The OODA Loop
The Basic Idea
Information is today’s hottest commodity – but as with other commodities, its value is unlocked when it is fed as an input into something else.
Take your car as an example. Gasoline is an input to cars. While the quality of the inputs we use is important (lower-grade fuel is worse for your engine than premium-grade fuel), equally important is the quality of the framework used to process the information (a higher-end car provides greater fuel efficiency than a lower-end car). And this extends far beyond our technology. When we try to make a decision – which cereal to buy or which job to accept – information is our input.
Many information-processing frameworks exist, and many of them follow some form of ‘action-learning cycle’ (ALC). In a generic ALC, you develop a plan, take action, reflect on that action, and synthesize learning. The lessons learned through the cycle then feed into the plan for the next cycle. The idea of an ALC closely resembles the scientific method of developing a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis, analysing the results of the test, and reporting the findings, which then inform further scientific studies.
Effective information processing is critical to success in a competitive environment. We often refer to the type of information used in such decision-making contexts as ‘intelligence’ (think of military intelligence and pre-game scouting reports in sports). Competitive environments are often characterised as ‘zero-sum games’ wherein one player’s success comes at the expense of another player’s failure. For example, you may have been up for a promotion against your co-worker, a scenario in which only one of you can succeed.
Unlike an independent learning exercise or a science experiment, decision-making in a competitive environment often faces interference from competitive rivals. That is, you must make decisions that will help you succeed at your competitor’s expense, in spite of your competitors’ efforts to succeed at your expense. Maybe both you and your co-worker take on extra assignments to remind your boss what a hard and generous worker you are. What kind of information-processing framework can be used when you are engaged in a ‘zero-sum game’ with an opponent?
One information-processing framework for ‘zero-sum game’ environments was developed in the 1970s by American Air Force Colonel and military strategist John Boyd. Commonly known as ‘the OODA Loop’ or ‘the Boyd Cycle,’ this information-processing framework is often presented as a simple cycle of four states: Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action.
Although this simple loop is the most common representation of the OODA Loop, the framework as Boyd envisioned is a more nuanced and iterative process, as shown in the following figure:
Figure 4: Detailed OODA Loop2
The second representation of the OODA Loop appears more complex than the first, but the basic idea is the same in both representations. When entering into a competition, a competitive actor should first observe her opponent and the surrounding environment. Taking her observations as one set of inputs, and her ‘repertoire’ of lessons from previous action as another set of inputs, she should then orient herself by narrowing down the set of strategic options with which she might try to overcome her opponent. Having oriented herself, she can then decide on a course of action, and implement that action to the best of her ability.There are two major differences between the two representations of the OODA Loop:
- The first difference is that the simple representation is a single loop, whereas the more complex version consists of a collection of loops.
Boyd didn’t imagine that people transition through each state of the OODA Loop in consecutive order. Rather, he described an iterative process in which information might travel through multiple feedback loops throughout the course of a decision-making process.
In fact, the notion that there are multiple OODA Loops is a critical feature of Boyd’s theory because it allows for an information processing system to be disrupted, as we will discuss momentarily. Depending on the circumstances of the competitive encounter, a competitor may rely more or less heavily on different sources of information flowing through different feedback loops. If she finds herself in a situation she has experienced before, she may decide to rely on the ‘implicit guidance and control’ (IG&C) of her repertoire of prior experience. If, on the other hand, she finds herself in a relatively unfamiliar situation, she may rely more heavily on the new inputs from real-time observation of her opponent and surroundings. In this way, different feedback loops may be activated under different circumstances.
- The second major difference between the two representations of the OODA Loop is that the Orientation state is centralized in the more complex representation.
Although some feedback loop configurations skip the Decision or Action states, every possible feedback loop flows through the Orientation state. This is not a visual coincidence – Boyd believed that Orientation was central to the information-processing system. A simple definition of Orientation might be ‘your perception of reality.’ As the schematic shows, Boyd understood Orientation to be a function of a variety of factors including culture, heritage, prior experience, and psychophysical ability. In the OODA Loop framework, an individual’s Orientation forms the core of the ‘cognitive engine’ that drives the OODA Loop.
Boyd believed that the key to success in competitive environments lay in a competitor’s ability to ‘operate inside an opponent’s OODA loops.’ This is essentially Boyd’s definition of what we commonly refer to as ‘getting in your opponent’s head.’ Although he never formally described what this would entail, he described the process as the ability to ‘Observe, orient, decide and act more inconspicuously, more quickly, and with more irregularity’ than the opponent.2 He believed that this type of action would produce a disorienting effect on the opponent, thereby disrupting the Orientation state of the opponent’s OODA Loop and preventing the opponent from taking effective action.5
Theory, meet practice
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Mental model: a ‘short-cut’ framework you use to construct meaning from experience.
Repertoire: the collection of mental models you’ve accumulated throughout your life.
Observation: the state in which you use your senses to absorb new information.
Orientation: the state in which you process your observations and ‘repertoire’ of experiences to shape your perception of the world.
Decision: the state in which you select a course of action from a set of options.
Action: the state in which you implement a selected course of action.
The OODA Loop is an abstract framework, but it originated from the very practical example of fighter pilot combat. As a Colonel in the US Air Force, Boyd sought to understand why his F-86 fighter pilots had fared so well against MiG fighters in the Korean War. Through his observations, Boyd determined that 1) F-86 planes gave pilots a wider field of vision than MiG planes, and 2) the F-86 plane’s hydraulic controls allowed for quicker maneuvering than the MiG plane.1 From these two technical observations, Boyd articulated a general framework explaining how pilots could gain a competitive advantage over their adversaries in the context of ‘fast-moving conflict.’7 This initial analysis laid the groundwork for the OODA Loop as it is known today.
Boyd laid out his early thinking on observation, orientation, deciding, and action in a 1976 essay titled Destruction and Creation. He went on to share the ideas in a series of public presentations which he delivered over the course of several years. The concept of an OODA Loop was first introduced in his 1986 presentation Patterns of Conflict, however his most formal definition of the OODA Loop as a theory was presented in his 1995 presentation The Essence of Winning and Losing.
Colonel John Boyd
The American Air Force Colonel and military strategist was the mind behind the OODA Loop concept. His ideas were inspired by the writing of strategists, scientists, and philosophers, as well as his own research into the sources of success in aerial combat situations.
The OODA Loop theory was never rigorously tested using scientific methods and was therefore never published as an academic theory, but it has nonetheless achieved widespread adoption and use in the military and business worlds. The OODA Loop reportedly influenced America’s strategy in the two Gulf Wars and provided the foundation for a number of military theories related to human decision-making, command and control structures, and information warfare.1 Boyd’s ideas experienced a resurgence in popularity post-911 as military and quasi-military organizations sought new strategies for combatting crime and terrorism.7
In crafting his OODA Loop theory, Boyd borrowed ideas from a wide range of disciplines including military strategy, mathematics, physics, and philosophy. His multidisciplinary approach may have helped his ideas permeate into a variety of disciplines. A 2004 study by William Angerman explored the diffusion and evolution of the OODA Loop concept within the academic literature. This study concludes that OODA Loop ideas are prevalent in studies that fall within three thematic areas: information, systems, and processes. Angerman proposes a conceptual framework for thinking about OODA Loops which is summed up in three main ideas:
- Information is the fuel for the OODA Loop
- Processing is the activity of the OODA Loop
- A System (e.g. a human, a computer) is the host of the OODA Loop
In an effort to informally validate Boyd’s ideas, Angerman compares the OODA Loop to ‘the unified theory of information,’ which is a more rigorously validated theory describing three main forms of information processing: cognition, communication, and cooperation. Angerman finds that the OODA Loop has been used in the literature to describe all three types of system information processing, suggesting that the OODA Loop framework can, at the very least, provide a conceptual framework to complement more rigorously-validated theories for understanding system information processing.
Perhaps the theory’s popularity can be attributed to its simplicity and intuitiveness; Strategist Colin Gray commented that ‘the OODA loop may appear too humble to merit categorization as a grand theory, but… It has an elegant simplicity, an extensive domain of applicability, and contains a high quality of insight about strategic essentials.’3 In other words, the OODA Loop is useful because it distills the fundamentals principles of competitive strategy and presents them in a widely accessible format.
Despite its widespread influence, Boyd’s theory has not been universally accepted. One reason for this is that the OODA Loop is often presented in the oversimplified representation shown in Figure 3 above. Jim Storr, a British Officer, criticized this oversimplified understanding of the OODA Loop’: ‘Observation, orientation and action are continuous processes, and decisions are made occasionally in consequence of them. There is no OODA loop. The idea of getting inside the enemy decision cycle is deeply flawed.’4 This misinterpretation of the OODA Loop may be a result of Boyd’s failure to clearly and comprehensively document his ideas in a written document. Aside from the essay Destruction and Creation, the only media through which Boyd disseminated his ideas was his presentations. The other major reason why Boyd’s ideas may not have achieved a broader appeal is that he was a vocal critic of the US Military. This may have led some within the military to dismiss his ideas on the basis of personal differences rather than the merit of the ideas.6
In his 2016 paper Tightening the OODA Loop: Police Militarization, Race, and Algorithmic Surveillance, Jeffrey Vagle suggests that the OODA Loop theory inspired the revolution of information-centric surveillance and policing strategies. When fed with input information based on race or class, the OODA Loop can reinforce bias in automated decision systems built upon ‘predictive policing’ practices. The potential for bias to accumulate through reinforcing feedback loops in information process systems isn’t unique to the OODA Loop. However, the consequences of bias in an OODA Loop applied in a militarized context may be relatively more severe than the consequences of bias in a less conflict-ridden context.
Although never formally introduced into the academic literature as a stand-alone theory, the OODA Loop remains an influential idea in a range of disciplines related to information processing systems. It has been particularly influential in the design of information-centric surveillance and command and control structures in military and quasi-military contexts. It provides a useful framework for designing strategies to overcome opponents in competitive environments. The theory is often misunderstood because it is often presented in an over-simplified fashion. However, in its full form the theory can complement more rigorously-validated theories to model decision-making in competitive environments.
- Angerman, W. (2004). Coming Full Circle with Boyd’s OODA Loop Ideas: An Analysis of Innovation Diffusion and Evolution. Theses and Dissertations. 4085. https://scholar.afit.edu/etd/4085?utm_source=scholar.afit.edu%2Fetd%2F4085&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages
- Boyd, J.R. (1995). The Essence of Winning and Losing. https://cdn.white.is/KB/boyd/boyd–the-essence-of-winning-and-losing–slides–richards-spinney.pdf
- Gray, C.S. (1999). Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press), 91.
- Osinga, F.P.B. (2005). Science, strategy and war: The strategic theory of John Boyd. (Doctoral dissertation). Delft (The Netherlands): Eburon Academic Publishers.
- Richards, C. (2020). Boyd’s OODA Loop. Necesse 2020, Vol 5, Issue 1, 142-165. https://fhs.brage.unit.no/fhs-xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/2683228/Boyds%20OODA%20Loop%20Necesse%20vol%205%20nr%201.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
- Rule, J.N. (2013). A Symbiotic Relationship: The OODA Loop, Intuition, and Strategic Thought. United States Army War College. https://scrummaster.dk/lib/AgileLeanLibrary/Topics/OODALoop/OODAASymbioticRelationship.pdf
- Vagle, J.L. (2016). Tightening the OODA Loop: Police Militarization, Race, and Algorithmic Surveillance, 22 MICH. J. RACE & L. 101. https://repository.law.umich.edu/mjrl/vol22/iss1/4?utm_source=repository.law.umich.edu%2Fmjrl%2Fvol22%2Fiss1%2F4&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages