When Teaching the OODA Loop is a Waste of Time

Let me start off with what might be a controversial statement:
No one can "use" the OODA Loop. 
Whether one has knowledge or understanding of US Air Force Colonel John Boyd's Observe-Orient-Decide-Act cycle or not...well...matters not. OODA is part of our natural human "operating system;" we experience it regardless of our awareness or consciousness of it.

From birth to death, we live our entire lives perpetually "corkscrewing" through OODA. We see, feel, taste, hear, smell things. We make sense of it (the best we can!). We make decisions. We learn new (whether right or wrong!) things. We repeat. Over....and over....and over again. 

We don't consciously choose whether this cycle happens. It just does.

"Growing Adaptive Thinking" seminar; May 2017.

Life continues down the axis of time, identified by the white stick in the above photograph. Increments of time are fixed. The blue Slinky winds around the axis, representing one of two things: change and mental processing. When the Slinky is compressed, it equates to a faster rate of change  -- more change per unit of time.  When the Slinky is stretched out, change is occurring more slowly. Conversely, it can represent rate of mental processing -- ability to process information in each unit of time. (Maybe we should think of it as two intertwined Slinkies - one representing change; one representing mental processing...each twisting at different and inconsistent rates.) 

When the rate of change exceeds the rate at which we can process that change, we experience stress. Stress is when demands exceed capabilities. Success occurs when we can accurately process change at a rate that meets or exceeds the rate of the change. Think of it as an adequate supply of brainpower to accommodate the volume, intensity, and velocity of change. 

We should desire our brains to cycle through our OODA Loops more times per unit of time. Or at least more times than the "Slinky of Change" cycles though it!  

But it's also more than pure speed. We have to be accurate. What do I mean by accuracy? 

Our mental models, hypotheses, theories, expectations, predictions, and assumptions need to be as close to reality as possible. It's ensuring that what we "reasonably believe to be" approaches and harmonizes with "factual correctness." It's converging on a point where what we think is what actually is. "Orientation Asymmetry" is the term we use to describe the situations when our beliefs don't match up with reality.

But back to my opening statement:
No one can "use" the OODA Loop. 
I don't care how much you've studied John Boyd and his work. The knowledge of OODA does not make your brain corkscrew any faster...nor more accurately....nor make you a better decision maker. 

OODA does not tell us where or how to look so our heuristics, patterns, schema, or biases are appropriate. John Boyd left that up to each of us, in whatever industry, business, sport, hobby, environment, or situation we find ourselves.

Are we wasting our time teaching "end users" about the "operating system" running behind the scenes? Whether consciously as The Professor or subconsciously as The Caveman, we are corkscrewing through time; the OODA Loop does not have an ON-OFF switch. So why bother?

Should we be spending our efforts on ensuring our learners, workers, and teammates are:
  • growing a curiosity so assumptions and predictions are accurate?
  • assuming according to best information available?
  • experiencing simulations based on realistic aspects of frequency and intensity?
  • influencing or manipulating time and the rate of change?
  • researching the interplay and relationships between variables?
  • refining models as new information is collected?
  • verifying beliefs are in harmony with reality?
  • reflecting on feedback?
  • hunting for contextually-significant, reliable data or information?
  • connecting ideas, things, and people?
  • making sense of the situation?
  • predicting and forecasting accordingly?
  • reconciling conflicting data, stimulus, observations?
  • experimenting and probing with workable interventions? 
  • studying historical cases and situations?
  • building new tools (physical, mental, emotional) to apply in the environment?
None of these above questions actually require an understanding of OODA...even though they can all be accounted for in the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act framework. 

What if, instead of teaching OODA, we began addressing the above list of questions in our training and education programs? Could we design better development programs for our people?

Would this give our people the mindset and capabilities to make better decisions - those which are both faster and more accurate

Would this allow their Slinky of brainpower to compress and corkscrew at a faster rate (both good!), with less Orientation Asymmetry?

The tale of John Boyd is freaking awesome. The imagery of fighter pilots in dogfights is filled with drama and emotion. But once the stories are over....what are we leaving our audience and learners with to truly make better decisions in their lives? 

I'm of the belief now that I can influence my "end user" learners' mental processing (in terms of velocity and accuracy) without ever uttering the term OODA Loop again. I'm equally convinced that I can develop the trainers under my supervision to become better teachers/moderators without them having an understanding of OODA. 

Do not confuse my argument as a bashing of OODA or Boyd; I find extreme value in both the man and his theories. But OODA's power comes from its generalized, abstract, adaptable, universal, and rather empty shell. Unless we're hanging the right questions on that framework, OODA just slowly spins without traction. The quality of decisions and performance does not improve. 

So unless we're specifically addressing the above bulleted questions (in whatever industry, business, sport, hobby, environment, or situation we find ourselves), we are wasting our time.

And a part of me hopes this blog disrupts your OODA Loop.


I've added an OODA resources & links post to my website. Hopefully, the resources within will give you a better understanding of John Boyd's study, language, and theory. 



Rundown: Growing Adaptive Thinking is my personal review of a 3-day workshop that Thom Dworak & I moderate for police trainers, using the above questions to provoke change in law enforcement training.

COMPLEXIFY: To Fix the Perversion of Over-Simlification is my blog on how police trainers have bastardized OODA into something too simple.

The Routine Traffic Stop: Why There is Such a Thing & Cops Should Embrace the Term is my blog on how we need to understand how expectations and changes in our environment.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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