John Boyd – the 20th centuries’ Sun Tzu

The profound success of ancient texts, like Sun Tzu’s — Art of War, Lao Tzu’s — Tao Te Ching, Marcus Aurelius’s — Meditations, and others, is their teachings are relevant regardless of the scale and context of a given situation.

For example, the well known quote from the Art of War: “know your enemy and know yourself” can be validly interpreted in different ways:

  • Know the capabilities of your team and those of the competition
  • Know the difference between your true reality and your minds reality — the latter (“the enemy”), is often the voice that defines reality by past experience or future wants, but seldom appreciates what we have and what we are, in the present moment.

The challenge with these books, is despite their applicability to modern life, they are hard to understand. Coming from bygone era’s, expressed in poetic form, and referencing vastly different cultures, their wisdom is difficult to put into modern context and is open to interpretation. So it was with some excitement that I delved into the work of John Boyd — a man who lived in our time, deeply understood patterns of success, and who’s work had an affinity with the ancient masters.

John Boyd is arguably one of the greatest strategic thinkers of our time, his contributions have had a significant influence on modern warfare, but like the ancient masters, his core ideas were designed from the outset for a more “human” application.

This initial post focuses on the core concepts of Boyd’s OODA framework — Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. Borne out of a passion to teach air combat to US fighter pilots, OODA has evolved to help anyone develop a faster, more effective response to any fast moving situation.

Prior to it’s creation, the US Airforce believed that excellence in air-to-air combat could not be taught or modelled. Aerial combat, was too rapid and dynamic to be assisted by “strategic thinking”. As Tom Cruises’ character “Maverick” in Top Gun — put it: “You don’t have time to think up there, if you think you’re dead”. This led to a spending bias within the US Airforce and US Navy, to come up with technological solutions to reduce the amount of pilot thinking required in high stress situations and ultimately led to the creation of the F14/A Tomcat.

Designed for two operators, the Tomcat embodied the idea that two heads are better than one. It also features a missile system intended to defeat enemies at greater distances, which would give pilots more time to figure out a response. But the project proved to be a failure, and the Tomcat was scrapped before the plane entered into active service. The additional technology increased the Tomcat’s weight and manoeuvrability suffered. The long range missiles missed 90% of the time. These drawbacks put pilots at greater risk and resulted in the ascendency of Boyd’s more “agile” approach within the US Armed Forces.

Maverick’s character in Top Gun seems to have been based, in part, on Boyd, who was a remarkable fighter pilot. Any of you who have watched the Top Gun, may find it interesting that Maverick’s aggressive “hit the brakes” manoeuvre was pioneered by Boyd:

“Boyd would demonstrate with one abrupt move why he was considered the best Hun driver in the Air Force.

He would seize the stick with both hands, jerk it full aft, and hold it there. This maneuver he called “flat-plating the bird.” The maneuver turned the bottom of the aircraft, the wings, and the bottom of the tail surfaces into one enormous speed brake and slowed the Hun from 400 knots to 150 knots in seconds. It was as if a manhole cover were sailing through the air and suddenly flipped ninety degrees to the airstream. Then Boyd, still holding the stick full aft and not moving it a quarter inch in either direction, would stomp hard on the rudder and corkscrew the aircraft violently around in a tight roll. The maneuver spit the student out in front and left Boyd on the student’s six. He had set the hook and there was no escape”
— Coram, Robert (2002-11-21). Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

Boyd suggested an alternative way of thinking, and despite its roots in military operations, his ideas are broadly applicable to our every day lives. His core finding is that though “fingerspitzengfühl” (intuitive flair or instinct) is highly desirable, the best instincts don’t happen by accident, and need to be constantly honed over a lifetime. Boyd’s OODA framework and its supporting philosophy described in several publications, is geared towards the development of effective, highly creative strategic thinking, and the cultivation of excellent instinctive responses.

OODA: The Basics

  1. OBSERVE: Gather information about your situation
  2. ORIENT: Process the information
  3. DECIDE: Choose a course of action
  4. ACT: Execute the course of action

At first glance it comes across as a bit obvious doesn’t it? For example, you could initially summarize OODA as follows:

  • There are four steps
  • The first two focus on gathering and analyzing data
  • The last two steps focus on deciding what to do and executing on your decision
  • In a competitive scenario, whoever is able to complete the four steps quickest wins.

Digging deeper though, I started to understand that he was not only providing steps that can help us solve problems, but was also suggesting that most of us may not identify important problems until it’s too late.

The deeper I went into the philosophy behind OODA the more I started to appreciate its value;

  • The four steps model how survival works across species and environments. I’m taking about Darwinian evolution and concepts like survival of the fittest. The organism or society that wins is usually the one best able to understand and appropriately orient themselves relative to environmental conditions
  • Everything around us changes all the time, sometimes this happens fast enough for us to perceive it, allowing us time to react. At other times change happens so gradually that we may fail to realize deliberate and novel action is required if we want to continue to survive or thrive (think Frog in slowly boiling water) This is why isolation tends to be fatal for individuals, groups and civilizations. The drawbacks of isolation manifest slowly. Over time, without an adequate connection to our immediate and extended environment, we lack the information needed for the basis for strategic change. Under these conditions even a highly successful strategy must ultimately fail in a changing environment. (Kodak’s demise is one example of this, the fall of the USSR may be another)
  • Our own actions within our environment changes the environment. Boyd often refers to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to emphasize this. One of Heisenberg’s findings was that even the seemingly inert act of observing can sometimes be enough to change the results of an experiment. Without getting too nerdy on the science, the important takeaway is for strategies to be effective they must account for the impact of their own execution. In OODA, not only do the four steps form a continuous circular flow, but each step in the flow forms mini loops with the other steps (see the diagram below). This is what allows “instinctive action” to take place; once you know something well enough you can immediately go from OBSERVATION to ACTION delegating ORIENTATION or DECISION to the subconscious mind.
  • Finally, it’s vital to understand that the game is not just about our execution of the OODA loop. Being able to execute the 4 steps quickly is an advantage, but speed is relative to the competition, therefore, equally important are considerations about what we can do to slow the competition down. Confusion is a big part of this (see ORIENTATION below).

OODA: The Fundamentals:

Observation has everything to do with collecting information about our situation. For example, in the case of weather, we primarily do this by looking out of the window, stepping outside, and checking the forecast.

What’s interesting is the explosion of data that has become available in the last several years as a result of mobile technology, social media, and the ever increasing number of “apps” and connected “Things”. Our ability to gather this data has also increased through cheaper availability of technology in the cloud. The combination of these forces is becoming increasingly important to decision making at all levels: individual, business, and nation states.


Orientation is arguably the most important and difficult step to understand.

At its core, when Boyd talks about orientation, he’s describing the degree of confidence we have in our understanding of the environment we’re in. The more confident we are, the easier it becomes to formulate decisions about what to do next.

Ever been in a situation where you wake up in unfamiliar surroundings? What you’re doing in the time it takes you to familiarize yourself with your new reality is a good way to understand how “orientation” works.

Our confidence is ultimately related to our ability to process the data we have. For example, almost everyone knows how to interpret the weather, but the same cannot be said for other areas of our lives that are of great importance. For example, decisions on where to invest money, whether to start a business, whether to buy or rent, how to deal with stress and anxiety, etc.

The lack of an effective set of mental models, to process data, leads to disorientation. For example, without the right mental aptitude for a foreign language, we may not understand, or may even entirely miss, an important weather forecast which could lead to dire consequences. Or without the right technology, we may not be able to process data fast enough to draw confident conclusions.

This lack of confidence is often fatal in big decision situations. It’s how we are often mislead.


This is an intuitive step, and I won’t spend much time here, except to point out that decision making can be honed. Elon Musk is famous for “first principles” thinking. So was Einstein, as is Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet. Assuming we have the time,  we should consider honing our instincts rather than simply working with what we’ve got. For example, a checklist that short circuits default decision making might include questions like:

  • am I confident that I understand my environment?
  • how isolated am I in this environment — how can I get more information?
  • am I deciding based on one choice only — what alternatives could I consider?
  • have I and how would I explicitly argue against my default position?

4. ACT

Another intuitive step — but it’s worth reflecting on the idea that a prerequisite to successful action, is adequate skill to execute that action. This leads to more deliberate thinking about building the right skills through training and practice.

Wrapping Up:
Today, OODA’s use has spread beyond the military, to the business arena, where leaders are starting to employ it in strategic gameplay and the design of critical systems. It’s also proving to be highly effective in areas such as Social Media Marketing, where instinctive and creative innovation enables organizations to capitalize on fast moving “trends”.

Much of this new and innovative thinking is being fuelled by the commoditization of previously expensive technology, capable of gathering and processing enormous volumes of data, simplifying “observation” and “orientation”. Many of the stories we hear about the proverbial 2 guys in a garage inventing something and disrupting an industry stem from this reality. But Boyd’s legacy doesn’t end with business applications.

Despite its obvious applicability to the business arena, I believe the greatest application of Boyd’s framework is yet to come, namely its potential to help people bridge from external success strategies (financial, career , business, etc) to a strategy for a more meaningful life based on the evolution of our internal thought processes. This is something I will explore more in future posts.

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