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