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  • Writer's pictureOliver Nowak

The Tempo of Decision Making

John Boyd’s OODA Loop

In this article I wanted to zone in on decision making. What do we need to have in place to act quicker and more effectively than our competition? Is speed the only deciding factor in success?

To answer these questions, I have solicited the model created by military strategist, John Boyd. John Boyd is often credited as the best military strategist of all time that no one knows. Why? - He wrote very few of his ideas down and instead gave briefings which are largely undocumented. However, nougats of the information he developed and presented have crept into the public domain. Based on his experience dogfighting in the Korean War, Colonel John Boyd, developed a feedback model known as OODA. It has since become one of the most popular decision-making frameworks in the world used by Western militaries, businesses, and across sports.

OODA stands for Observation, Orientate, Decide and Act. You observe what is in front of you, orientate yourself around the possible options, decide on the best course of action, and finally, act. The results of the action are then observed, and we start all over again:

Success is defined as the speed with which you can cycle through the feedback loop. Those who observe their competitors' strategy, orientate themselves around it, and act accordingly more quickly, are more likely to deliver a punishing blow that results in victory. As a lot of the digital transformation rhetoric out there talks about, it’s all about adaptability - ‘To maintain an effective grasp of reality, one must undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with the environment to assess its constant changes’.

In other words, those who adapt quicker make better, faster decisions.

Is it only about speed?

However, is it as simple as that? Is it all about speed and only speed?

He later released a much more detailed version in “The Essence of Winning and Losing”. Now the loop is no longer a linear model where each of the steps follow one another in succession, but rather an ongoing interactive model:

Observation isn’t a step that is completed, it’s ongoing. As circumstances unfold and the environment around us is changing, we are served more and more information on which we base our orientation and decision making processes. As new data comes to light, we change our orientation, we’re served with imperfect information, so we have to continuously reset our understanding of the present. Our decisions become the hypotheses we draw from the perspective our orientation provides us and we Act as a means of testing that hypothesis. The results of that test provide continuous feedback that we Observe, providing us with more input data at the beginning of the chain. This shows that speed isn’t necessarily the only key to success. In the face of imperfect information, rushing to make a decision may result in a poor action. Timing is as important as speed.

Tempo, therefore, is the defining element of success. This combines both speed and timing. Time signature in music defines the speed of the beats, where each beat is considered an action or a moment of change. Using the OODA model, we observe this time signature, orientate ourselves around it, and decide to act (in this case by playing) on the beat of the music. In other words, by observing the time structure we have orientated ourselves around a structure that allows us to predict future action. This is what John Boyd observed in combat: those dogfighters who were able to understand the rhythm of the beats of their opponent quicker, could predict the timing of their next move ahead of time, and make sure they acted in response in a way that won them the battle.

Digital Transformation with Military Precision

The same decision making philosophy is essential to success across digital transformations. We must Observe our employees, Orientate ourselves around how they work today, hypothesise how the way they work today can be improved with technology, and act accordingly. This action serves as a test of our hypothesis that produces data we can use to reset and realign future hypotheses to ensure we are always acting in the best way possible. As in combat, it is vitally important to understand the tempo with which your employees are operating. Speed is essential when competing against other companies in your industry, but it is not the only factor determining success. The timing of implementation is crucial for maximising adoption and maximising the return on investments so that you can leave your competition behind in your dust.

Digital transformations are a long term commitment and they often consist of roadmaps that extend out into the future. I have spoken in previous articles about the advantages of having such a plan in place. However, it is essential to make sure that you don’t box yourself in. It is possible to over plan and then feel as though you have to stick to that plan in the future down to the letter. In all likelihood, as you move through your roadmap the environment and state of play is likely to change, to maximise effectiveness of your strategy you will need to make tactical changes as you go be reorientating yourself around what you observe.

In a world obsessed with speed, it is going to be decision making that becomes more and more of a limiting factor. The likes of DevOps have shown us the way in terms of how a consolidated, integrated approach can facilitate huge efficiency simply because we are able to observe all we need to make an effective decision in one place. By being more pragmatic in our decision making, we can afford ourselves the flexibility to be more agile because it gives us the breathing room to reorientate our future actions based on the data we have in front of us at that given moment. Only with that agility are you going to get that competitive edge over your competitors.

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