The OODA loop is a method for making better decisions in 4 steps. It involves using the available information, considering possibilities, and choosing the best possible decision quickly. The technique also consists of changing the action as and when new information becomes available.
The method was first introduced for air force pilots to winning battles. But here’s the kicker – you can easily apply the same method for career growth and personal development.
John Boyd, an US Air Force Colonel, and a military strategist, developed the concept in the mid 20th century. He applied this technique in the air to air combat operations, to stay one step ahead of the opponent.
Fighter pilots have to make many decisions based on what they know, hear, and see. Due to the high-pressure situation, a small misstep can lead to death. Boyd designed the method so that pilots could react with the appropriate action for a given situation quickly.
The Colonel also goes by the nickname “40 second Boyd.” He had a standing offer where any pilot could challenge him in a simulated air to air duel. All Boyd said was, he would win the fight in 40 seconds flat. He battled against students, professional Marine and Navy pilots, and also pilots from different countries. Sources claim that he never lost a single fight.
How does the OODA Loop work:
Theoretically, the OODA loop is simple. It consists of 4 steps as a cycle – Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. For simplicity purposes, the diagram below depicts the OODA loop as 4 steps, one after another completing a full circle.
Because of how straight forward the technique is, it faces criticism often because it seems like stating the obvious. But, being more mindful in little ways is what the OODA loop aims for.
But, the cycle does always have to follow the same sequence as shown in the picture. You can return to observe after orient without going through the other 2 parts of the cycle. Also, each step can turn into a loop in itself.
The essence of the method is to keep analyzing the situation and improvising the right decisions. The technique started with pilots but Marine Corps, Navy Seals and other military units use the same approach.
Let us go through the example of a fighter pilot applying the OODA loop during a battle.
Step 1 – Observe
The purpose of this step is to increase your situational awareness.
The observe step starts before the fight begins. As the pilot begins flying prepared to fight, he watches everything around him. He may not have spotted the enemy airplane yet. Yet, he starts using the radar information to judge the distance and the speed of the opponent. In many cases, the pilot won’t even know who the enemy is and what kind of machinery is he using.
Once he spots the enemy, he now has more information available. He might know his opponent’s airplane, his country, and possible intentions. He can observe what kind of problems the other pilot is running into and anticipate his possible strategy.
Observing does not mean you have to pick up every little piece of information around you. On a battlefield, things happen at a rapid pace. Observing the right stuff is more important than keeping a tab on the entire surroundings. In most cases, you cannot watch everything around you either.
Since the technique follows a loop, the observation phase never ends. At every point, the pilot is observing and picking the most relevant information. He also considers his past decisions and outcomes to choose what to watch and what to ignore.
For example, a pilot might have misidentified what the opponent aircraft was. Next time, he will have to ensure to pick up the precise details to know the enemy better.
While the pilot is going through the other parts of the loop, he continuously switches back to observe. A tiny observation can change all the following steps of the cycle.
Step 2 – Orient
A common mistake under pressure is making a decision soon after observing what’s happening.
The crux of the OODA loop lies in orienting yourself before deciding. During this step, the pilot considers what he should focus on before jumping into any conclusion.
He thinks about what obstacles he might face in the other steps. The purpose of orientation is to make the right decision based on reality without the influence of biases. As human beings, our brain can make poor decisions due to the beliefs and cognitive biases ingrained within us.
Besides, emotions can drive the wrong action too. For example, a pilot might pursue an opponent to seek revenge due to anger, when backing off is the right thing to do. Boyd believed that using the orienting step the right way was the key to outsmarting an opponent even if one was in an unfavorable situation.
The genetic heritage, cultural traditions, and experience significantly shape the way we think and act. A pilot with aggressive training is more likely to take bigger risks to win the battle. A pilot who faced a near-death situation due to pursuing an opponent too far would think twice the next time. Various factors influence your actions at a given moment.
The purpose of orient is to clear the mind of all unnecessary influence and emphasize on the right information. The methods you use to analyze the situation are called mental models.
Successful people have their own mental models, but Charlie Munger made this term famous. He had various strategies behind making an investment decision in the stock market. Boyd used different principles of maths, thermodynamics, psychology, physics, etc to orient himself. Likewise, Munger has his bag of skills like inversion, statistics, economics, and evolution.
How can the concepts of evolution apply to a stock market investment, you wonder? The purpose of mental models is to understand different concepts and apply them to possible aspects of real life.
Such tactics are totally situational. What applies in one may fail in another. What succeeds for you might fail for me. Having a set of mental tools to increase your self-awareness and biases is the key to making good decisions.
Step 3 – Decide
The third step in the loop is making a decision. The pilot has the information and has oriented himself. He considers all the ideas from the previous steps to make a decision. The fast-paced situation cannot guarantee the perfect action every single time.
But, Boyd’s idea was to settle for a good choice to handle the circumstance. Often, you make the mistake of making a decision and shutting your mind for new ideas due to the first conclusion bias. You keep repeating different actions towards the same decision in a loop forever.
The OODA loop prevents such closed thinking by keeping yourself open to new ideas and information all the time.
Step 4 – Act
The final step of the loop is taking action. Based on your observation and ideas, you have decided to use a specific tactic to handle the situation. Acting serves as a test to know if you made the right decision. Boyd believed that the OODA loop was not only a decision making technique but also a learning system.
Your decision, action, and results must determine how you go about another cycle. If the pilot’s decision caused the opponent to go out of sight, he can no longer apply his previous plan anymore. He will have to observe different things, orient himself to consider if he is walking into a trap and decide the right action.
The whole cycle forms a process to follow. Instead of making hasty decisions, the OODA loop helps you become more self-aware and mindful of your actions.
Though the origin of the OODA loop is applied to fast-paced situations, you can use it in real life. You and I aren’t pilots on a battlefield where a split-second decision can lead to life or death. But, you can use the same concept to make more thoughtful decisions in day to day life.
Many businesses have gone on a downward spiral because they failed to adapt when new information was available. When the internet industry was pacing forward, Yahoo stuck to their same methods of doing things that caused their demise over the last decade. Kodak refused to move away from traditional films when digital cameras were picking up in the market.
Both these examples indicate how failure to orient, decide, and act as per the new information can lead to the collapse of large corporations. I will cover two ways you can apply the OODA loop in your daily life.
OODA loop for self-improvement:
You can use the OODA loop to improve your skills and boost your career growth.
Observe what are the key skills you need to achieve the goals you’re aiming for. Often, people stick to their old methods of doing things when the current trend has moved on.
For example, a programmer sticking to age-old technology when the latest one offers better features. Or a salesperson using only hard copies of brochures when the online platforms offer more advanced options.
Use the observe phase to:
- Identify how good your skills are
- Assess if your skills are relevant to the current world
- Spot the trends working today
As mentioned earlier, the orienting step is the most crucial part of the OODA loop. All of us have our own beliefs and cognitive biases that influence our decisions. Knowing when and how these flaws influence our actions is the key to a successful orientation.
If you’re not honest to yourself, the whole technique falls flat on your face. Use the orienting step to ask yourself:
- What are you not doing enough to achieve what you want?
- Are your current actions based on your past beliefs or a more rational logic?
- Are you making decisions within your comfort zone or pushing your limits?
If you do this step right, you will know what your gaps are.
A good portion of your day goes into necessary activities such as sleeping, eating, day to day chores, and so on. You only have a limited amount of time in a day to work on your career growth. Use the past 2 steps to decide what you should focus your time and energy on.
I have made the mistake of chasing too many goals at the same time. Failing to orient myself on the things that matter, led to poor prioritization. I ended up with a bunch of tedious projects on my plate without enough time or energy to pull them off.
Only you can decide the areas you have the time, energy, and ability to accomplish. And as the OODA loop suggests, you do not always have to make the perfect decision. You only have to be thoughtful enough to consider what is the best action given the current situation.
The final step of the loop is to take action, which also serves as your feedback system. You have decided on a path which you believe will help you succeed. Only your actions can tell if you’re heading in the right direction.
You have to learn and grow from the decisions you make and the outcomes that follow. Continue the actions that go well and correct the decisions which went wrong.
Besides, you have to check if you’re finding the job easy enough to pursue. Consider if you’re enjoying the journey or pursuing the goal only for an outcome. There are not predefined right questions or perfect answers.
Not even Boyd can suggest a step by step guide to apply the OODA loop to any goal you target. For example, you might need only a week to learn a new portion of the technology. Losing 2 pounds can take a couple of months. Building a successful business will take much longer.
Watching the result and deciding the next set of things to observe, orient, and decide are left to your best judgment and personality. If you feel your progress isn’t moving in the right direction or at the required pace, change what you do in the next loop.
How to apply the OODA loop for better relationships?
You can apply the same technique to become a better partner. Though the example below refers to a relationship between a couple, the same approach applies to other work relationships or between friends too.
Keep a tab on how your partner is behaving. You will receive various information from behavior, body language, and words if you pay enough attention. You must figure out:
- If your partner is happy?
- Is your partner behaving differently off late?
- Is there something that you have done or not done that has hurt your partner?
Take a moment to gather your thought before making decisions. You can avoid many little tussles and conflicts by orienting yourself based on what you observed.
For example, a situation has led to a disagreement between the two of you. Think for a moment:
- Is there any point in arguing?
- Will your words cause more damage?
- Should you wait for your partner to calm down before discussing the topic further?
- Does any good come out of making a better argument?
Taking a moment to orient yourself can prevent a meaningless fight that leads to a vow of silence for a few days.
Based on what you observed and thought about, decide on the best course of action. Sometimes, the right decision is to avoid the discussion altogether, even if you’re not at fault. In some other cases, sweeping the problem under the rug, and not talking about it can damage the relationship in the long run.
You cannot always make the perfect decision for your relationship. We are humans, and we make mistakes all the time. But using the OODA loop to check how you can become a better partner will enhance the positivity in your relationship.
Use your action to observe how your partner reacts. Some of your decisions will enrage your partner, and some will bring you both closer. Keep an eye on what works and what doesn’t. Use the feedback to orient yourself and make a better decision the next time.
OODA loop started as a system to give yourself an upper hand during a fast-paced, high-pressure situation. Since then, the concept has extended to various aspects of business, litigation, law enforcement, and so on.
You can use the base structure of the technique to improve any skill or make better decisions in daily life. All it requires is a little bit of observational skills, a tinge of mindfulness, and a pinch of self-awareness. Once you understand how the loop works, all you need is common sense to pull it off.
Implementing the OODA loop in real life does not need any rocket science. You can start applying the method starting right now if you like. The question is, will you?
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.