COMPLEXIFY: To Fix the Perversion of Over-Simplification

It wasn't until I read my second book about US Air Force Colonel John Boyd's research and study that I came to appreciate both the simplicity and complexity of his work. At the same time, I realized I had previously been duped by those who first explained a highly over-condensed version of Boyd's Observe-Orient-Decide-Act cycle.

This blog begins my apology to my students for wasting their time with fruitless explanations of glass cockpit canopies.

It would be quite difficult to find a police officer in America who hasn't at least heard of the "OODA Loop." The story is probably much of the same: an Air Force trainer John Boyd taught his pilots about the decision-making cycle of Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action. In aerial dogfights, the pilot who more quickly cycles through the repeated phases of the OODA Loop wins!

In policing, most officers have probably learned of the OODA Loop from a firearm instructor who applies it to gunfighting:

  1. OBSERVE: the suspect pull a weapon,
  2. ORIENT: to the surroundings,
  3. DECIDE: to use deadly force,
  4. ACT: pull the pistol and fire.
The followup to the above scenario is an explanation of how an officer's movement during the encounter causes the suspect to observe that change, requiring a re-orientation of the situation, etc. etc., slowing down his decision-making cycle, putting the suspect at a disadvantage.

It's a tale I've heard a hundred times. And it's simple: Observe-Orient-Decide-Act.

Maybe too simple.

My skepticism kicked in. I had always thought we, as police firearms trainers, were ignoring some critical components to decision-making during deadly force incidents. I was also confused about why this theory wasn't being applied to all the other sorts of police incidents that it could. Then I read Frans P.B. Osinga's Science, Strategy, and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, and confirmed those suspicions. I learned Boyd's theory was based very little off military maneuvers (only a speck on flying combat airplanes!), and surprisingly more on the survival and adaptations of cultures, organisms, and atomic particles.

The above diagram is one of Boyd's original slides, from the many presentations he gave on his research and theories. It's quite a departure from the over-simplified version of Observe-Orient-Decide-Act that I had been fed by my trainers. Even in its seemingly cluttered form, it's highly the point it can be applied to virtually anything.

My critique may come as a surprise, as I am an outspoken, staunch advocate of simplification, universality, and generalism. However, it is possible to boil ideas down too far, to the point of being near-worthless.

This is a squad room scribble of mine. In a convoluted sense of humor, I used a mix of real and made-up math symbols to convey a message about the factors that are missing in the OODA Loop, specific to law enforcement. It's a satirical poke at our innate human ability to over-complicate everything under the sun, but also a genuine attempt to include neglected (yet vital) details:

  1. OBSERVE: situational awareness; data collection; pattern recognition; anomalies; environmental feedback.
  2. ORIENT: contextual filters; risk analysis; non-linear mental processing (according to The Illinois Model perhaps?); understanding legal restrictions, agency policy, and community expectations; anticipating consequences/results.
  3. DECIDE: balancing an option's timeliness and accuracy.
  4. ACT: implementing the decision, keeping mind that action cannot be confused with motion, speed, or movement (but do not confuse indecisiveness or reluctance with purposeful delay or inactivity).

There will inevitably be critics who will argue the above details unnecessarily complicate the clean beauty of Boyd's OODA Loop...especially at the ORIENT phase. I argue not.

For a police officer to ignore aspects of law, policy, and community support is reckless; yet that's exactly what the over-simplified, perverted version of OODA has done! It somehow was bastardized into a "do-it-to-them-before-they-do-it-to-you" mindset. (Isn't it that attitude that might be the root cause of so much recent distrust, hatred, and violence against law enforcement?) We in police training must re-invent John Boyd's OODA Loop to account for the complexities of our industry.

The concept of the OODA Loop is being applied to a much broader audience than military pilots and police officers. It's a theory that has found its way into sales, marketing, product development, games, medicine, sports, killing zombies, engineering, financial investment planning...everywhere! We must acknowledge that each industry, field, or organization has different: 
  • medium by which it sees changes or information;
  • methods to analyze their environments or situations;
  • allowances or standards for timeliness or precision;
  • demonstrations and execution of action.
The answer for a useful depiction of Colonel Boyd's research lays within finding a balance. Understanding the hidden details, and how to simplify them, is what makes us professionals, teachers, and leaders. When we realize something has become too simple, we have to complexify it back to usefulness.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance, productivity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr


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