Observation is the first step.
Has it ever struck you just how many military terms have become everyday terms in business-speak? As well as "fighting off threats" or "engaging in a price war," we talk about "gathering intelligence," "making a pre-emptive strike," and even trying to "out-maneuver" the competition.
War and business are often compared and contrasted. And it's fun to read books like The Art of War, written in 6th Century China by Sun Tzu, and to think about how these can be applied to business strategy!
So, when former US Air Force Colonel John Boyd developed his model for decision-making in air combat, its potential application to business soon became apparent.
Boyd developed his model after analyzing the success of the American F-86 fighter plane compared with that of the Soviet MIG-15. Although the MIG could climb and turn better, the American plane won more battles because, according to Boyd, the pilot's field of vision was far superior.
This improved field of vision gave the pilot a clear competitive advantage, as it meant he could assess the situation better and faster than his opponent. As a result, he could out-maneuver the enemy pilot, who would be put off-balance, wouldn't know what to expect, and would start making mistakes.
Success in business often comes from being one step ahead of the competition and, at the same time, being prepared to react to what they do. With global, real-time communication, ongoing rapid improvements in information technology, and economic turbulence, we all need to keep updating and revising our strategies to keep pace with a changing environment.
See the similarities with Boyd's observations? Brought together in his model, they can hold a useful lesson for modern business.
Called the OODA Loop, the model outlines a four-point decision loop that supports quick, effective and proactive decision-making. The four stages are:
You continue to cycle through the OODA Loop (see figure 1, below) by observing the results of your actions, seeing whether you've achieved the results you intended, reviewing and revising your initial decision, and moving to your next action.
Figure 1 – The OODA Loop Sequence
Observing and orienting correctly are key to a successful decision. If these steps are flawed, they'll lead you to a flawed decision, and a flawed subsequent action. So while speed is important, so too is improving your analytical skills and being able to see what's really happening.
Let's look more closely at what each stage involves:
At this initial point in the loop, you should be on the look-out for new information, and need to be aware of unfolding circumstances. The more information you can take in here, the more accurate your perception will be. Like an F-86 pilot with a wide field of vision, you want to capture as much incoming data as possible. The kind of questions you need to be asking are:
One of the main problems with decision-making comes at the Orient stage: we all view events in a way that's filtered through our own experiences and perceptions. Boyd identified five main influences:
Orientation is essentially how you interpret a situation. This then leads directly to your decision.
The argument here is that by becoming more aware of your perceptions, and by speeding up your ability to orient to reality, you can move through the decision loop quickly and effectively. The quicker you understand what's going on, the better. And if you can make sense of the situation and the environment around you faster than your competition, you'll have an advantage.
And it's important to remember that you're constantly re-orienting. As new information comes in at the Observe stage, you need to process it quickly and revise your orientation accordingly.
Decisions are really your best guesses, based on the observations you've made and the orientation you're using. As such, they should be considered to be fluid works-in-progress. As you keep on cycling through the OODA Loop, and new suggestions keep arriving, these can trigger changes to your decisions and subsequent actions – essentially, you're learning as you continue to cycle through the steps. The results of your learning are brought in during the Orient phase, which in turn influences the rest of the decision making process.
The Act stage is where you implement your decision. You then cycle back to the Observe stage, as you judge the effects of your action. This is where actions influence the rest of the cycle, and it's important to keep learning from what you, and your opponents, are doing.
The OODA Loop isn't meant to be a static, linear "do this, then this, then this" type model: it needs to be a smoother, more continual process. With this approach, the faster you can move through each stage the better. In fact, if you were to sit down and map out each step, your decisions would likely slow down instead of speed up.
The goal of the model is to increase the speed with which you orient and reorient based on new information coming in. You want to be able to make a smooth and direct transition between what you observe, how you interpret it, and what you do about it.
When you make these transitions rapidly, you're in a position to be proactive, and you can take advantage of opportunities your competition isn't even aware of yet. Boyd calls this "operating within your opponent's OODA Loop." Here, your competitor is moving too slowly and simply reacting to environmental changes. By contrast, you're working on the offensive, making strikes and forcing them to react to you.
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