The OODA Loop

February 8, 2016

Over the last couple of months I have been writing about the science of change. It was science that can help you create the change you desire. What I was really sharing was how to goal set and create new habits.

For change to occur successfully, one must develop a process; a strategic and effective playbook for consistent achievement. Often times the changes we seek are based on our beliefs about the world, our own skills and about how things work.  It is important to remember that we see the world not as it is, but as we are.  What I mean is we are all limited in our abilities at times because we lack knowledge, motivation, wisdom, skill sets or confidence.

At Pro-Motion we often talk about how we can move from thinking about science to doing science. I read a book a few years ago by author Daniel Pink called, To Sell is Human.  It is a business book about how to improve your ability to sell.  Most of us are uncomfortable with the concept of selling because our beliefs about sales and selling create the image of the “used car salesman”. He points out that selling is something we learn and do from a young age. Think of yourself as a young child trying to get your mom to let you stay up later. You sell her on all the reasons she should let you stay up. I’m writing this piece to sell you on a new idea. The same is true about science. I am writing about using a scientific principle here that will help you create better results. It really isn’t complicated. Thinking like a scientist means observing, making sense of the observations and then taking action.

Think of your five senses. Each one is geared to bring specific information to the brain or body. Sight, sound, touch, taste, feel are all sensations. What is most important is what those sensations mean to us. Perception is about meaning. We develop perception through comparing input from our receptors with our past experiences. Our past experiences help create what we might call constructs, or mental models about what things mean. These models are simply our way of looking at and understanding the world around us. The famed motivational author Wayne Dyer calls them memes. Memes are to the mind what genes are to the body.  We

often make excuses about our poor health, stress, unhappiness, or lack of success on our families and our backgrounds. According to Richard Brodie, in his book Virus of the Mind, a meme is a thought, belief or attitude in your mind that you got from someone else. Once a meme is in your mind, it can and will influence your behavior.

Let me give you a model of how this works. I see, hear, taste, touch or feel something. As the information comes to my brain, I automatically filter out certain parts of the experience. I then compare the information against my prior experiences (thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes) and make assumptions about what the information means. Based on these assumptions I draw conclusions from the information and based on how it fits my beliefs I take action. My actions create results which I then compare to my prior observations. This is a classic example of feedback. This process is how mental models or beliefs are built.

John Boyd is considered one of the greatest military strategists in American history. He wrote a book called “Aerial Attack Study” in the early 60’s which created a playbook like process for air combat. It was a revolutionary achievement. Boyd created a blueprint for combat that forever changed the way the military approached warfare. He called the process the “OODA loop”. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. In four words he was able to illustrate how our brains work and created a process for organizing information into a system that allows you to accomplish your goals faster, more consistently, and more successfully.

OODA is a method for learning. It is a learning system that can help you deal with uncertainty and develop new abilities in the face of it. We have all had times in our lives when we fail to get the results we want. The failure is met with the common encouragement that we have to try harder. We think that it is a matter of willpower. Stephen Covey, the famed business leader, used the analogy of a General leading his troops through a dense jungle. For days he uses his machete to cut through the thick jungle vegetation, cutting a path toward their goal. One day he sends his navigator up a palm tree to see what kind of progress they are making.  Once up in the tree, the navigator looks around and then yells down to his commander, “wrong jungle.” John Boyd’s insight was that we often are faced with new uncertainties and yet rely on our old ways to try and get things done. The outcome is doomed from the start. The connections and insights that can be gleaned from using the OODA loop create a new way to find not only the right tools, but the right jungle to use them in.

The first stage of the OODA loop is observation. It requires open observation of our circumstances, the environments we live and work in and the results we get. It is looking inside and outside. It is seeing things in a new light. Observation requires you to keep track of your goal status. Think of the things you need to go on a journey: a destination, a map, a GPS and ultimately a way to get there.

From a big picture strategic level, say, running a successful business, observation will require you to keep track of things like gross revenue, expenses, and profit. These can be considered lagging indicators. It is crucial that a business look at larger trends that may or may not affect the bottom line. Reading trade journals or blogs related to your business should be part of your regular observations, as well as simply talking to other business owners in not only your own industry but also those that affect yours. These are called leading indicators. Looking forward and creating strategies and processes that, when implemented today, will change the bottom line tomorrow.

When you combine observations with new and different ways of seeing things you create a process that leads to new mental models. This can create incredible breakthrough moments when you have the sense that you’re, "seeing things for the first time."

It is in this phase of the loop where the rubber hits the road. When your orient, your sensed bring in information and your brain begins to make sense of what the information means. The mental models you develop are used to decide on appropriate actions based on the information you receive. The big question is if you keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result, how do you change the orientation phase so that you see things in a new way? It is a must that you learn to break down your mental models and piece them back together to create new perspectives.

The key to expertise in orientation is gaining knowledge in areas you currently don't have. Think of the skill of mountaineering. If you were to go backpacking for the first time in a wilderness region your ability to orientate would depend a great deal on your ability to use a map and compass. To use a compass you have to understand how it is constructed and how it works and understand the four basic directions (N,S, E, W) and how they relate to certain numbers on a 360 degree scale. One of the most important uses of a compass is taking and following a bearing (a direction from one spot to the spot you want to go to). Without the knowledge of how to use the compass by aligning the direction of travel arrow and the orienting arrow properly, you will not be able to orient. In this example, gaining new knowledge significantly enhances your orientation skills and allows you to find your way.

After observing the situation (Observation) and using your mind to assess what it means (Orienting) you move to the next step...decision. This is where you decide among possible outcomes what to do. You might relate this to making a mental list of the pros and cons. Or you might think of this as applying a decisional balance sheet where you make a decision list based on the pros of: staying with the same behavior vs. making a new decision. And you make a list based on the cons of: staying with the same behavior or making a new decision. Using your mental models, Boyd called this step a hypothesis. When you decide, you're simply moving forward with your best hypothesis. Once you decide, it is important to measure your results.

Action is how we find out if our mental models and orientation works. This is where the "rubber meets the road." Taking action creates change. Change is something you can measure. Did you get the results you wanted? The results you get create the results that allow you to test the hypothesis you made above. Here is where you become a scientist; you’ll continually test your results and refine your approach. As Osinga notes in Science, Strategy, and War, our actions “feed back into the systems as validity checks on the correctness and adequacy of the existing orientation patterns.” If we succeed, we strengthen the validity of our OODA loop. If we don't, we use the data to start the Loop again using our new data to help us "fail forward." With action, you create results which allow you to measure results vs. expectations.

The OODA loop is a way of making what usually occurs unconsciously in our brains as we observe and orient a conscious process. By making it conscious and visible, Boyd offers up an incredible strategic tool to help you achieve better.

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