Hot Wash Debrief: OODA + Cynefin

Last week, I was fortunate to attend Cognitive Edge's MasterClass exploring the links between Cynefin (a sense-making framework, born in the IT industry) and OODA (a modeling of decision-making, born in the US Air Force). If you don't know at least one (1) of these frameworks/models, there's a good chance you're going to be lost here... 

This post is my attempt to capture some of the smaller "events" within the workshop, and also to begin chunking together various lessons learned. My head is still spinning with new ideas, so I write this as almost a way to help myself analyze and synthesize what just happened....

Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia, USA


I've been a passionate student of both Cynefin and OODA, as well as US Air Force Colonel John Boyd (d. 1997), complexity, adaptability, and learning. With regards to the integration of Cynefin-OODA, I've been particularly watchful online of Brian Rivera's mashups in his blog. How he thinks and writes is very similar to how I believe my brain works. 

In July 2018, I was fortunate to attend the Cognitive Edge MasterClass on Cynefin and Theory of Constraints (TOC) in Chicago. The hometown location and discounted rate made this financially possible for me. This is where I first met Dave Snowden and Steve Holt in person, and experienced how these sorts of classes were moderated. I liked what I saw. 

When Snowden and Rivera announced their MasterClass, I really became interested. Through layers of good luck, I received a scholarship/sponsorship (from Nigel Thurlow) to attend. After some economy travel plans and vacation days from my full-time job...I was in Quantico, Virginia!


The group caravanned to Manassas National Battlefield Park. We hooked up with MAJ Don Vandergriff (US Army, ret) for a private group walking tour of this Civil War battlefield. I have been following, reading, and emailing with Don for years, on his approach to adaptability in the US Army. I had always assumed he was a legend; this trip confirmed that.

MAJ Vandergriff & Stonewall Jackson; Manassas VA

We talked about Mission Command, maneuver, logistics, military leadership, and roles of technology in war. What I learned, more than anything, was that my knowledge of the US Civil War is terrible.

We grabbed take-out lunch in town and came back to a picnic area in the battlefield. This is where the natural conversations between attendees really took off.


Class started with a video conference with Chet Richards. I've been reading Chet's blog Slightly East of New on John Boyd, complexity, OODA, and more for years. His relationship with Boyd gives Chet a unique perspective into his mind. "It's OK to be confused as long your enemy is more confused." I liked Chet's discussion on Toyota Production System - something I have no experience with or exposure to. I enjoyed the question: " How do you remove waste in the decision-making process?" It's something that isn't asked nearly enough. 

Next up was an in-person presentation by US Marine MAJ Ian Brown. Ian recently wrote a book, A New Conception of War: John Boyd, The US Marines, & Maneuver Warfare. (Ian sent me a copy of his book a couple weeks ago, but I have not yet read it.) Ian got into maneuver warfare and the moral aspects of war. Ian explained the three (3) necessary for change:
  1. a good idea,
  2. a fertile field,
  3. people.

Dave Snowden gave a presentation on cognitive diversity, Apex Predator theory, building up to Cynefin...which now has "Clear" as the domain originally labeled Simple, then changed to Obvious.

He also mapped a cartesian model with two (2) axes, that I hadn't seen before:
  • variety of response
  • variety of stimuli.
Various small groups were challenged to make connections between OODA and Cynefin. We used a lot of ritual dissent facilitation. The debates were intense. I got to work with folks in sales, military history, software design, domestic social programs, emergency medicine, and production. There was a lot of diversity in thought and experience!

The day's exercises were intense and, at times, difficult. But I mean difficult in a way where Dr Robert Bjork (UCLA) might call them "desirable difficulties" that require the learner to chew on ideas, topics, and material before actually learning something new.

We were dismissed for dinner, but class did not stop...

Brian Rivera had quietly and inconspicuously mapped out several drawings in the back of the room, identical to those his post The New Killer App: The OODA Loop and Cynefin Framework. Part I.   In what I thought was my walk out of the classroom, I made some casual supporting comment to Brian about his interpretation of these OODA "routes" across various "pathways." It turned into quite the discussion, debate, and clarification spanning quite a few probes, questions, and replies to each other.

Rivera & Hayes, after class (C Protzman)

It was the sort of human-to-human conversation that could never ever take place online, over the telephone, or even via video conference. It was something that just had to be in-person! I was so focused on the conversation with Brian that I didn't realize that a majority of the class attendees had gathered behind us to listen in.

Tuesday evening was capped off with dinner and drinks at a local Marine Corps and law enforcement hangout. The informal conversation and connections is what makes events like this so awesome!


I shuttled the first group to Marine Corps University (MCU). MAJ Brown hooked us up with a private viewing room in their archives to inspect Boyd's actual papers and personal book collection. At first glance I thought to myself, "This is it? Isn't there more?" In hindsight, it was more than our group of two (2) dozen could handle for those couple hours!

The John Boyd collection 

Andrew Childs (NYPD) and I paired up and grabbed up the box with "Patterns of Conflict." POC was a popular briefing that Boyd gave. It's an amazing collection of typed transparency slides.

Among the papers were rather lengthy critiques written and submitted to Boyd. One (1) such critique was thirteen (13) pages single-spaced typed. It attacked Boyd's research, his case studies, and ultimately his character. It was interesting how Boyd penciled-in responses in the margins of the if he were answering directly to the author himself.

Steve, Friso, Andrew, & Sonja inspecting the "Patterns of Conflict" box

I flipped through a handful of Boyd's personal books too. He had a unique style of marking them up. He underlined with ink and pencil, and often boxed-around individual lines of text, for half or more of pages at a time. He would cross out certain words. He used a lot of plus signs (+++++) at the tops or bottoms of pages. He made notations in margins and at top/bottom of pages, almost always in tough-to-read cursive.

The marks in the books seemed as though they were made by an obsessed mad man in a state of mania. Why box up or highlight 3/4 of an entire page? or an entire chapter?

Were these marks and notes made in a single reading? or on the second or third time through a book?

Brian Rivera had some nifty audio and video equipment to conduct impromptu interviews and "eavesdrop" on the conversations between attendees. ;)

Brian interviewing Dave on "How the Leopard Changed Its Spots" (C Halsey)

We shuttled back to the hotel classroom for some more integration of OODA and Cynefin. It was more small group work similar to the second half of Tuesday. This session, however, was less abstract and more concrete. It got into methods, practices, pathways, processes, behaviors, and functions.

This particular white-board has "linear Cynefin" across the top, with OODA down the side:

white-boarding OODA + Cynefin as a large group

I wasn't particular fond of this separation of OODA into four (4) rows as above. I see OODA in terms of pathways and routes, not O-O-D-A pieces. As such, this exercise did not resonate with me as much as the other exercises did. 

Hayes, in disagreement (C Halsey)
Class then shuttled back to Marine Corps University's auditorium for a panel through The Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and CreativityI was honored to be asked to speak on this panel, in front of US Marine Corps officers.  

I met up with a handful of the officers before the panel got seated. What I quickly learned was that they all were familiar with OODA, but none that I spoke with had heard of Cynefin. Luckily, they had Snowden himself as the headliner to explain it. 

Panel: Lou, Steve, Brian, Dave, Trent, Don (R Bromenschenkel)

If I've learned one (1) thing about giving presentations, it's to offer memorable imagery. That's why I continually talk about Slinkies, Russian dolls, magicians, Cavemen, bar fights, poker games, Bull Sharks, and other metaphors. I spared no opportunity to pull out this imagery during the panel:

Hayes, during MCU panel (S Blignaut)

Of course I wasn't going to leave the base until I found that glass display with Boyd's original drawing of the OODA Loop. It was tucked away, around a corner, out of view. We all took photos with it, like giddy little schoolgirls. 

Class was officially over.

The original drawing of OODA by Boyd, at Marine Corps University


One (1) thing that stood out: first responders in the group tended to think of OODA as more individual; others seemed to think of OODA more organizationally. When you look at it organizationally, you may increase the chances of cognitive diversity. When you look at it individually, you definitely increase the chances of implicit biases.

Many of the groups believed that Cynefin plays a role inside Orient phase, as if it further "operationalizes OODA." I agree, but put Cynefin more specifically inside the Analysis & Synthesis portion. A comment I kept making (both to myself and outloud):
"Cynefin requires consciousness to be put into play."
Applying Cynefin requires activation of intentional, conscious, explicit decision-making capacity. Conversely, OODA captures much of the sub-conscious or implicit, but also the conscious, rational, and creative.

In essence, Cynefin requires the Professor (System 2) to be awake in order to be used; OODA is at play whether conscious or not. (NOTE: I've written about the inability to "use" OODA elsewhere.)

As a police trainer, I have spent considerable time and effort studying how to purposely shove certain knowledge, skills, behaviors, and responses into my learners' subconsciousness. How can we put specific techniques into auto-pilot, thereby opening up mental bandwidth (ie: reducing cognitive load)?

An aspect that was only glossed-over was that of perceived discretionary time. Compressed time allowances can cause stress. Stress can negatively impact cognitive bandwidth - by way of shutting down the brain's analytical, rational, logical, and creative functions. If the brain loses this higher-order function, I argue it loses the ability to "use" Cynefin...or any other conscious thinking model/framework. 

The first responders (police; fire; paramedics) and military members in the class knew firsthand about the impact of stress and fear on human decision-making and performance. Several of the police officers talked about officer-involved shootings they'd been in, and described in detail the physiological and sensory perception adaptations that the human body undergoes. During a life-or-death situations, OODA is certainly at play; I doubt Cynefin can be. I wasn't convinced that the stress factor meant as much to the business folk in the classroom. 

During the workshop, my mind also drifted to learning, specifically decision and performance development. My background as a police firearms instructor has grown over the years to include: tactical decision games; incident command scenarios; report writing; investigative interviewing; supervision; crisis intervention; emotional intelligence; and more. 

A couple paragraphs above, I asked: How can we put specific techniques into auto-pilot, thereby opening up mental bandwidth (ie: reducing cognitive load)?  This is a learning issue. It's about exploiting the available research on learning to match up educational formats with the appropriate material, media, content, skills, capabilities, and objectives. 

First responders have been using scenario-based learning, reality-based training, sense-making drills, tactical decision games, case studies, red-teaming, and more for decades. These are formats that build experience, patterns, and mental models that are so vital in the Complex domain of Cynefin. In OODA terms, they artificially inflate and/or accelerate the Previous Experiences that are captured inside the Orient phase. (Whether those drills are based on reality or not will influence whether they are etching appropriate patterns or not!) 

A couple concepts that I would have like to have heard more often are: Orientation Asymmetry and Incestuous Amplification. Orientation Asymmetry is when there is a mismatch between two (2) mental models of two (2) actors inside an environment...or when a single actor's model is asymmetric with that of reality. Incestuous Amplification is where we see (or don't see!) what we expect to see or not see. While a natural shortcut for our mind, this can be a dangerous spiral into a more and more asymmetrical orientation. 

A group's Orientation Asymmetry (among its members) is not necessarily bad. It can mean cognitive diversity - which gives us multiple perspectives from which to view situations/challenges and interventions/solutions. But at the other end, it can mean a lack of chemistry - like that I've seen between detective partners who can finish each other's sentences and play off each other like jazz musicians.

The organizers Brian Rivera and Dave Snowden did not appear to come into the week with any sort of agenda to sell. They appeared authentic and as open as anyone else in the group, to learn from and connect things with those with different experiences in life. I never once felt manipulated or being sold a bill of goods, as I have in other workshops. (Don't get me wrong, Dave is still strong-willed! haha)

Lastly, my social media friggen BLEW UP last week with all the interest in this class. There was certainly a lot of digital drooling from those who could not attend. The social media energy carried over into the classroom, from wherever in the world it was being posted from! 


Overall, this workshop was AWESOME. It brought together a diverse group of complexity thinkers to seek out connections between two (2) of the prevailing complexity models/frameworks at work right now. But it broadened out beyond these two (2)...and let me see The Illinois Model in new light as well. 

I'm better off for having attended this workshop. My thoughts on Cynefin and OODA, and complexity in general, have matured and been refined. Some new terms that I will be adding to my vocabulary include: cognitive heuristics; implicit repertoire; agitprop (agitation-propaganda); anticipatory triggers. I found even more harmony between various concepts, theories, and models. 

I highly recommend attending a Cognitive Edge MasterClass if you can. They are pricey. They can be difficult to travel to. But they attract high-quality people who are there for the right reasons. Want to see who attended? This LinkedIn post tags most of the participants! These people allowed me to ask questions and share my own perspectives. It was such a respectful environment that allowed for healthy tension, disagreement, and opposition. 

Thank you to each and every attendee and organizer for allowing me into your space last week. And a special thanks again to Nigel Thurlow for the sponsorship. It's an experience I will always remember. 


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.


  1. Lou: Many thanks for posting a terrific accounting of the Masterclass. I was in Auckland NZ delivering an Adaptive Safety workshop so couldn't be there to partake in the exploratory learnings. Yes, CE masterclasses and retreats are pricey. In return, they are rewarding and unforgettable experiences.


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