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. So, this article is part of our series of essential models for Project Managers.
In this article, we will look at:
This is a simple model. But it is super-powerful, so let’s dive straight in!
The OODA Loop is a four-step cycle, which then repeats itself.
This sequence of steps can help you take control of any situation. Indeed, Colonel John Boyd, who developed the model, asserted that, if you can cycle around the loop faster than events are occurring, you gain an advantage. Events seem to slow down, leaving you with the feeling of being able to dictate what will happen next.
We can represent the OODA Loop with a simple diagram…
So, let’s review the four steps…
Let’s start with Observation. The Observation step requires us to collect current information using all of our senses. In the project context, this is about both:
As Project Managers, we need to sharpen our perceptions to take in more data, and to do so with greater accuracy.
We then Orient ourselves by analyzing and synthesizing the data into a model of reality. This is what Boyd describes as ‘sense-making’; we are making sense of what is happening. And we do so in the context of what we are aiming to achieve.
Then, in Project Management, we compare the reality we have observed, and our understanding of it, to whatever plan we already have. This lends us insight into our situation. Now we can start to form options for how to act.
Decision-making is a big part of Project Management. What makes it effective are three things:
So, we must then make a Decision, determining how we will act.
We have two great resources for you, on decision-making:
Action is the pursuit of your decision. Once you have made your decision, Boyd says act as quickly and effectively as you can.
We cycle around the loop by:
And so the OODA Loop continues.
Boyd asserted that the faster you cycle around the OODA Loop, the greater your control over events. If you are:
… 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.
Of course, you will make the wrong decisions sometimes. The success-determining element is the speed with which you recognize your mistake, understand it, and make corrections.
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:
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.
Boyd’s OODA Loop has many close relations:
All of them recognize 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.
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 a coaching approach to develop their people. Coaching can help with motivation, performance levels, and skills development. See our feature article, How Coaching Skills will Make You a Better Project Leader.
The GROW Model (Goal-Reality-Options-Will) is one of the most widely adopted frameworks, best described in John Whitmore’s ‘Coaching for Performance‘. It is the model we describe in our own article.
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.
Please do tell us about your experience with this – or any similar model you have worked with.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 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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