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Take Control with John Boyd’s OODA Loop

Take Control with John Boyds OODA Loop

John Boyd’s OODA Loop deserves to be better known than it is. It is a simple and powerful model of the decision-making cycle. Consequently, Project Managers, Change Managers, and Risk Managers can apply it in a broad range of situations.

Likewise, it is also a useful model for time management, personal effectiveness, conflict, coaching, influence, and many other areas.

What is the OODA Loop?

The OODA Loop is a four step cycle, which then repeats itself.

John Boyd's OODA Loop

Observation

Lets start with Observation. The Observation step requires us to collect current information using all of our senses.

Orientation

We then Orient ourselves by analysing and synthesising the data into a model of reality. Then, we compare reality to whatever plan we already have. This lends us insight into our situation.

Decision

We must then make a Decision, determining how we will act.

Action

Action is the pursuit of your decision. Once you have made your decision, Boyd says act as quickly and effectively as you can.

Closing the OODA Loop

We cycle around the loop by Observing the outcomes from our Action, Orienting the outcomes to our intentions, revising our Decision, and taking our next Action. And so the OODA Loop continues.

Using Your OODA Loop to Gain Control

Boyd asserted that the faster you cycle around the OODA Loop, the greater your control over events. If you are:

  • competing against another person (conflict) or
  • organisation (negotiation), or you are
  • trying to overcome circumstances (project management)

… then by cycling at a rate that is faster than other people’s responses, or external events, you gain an advantage. Clearly, if you don’t Observe and Orient accurately, your Decision will be flawed. This is not about speed at any price, but about honing your acuity and analysis skills.

The Origins of the OODA Loop

Perhaps the reason for the model’s relative obscurity is its origin. John Boyd was a Colonel in the US Air Force. As a military strategist, he applied what he learned in Korea to develop the OODA Loop. Two other factors are that:

  1. Boyd’s original formulation was more complex than the version presented here
  2. Boyd never published any of his thinking – all we have are some 1970s view slides and some poor quality videos of Boyd speaking

The core concept of the OODA loop has been applied far beyond its origins. I have used the ideas widely. And I have seen it applied to other areas too: sports, manufacturing and corporate strategy.

Similar Models to the OODA Loop

Boyd’s OODA Loop has many close relations:

  • Project Managers’ monitor and control cycle
  • Trainers’ plan-do-review cycle
  • Deming’s plan-do-check-act (also called the Schewart Cycle)
  • Six Sigma’s define-measure-analyse-improve-control

All of them recognise one fundamental truth.

One intervention is rarely enough to effect the full change that you want.

Repeating the intervention may not be sufficient either. The decision cycle tells us to examine our world often and adjust our approach accordingly.

The OODA Loop and Coaching

This brings me to a last insight on the OODA Loop. It has an important place in workplace coaching.

All Project Managers will want to adopt some form of coaching approach to develop your people. Coaching can help with motivation, performance levels, and skills development.

The GROW Model (Goal-Reality-Options-Will) is one of the most widely adopted frameworks, best described in John Whitmore’s ‘Coaching for Performance‘. Whitmore identifies Awareness and Responsibility as the foundations of coaching. The OODA Loop is another powerful way of articulating the message that, to grow, we must be constantly aware of our environment and understand it, and we must take responsibility for what we will do, and then do it.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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