bottleneck in the O-O-D-A loop for larger organizations is in the Decision phase. The more people that get involved, the more approvals that must be obtained, the more fear there is of failure, the slower the decisions are made. To speed up the process, you have to move decision-making ability lower in the hierarchy. You have to give people permission to make decisions and remove the fear that unsuccessful ones will be punished. You have to value decisiveness as much, if not more than success. You have to think like a startup.

Look for ways to infuse startup mentality into your organization. Celebrate creativity and initiative. Even reward failures. If you can speed up the decision process, you can outmaneuver your competition. Even if it means you fail faster, you will likely still be ahead.

So, there you have it. 8 things you can start doing right now to leverage the O-O-D-A Loop for agility and success.

Now have some fun!

Related Posts


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *