Thinking in OODA Loops

I’ve been meaning to turn my OODA loop workshop (which I’ve done formally/informally for corporate audiences for 5+ years) into an online course for years, but never got around to it. So I decided to just publish the main slide deck.

This deck is 72 slides, and takes me about 2 hours to cover. It actually began as an informal talk using index cards at the 2012 Boyd and Beyond conference at Quantico, to a hardcore Boydian crowd, so it’s survived that vetting.

The two times I’ve done the full, day-long formal version for large groups, I’ve paired a morning presentation/Q&A session with an afternoon of small group exercises applying the ideas to specific problems the group is facing. More commonly, I tend to just share the deck with consulting clients who want to apply OODA to their leadership challenges. We discuss 1:1 after they’ve reviewed it, and begin applying it in our work together.

In the spirit of John Boyd, whose OG briefing slides are freely available on the web (highly recommended), I’m releasing these slides publicly without any specified licenses, restrictions, or guarantees. There’s a lot of random google images and screenshots from documents in the slides, so use at your own risk.

Feel free to use these slides as part of your own efforts to introduce others to OODA thinking, including as part of paid courses. You can also modify/augment/remix them as you like. Attribution appreciated, but not expected.

Read on, for some notes/guidance on how to design a workshop incorporating this material.

What follows assumes some familiarity with both OODA and related material, as well as some experience organizing workshops.

Notes on the Slides

A few notes that may help with either self-study or presentation to a group:

  • The opening slides (1-17) lay out a somewhat opinionated philosophy framing of OODA loops as I understand them, including some connections to my own pet subjects of temporality and serendipity/zemblanity. You may want to augment/replace with your own gloss on the overall thing, but I think my frame is actually pretty good. I landed on it after years of trying out different ways of conveying the essence.
  • The core slides (18-61) focus on what I consider the soul of OODA, developing the intuitions/pattern recognition necessary to “get inside the OODA loop” of another entity (an adversary you are competing with, an ally you want to support, a market or other larger emergent system you want to “hack”). I get at this by going through a dozen varied and general examples which illustrate key aspects of OODA phenomenology. From each, I draw 1-2 lessons in the form of fortune-cookie heuristics. These are consolidated summarized towards the end. When presenting this to a specific group, I usually have extra examples relevant to the industry or company. If you use these slides for a group, I suggest adding in some of your own examples inspired by my general ones. This will also be a test of whether you’ve actually grokked the material.
  • The closing slides 62-72 focus on the OODA diagram itself, and a different way of drawing it that I prefer, focused on teasing out the subtleties of “orientation” as a pivotal (heh!) element. The big goal of this session is to try and counterprogram people’s natural tendency to use OODA as a cookbook formula or process template, instead of what I think is the right way to use it — as a sort of mandala/mindfulness aid to keep your decision-making creatively and imaginatively aware and attuned to the environment, while also maintaining a metacognitive awareness of, and fluidity in, your orientation.
  • Alongside my own material and Boyd’s own briefings, I usually recommend 4 books to people:

Suggested Workshop Design

If you choose to use these slides, either by themselves or alongside other materials, in a course on OODA thinking or something like a leadership strategy retreat, I strongly suggest adding a small-group session on applying the ideas on the same day.

A good agenda for a full-blown day-long OODA workshop would be as follows:

  1. Opening keynote by a senior leader presenting a state of play/strategic situation overview for the organization
  2. A guest talk by some outside expert on some topic or trend relevant to the organization, or by a practitioner in a strategy domain like military, sports, or film-making
  3. This slide deck, presented by someone who has spent time with Boydian thinking
  4. Lunch
  5. Small group sessions working on specific problems as described in the next section
  6. Closing session with breakout group report-backs and a town-hall discussion
  7. Follow-up sessions for the working groups in the weeks/months

If you want to add a day or two, to broaden the workshop to include other modules that harmonize well with OODA, some material to consider:

  1. Clayton Christensen disruption theory
  2. Michael Porter 5-forces theory
  3. Geoffrey Moore, Crossing the Chasm/Dealing with Darwin theories
  4. Wardley mapping
  5. Scenario planning
  6. Systems thinking (I have some slides you might like for that)
  7. Chaos/complexity theory
  8. Nassim Taleb’s works
  9. Critical path/Theory of Constraints (PERT/CPM) ideas, for eg. using Eli Goldratt’s The Goal, or Gene Kim’s The Phoenix Project
  10. Creative/artistic sessions, but ideally related to the group’s actual purpose, not random things like painting or music

I would not include lean theories personally (either OG manufacturing/Toyota version or lean startup version) — they are a sort of derived/simplified form of OODA, and will just add confusion. Do either OODA or Lean, not both.

My candid opinion is that “lean” is much weaker material than OODA, even though historically there’s been some co-evolution between the two in the 80s. There’s bits and pieces you can incorporate in passing though. I especially like Andon-cord thinking and switching from a mean-time-between-failures orientation to a mean-time-to-recovery orientation, which aligns well with OODA fast-transients thinking. But overall, I don’t like the frame, or the emphasis on efficiency/leanness, or the tendency towards “Scientific Method!™” cargo-culting . It encourages you to turn OODA into a “trial-and-error agility formula” to execute.

I have a lot of alternative material based on fat thinking which I’ve presented once, but it’s not really in teachable form yet, and might never be.

I would also not include other older military-inspired material (Sun Tzu’s, Musashi, Clausewitz), unless of course it’s a military audience. Outside of the military world, this stuff is not really that directly useful, tends to make the workshop seem superficial, and bring all the annoying armchair military larpers out of the woodwork.

Keep the primary focus firmly on the actual domain of concern. A guest talk on an actual military campaign or case study might serve as a nice complement though. Just don’t get into the theory of warfare. It’s a very specialized and difficult domain, and general lay audiences who think they are competent to discuss it generally aren’t.

Small Group Sessions

Here’s one way to structure the small group session that I’ve tried. It works very well if you put in the pre-work:

  1. Find a respected veteran/leader in the organization with known strong strategic intuitions about the organization or industry (this could be you). Often this person is someone like a VP or higher leader, and usually someone with a strong tastes and opinions, as well as an impressive track record of being right. This should be a single person with both detailed understanding of the domain, and a strong sense of the big picture. Do not look for a committee or group. Look for a senior leader with skin in the game, in a line function like engineering, ops, sales, marketing, or finance. My advice is to avoid leaders from staff functions. It’s not impossible to find natural OODA-thinkers in those domains, but it’s pretty rare.
  2. Work with this individual to identify a handful of critical current problems that could use a strategic breakthrough. These should be defined as time-sensitive problems or “situations,” for example, “Deal with the supply chain uncertainties affecting our West Coast plants.” It will take some brainstorming and iteration to identify the right set of problems. Do not settle for placeholder stubs like “Improve our marketing” or ceremonial goals like “Become #1 in our industry.” You want things that actually look like problems that people have real emotions and anxieties about. You want to identify 1 problem for every 6-8 people who might participate in your training. So if you’re doing this for 30 people, aim to identify about 4-5 problems.
  3. Carefully compose the participant group for the workshop. This is probably the single most important design decision. You want a good mix of senior leaders able to take decisions and prioritize, as well as a bunch of mid-level leaders/individual contributors and a sprinkling of creative wildcard type people. Do not be lazy about this. Do not simply invite everybody above a certain rank or grade. Do not make it either a status game or random. Signal clearly that the invitees constitute people thought to be capable of contributing to solving the problems being workshopped. Do not allow irrelevant people to FOMO in.
  4. Pre-compose the breakout session small groups and match them to the problems. You want 6-8 people per problem. The set should include “insiders” who understand the problem well but may be stuck (eg. your supply chain manager for a supply chain problem), as well as people from adjacent functions, and unrelated people who can provide a good outside perspective.
  5. For each group, appoint a leader beforehand, and have them identify and send out relevant pre-reads to their groups.
  6. For each group, also appoint an executive sponsor, typically a senior leader, who will be the “customer” for the small group’s work.
  7. For the working session, give the groups a couple of hours to work through their problem. Their goal will be to generate an initial creative attack on the problem, and report back to the full group (via a lightning talk for example) for comments and feedback, from both the executive sponsor and the full group.
  8. Schedule one or more follow-up working sessions for the groups within the next few months (or on whatever timeline makes sense for the specific problem) to iterate further and actually execute/monitor, with the support of the sponsor. Ie, arrange for follow on to actually run an OODA loop “in production.”
  9. Do not provide significant direction or structure or rules (this is “open play” to use wargaming parlance), but do strongly reinforce the need to actually do the pre-read. You may also want to assign one of the books I recommended. The more prepared people are, the better this will go.
  10. In the communications leading up to the event, set strong expectations that you will work on real, live problems and actually identify real decisions and actions that you will be trying to take. This workshop should aim to actually shape “live fire” action. It’s not fun playtime with toy problems.

In any follow-on to the workshop, do not create an “OODA bureaucracy” or training organization. Shut down any attempts to do so. The moment “OODA” is reduced to a function owned by a designated group, it’s finished as a basis for a culture of strategic thinking.

The goal is for people working on live problems to learn about and apply the ideas on their own, with taste and discretion. The idea is not to create an “official implementation” of OODA with a defined canonical “right way” and official support, coaches, and bullshit ceremony like belts, grades, and certificates. That would be wildly ironic.

The idea is simply to incept some tacitly shared mental models, along with a set of reference examples, stories, and metaphors (lore), and perhaps a minimalist shared vocabulary that is allowed to evolve and get corrupted.

OODA thinking is a skilled activity for prepared live players. It takes imagination and actual work to use. If you’re thinking of doing this sort of training the way corporate workshops are usually done — a fun motivational day of lightweight ideas and discussion with no consequence besides the creation of yet more faddish bureaucracy, don’t bother.

Hope this is helpful for your adventures in devious strategery and cunning planning. Feel free to ping me for advisory support running a workshop. Depending on how familiar I am with the domain, I may or may not be willing to actually present these slides (in general this material is best presented by someone who understands the domain at least as well as they do OODA theory, ideally better). I don’t get involved in actual organizing and logistics though.

Happy OODAing!

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Hank Christen says

    I taught the Loop in disaster management classes and used the Loop to frame a decision making model that I developed. I discovered in a Chuck Finney YouTube video that Boyd added the Observation loop near the end of his life because fighter pilots considered Observation important. In other words the original Loop was Orient, Decide, Act. My point is modern day fire commanders and emergency managers are not usually direct observers. Instead, they gather information and data from a myriad of sources as part of the Orientation (sense making) process. Key point: When Orientation is robust, Decide and Act falls into place. Disoriented decision makers are doomed. I would like to get your opinion via an offline discussion. Your article/slides rock by the way.

  2. Thank you for sharing these precious knowledge gems with us all, we the people of the internet.
    I will deep dive into it later, and when I find some time I will translate some of it or the whole slides into Arabic with proper attribution to you. Even though you didn’t require that attribution.

    Thank you again.

  3. This is outstanding. Thank you for this very generous contribution!!

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