Power, Seduction & War: The Blog of Robert Greene

OODA and You

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at a company convention in southern California. This company has offices worldwide, is very successful in its line of work, but on the horizon are some dangers. They brought me in to address those dangers. The specifics here do not matter much, only to say that, like a lot of companies that were successful in the 80s and on up to the present, they have come to rely upon a particular business model that is part circumstance and part design.

Loosely put, their upper-tier employees operate more like entrepreneurs, each one out for him or herself. Each office tends to think of itself as an island, competing with the other branches across the globe. This works to some extent, as these entrepreneurs are very motivated to expand the business. On the other hand, it makes it very difficult to create an overall esprit de corps.

As I was preparing the speech, for some reason an image kept coming to mind–the jet-fighter pilot, and the theories of Colonel John Boyd as it pertains to this form of warfare. Many of you might be familiar with Boyd’s most famous theory: the OODA loop. I will paraphrase it for those who are not familiar with it, with the understanding that it is much richer than the few words I am devoting to it here.


OODA stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action. A pilot is constantly going through these loops or cycles in a dogfight: he tries to observe the enemy as best he can, this observation being somewhat fluid, since nothing is standing still and all of this is happening at great speed. With a lightning-quick observation, he then must orient this movement of the enemy, what it means, what are his intentions, how does it fit into the overall battle. This is the critical part of the cycle. Based on this orientation, he makes a decision as to how to respond, and then takes the appropriate action.

In the course of a typical dogfight, a pilot will go through maybe a dozen or so of these loops, depending on how complicated the fight, and how fluid the field. If one pilot can make faster decisions and actions, based on the proper observations and orientations, he slowly gains a distinct advantage. He can make a maneuver to confuse the enemy. After a few such maneuvers in which he is slightly ahead in the cycles, the enemy makes a mistake, and he is able to go in for the kill. Boyd calls these fast transients, and if you are ahead in these transients, the opponent slowly loses touch with reality. He cannot decipher what you are doing, and as he becomes increasingly cut off from the reality of the battlefield, he reacts to things that are not there, and his misreactions spell his death.

Boyd saw this theory as having application to all forms of warfare. He went backwards in military history and showed how this was relevant to the success of Belisaurius, the Mongols, Napoleon Bonaparte, T.E. Lawrence. He saw it as also deeply relevant to any kind of competitive environment: business, politics, sports, even the struggle of organisms to survive. In reading about the OODA loop for the first time, I was struck by its brilliance, but I was not quite sure what to make of it. How exactly does this apply to my own battles, my own life, or to those whom I advise in their affairs?

Then, working on the speech, the image and the idea began to coalesce. A fighter pilot is in a unique spot. He is a rugged individualist who can ultimately only depend on his own creative maneuvers for survival and success. On the other hand, he is part of a team, and if he operates completely on his own strategy, his personal success will translate into confusion on the battlefield.

At the same time, the battlefield itself is so incredibly fluid that the pilot cannot think in traditional linear terms. It is more like complex geometry, or three-dimensional chess. If the pilot is too slow and conventional in his thinking, he will find himself falling further and further behind in the loops. His ideas will not keep pace with reality. The proper mindset is to let go a little, to allow some of the chaos to become part of his mental system, and to use it to his advantage by simply creating more chaos and confusion for the opponent. He funnels the inevitable chaos of the battlefield in the direction of the enemy.

This seemed to me the perfect metaphor for what we are all going through right now in the 21st century. Changes are occurring too fast for any of us to really process them in the traditional manner. Our strategies tend to be rooted in the past. Our businesses operate on models from the 60s and 70s. The changes going on can easily give us the feeling that we are not really in control of events. The standard response in such situations is to try to control too much, in which case everything will tend to fall apart as we fall behind. (Those who try to control too much lose contact with reality, react emotionally to surprises.) Or to let go, an equally disastrous mindset. What we are going through requires a different way of thinking and responding to the world, something I will be addressing in my next two books in great detail. (I am happy to report that these two books have now been sold, and that is why I have been away for a while.)

In essence, speed is the critical element in our strategies. (See the chapter on formlessness in POWER and the blitzkrieg in WAR.) Speed, however, is something that is rarely understood. Napoleon created speed in his attacks because of the way his army was organized and structured. If you read Martin Creveld’s book on command, he explains that the speed of Napoleon’s army is comparable to any contemporary army, but with the technology of two-hundred years ago. This speed comes from the mission-oriented structure in which his field marshals had great liberty to react in real time and make quick decisions, based on Napoleon’s overall strategic goals, and with the incredibly swift communications up and down the chain of command.

Napoleon increased the speed of his army by loosening up the structure, allowing for more chaos in the decision-making process, and unleashing the creativity in his marshals. Speed is not necessarily a function of technology. Technology, as Creveld showed, can actually slow an army down. Look at the North Vietnamese versus the US in the Vietnam War.

We are all in the position of those fighter pilots. Those among us who succeed in this environment know how to play the team game in a different way, not being an automaton, yet not completely a freelancer. We are comfortable working on our own initiative, but also find pleasure in making our individuality fit into the group. We are able to embrace change, to let go of old patterns of operating, and to stay rooted in the moment, observing the battlefield for what it is, not cluttered by preconceptions. We can think fast, let go of the need to control everything, stay close to the environment in which we operate (the streets, our clients), and experiment.

It is a new kind of beast that thrives in this new order.

Your mind is the key that will turn this to advantage, not your wealth, the technology at your command, the number of allies you possess. Whatever success you are now experiencing will actually work to your detriment because you will not be made aware of how slowly you are falling behind in the fast transient cycle. You think you are doing just fine. You are not compelled to adapt until it is too late. These are ruthless times.

Discuss John Boyd and the OODA Loop here. The Power, Seduction and War Room thread for this entry features further reading, analysis, and more input from Robert. Post your thoughts.

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