The Cybernetic Aspects of OODA Loop:


I had briefly discussed OODA loop in my previous post. In today’s post, I will continue looking at OODA loop and discuss the cybernetic aspects of OODA loop. OODA loop was created by the great American military strategist, John Boyd. OODA stands for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. The simplest form of OODA loop, taken from Francis Osinga, is shown below.

Simple OODA

The OODA loop is a framework that can be used to describe how a rational being acts in a changing environment. The first step is to take in the available information as part of Observation. With the newly gathered information, the rational being has to gage the analyzed and synthesized information against the previous sets of information, relevant schema and mental models. The relevant schema and mental models are updated as needed based on the new set of information. This allows the rational being to better Orient themselves for the next step – Decide. The rational being has to decide what needs to be done based on their orientation, and at this point, the rational being Acts. The loop is repeated as the action triggers some reaction, which demands additional observation, orientation, decision and action. The loop has to be repeated until, a stable equilibrium is reached. Boyd was a fighter pilot and was often called as “40 second Boyd” because of his ability to get the better of his opponents in 40 seconds or less. The OODA loop was a formalization of his thoughts. See my previous post for additional information.

The key points of Boyd’s teachings are:

  • A rational being has to have a link with the external world to keep updating their orientation.
  • The absence of this live link will trigger an inward spiral that leads to disorientation and entropy.
  • Based on this, a rational being has to ensure that they maintain their internal harmony, and stay in touch with the external environment.

Osinga summarized this beautifully as:

The abstract aim of Boyd’s method is to render the enemy powerless by denying him the time to mentally cope with the rapidly unfolding, and naturally uncertain, circumstances of war, and only in the most simplified way, or at the tactical level, can this be equated with the narrow, rapid OODA loop idea… This points to the major overarching theme throughout Boyd’s work: the capability to evolve, to adapt, to learn, and deny such capability to the enemy.

In “John Boyd and John Warden – Air Power’s Quest for Strategic Paralysis”, David S. Fadok explained Boyd’s ideas as:

Boyd’s theory of conflict advocates a form of maneuver warfare that is more psychological and temporal in its orientation than physical and spatial.  Its military object is “to break the spirit and will of the enemy command by creating surprising and dangerous operational or strategic situations.” To achieve this end, one must operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than one’s adversaries. Put differently, the aim of Boyd’s maneuver warfare is to render the enemy powerless by denying him the time to mentally cope with the rapidly unfolding, and naturally uncertain, circumstances of war.  One’s military operations aim to: (1) create and perpetuate a highly fluid and menacing state of affairs for the enemy, and (2) disrupt or incapacitate his ability to adapt to such an environment.

Cybernetic Aspects:

The simplest explanation of Cybernetics is (from Paul Pangaro):

Cybernetics is about having a goal and taking action to achieve that goal. Knowing whether you have reached your goal (or at least are getting closer to it) requires “feedback”, a concept that was made rigorous by cybernetics.

The term cybernetics comes from a Greek word than means “steering”. Cybernetics is the art of steering towards the goal. The feedback loop allows for the regulatory component of the system to adjust itself and steer the system towards the goal. An example is a thermostat where a set temperature is inputted as the goal, and the thermostat kicks on when the temperature goes below the set point. It stops once it reaches the set temperature. This is achieved due to the feedback loop in the system. Pangaro continues:

The idea is this: You have goals and I have goals. If we’re in conversation, the way we find a shared goal is through probing, experimentation, alignment on means, revision of the goals, mistakes…and recursion. The recursive process of seeing a goal, aiming for it, seeing the “error” or gap and then moving to close the gap…that’s cybernetics. And the principles of cybernetics really are a way to think about everything. Or, rather…anything that has a purpose, goals, intention. So, orgs that need to shift business models, teams that need to tighten timelines…getting your friends to pick a restaurant for next week…So, everything that really matters!

Any closed loop is capable of feedback and thus has cybernetic functionality. One can see that the OODA loop has cybernetic aspects to it. You, the rational being, are trying to get inside the opponent’s OODA loop. This essentially means that you are working at a tempo faster than your opponent, and that you are able to go through your OODA loop more efficiently and effectively than your opponent. In order to do this, you should have a better equipped orientation which can also adapt as needed to the changing needs of the environment.

A key idea in Cybernetics is Ross Ashby’s Law of requisite variety (LRV). Variety in cybernetics means the number of available states of a system. In order for a system to control and regulate another system, the regulating system should have more variety than the one that is being regulated. For example, a light switch has two varieties (on or off). Depending upon the two states, the switch can control the light bulb to be either lit or not lit. If the demand is to have the brightness dimmed by the switch, the switch lacks the requisite variety. If we can add an adjustable resistor to the switch, then we are increasing the variety of the switch, and the switch now has the requisite variety to have the light’s brightness adjusted in more varieties (on, dim, bright, off).

One of the ways the regulator can handle the excess variety from the environment is to attenuate it or in other words filter out the excess variety. Our brains are very good at this. For example, if you are driving your car, most of the information coming at you gets filtered out by your brain. Your brain does not want you focusing on the color of the shirt of the driver of the car coming in the opposite direction.

Another way the regulator can attempt controlling a system is to amplify its variety so that it has a better capability to control certain factors. An example of this is the use of sabermetric approach to assemble a baseball team as narrated in the book and movie, Moneyball.

Ultimately, in order to regulate a system, the regulating system must attenuate unwanted variety, and amplify its variety so that the requisite variety is achieved.

John Boyd was aware of the power of cutting off the variety of the opponent.

Fadok explains:

Boyd proposes that success in conflict stems from getting inside an adversary’s OODA loop and staying there. The military commander can do so in two supplementary ways.

First, he must minimize his own friction through initiative and harmony of response. This decrease in friendly friction acts to “tighten” his own loop (i.e., to speed up his own decision-action cycle time).

Second, he must maximize his opponent’s friction through variety and rapidity of response. This increase in enemy friction acts to “loosen” the adversary’s loop (i.e., to slow down his decision-action cycle time). Together, these “friction manipulations” assure one’s continual operation within the enemy’s OODA loop in menacing and unpredictable ways. Initially, this produces confusion and disorder within the enemy camp. Ultimately, it produces panic and fear which manifest themselves in a simultaneous paralysis of ability to cope and willingness to resist.

Fadok’s thesis details that Boyd is actually looking at variety attenuation and amplification, referred to as “variety engineering” in Management Cybernetics.

In Cybernetics, information is of paramount importance. Information in many regards can be seen as the fuel in the “feedback engine”. Stale or wrong information can steer the system in the wrong direction sometimes at its own peril. The most important phase of OODA loop is the Orientation phase. This refers to the phase where the internal schema and mental models are reviewed and updated as needed based on incoming information. Boyd identified this really well. From Fadok:

The operational aim should be to ensure the opponent cannot rid himself of these menacing anomalies by hampering his ability to process information, make decisions, and take appropriate action. In consequence, he can no longer determine what is being done to him and how he should respond. Ultimately, the adversary’s initial confusion will degenerate into paralyzing panic, and his ability and/or willingness to resist will cease.

Final Words:

Most of us, I hope, are not engaged in wars. What can we then learn from OODA loop?

OODA loop gives us a good framework to understand how we make decisions and interact. OODA loop points out the utmost importance of staying connected to the source (gemba) and getting “fresh” information as much as possible. We should keep our feedback loops short, and this provides us security even if our decisions are slightly imperfect. The feedback allows us to steer as needed. But having a long feedback loop makes the information stale or incorrect, and we would not be able to steer away from trouble. We should update our mental models to match our reality. We should ensure that the new piece of information coheres well with our constructed schema and mental models. We should understand how to minimize our internal friction. We should attenuate unwanted variety and amplify our variety to better adapt to a changing environment. If we are in an inward spiral and feel disoriented, we should ground ourselves to reality by observing our surroundings, and stop engaging in a perilous inward spiral. Understanding the constraints in the surroundings may help us understand why some people make certain decisions.

I will finish with some wise words from John Boyd (taken from The Essence of Winning and Losing)

Without analyses and synthesis, across a variety of domains or across a variety of competing/independent channels of information, we cannot evolve new repertoires to deal with unfamiliar phenomena or unforeseen change.

 Without OODA loops, we can neither sense, hence observe, thereby collect a variety of information for the above processes, nor decide as well as implement actions in accord with those processes… Without OODA loops embracing all the above and without the ability to get inside other OODA loops (or other environments), we will find it impossible to comprehend, shape, adapt to, and in turn be shaped by an unfolding, evolving reality that is uncertain, everchanging, unpredictable 

In case you missed it, my last post was OODA Loop at the Gemba:

OODA Loop at the Gemba:


In today’s post, I am looking at OODA Loop, the brainchild of Col. John Boyd, a highly influential American military strategist. OODA is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. Boyd did not write any book detailing his ideas. However, he did write several papers and also gave lectures detailing his ideas. Boyd was a fighter pilot with the US Air Force. He was famously dubbed as the “40-second Boyd.” Legend goes that he could defeat any pilot who took him on in less than 40 seconds.

Francis Osinga, in his excellent book “Science, Strategy and War”, explained the OODA loop as:

OODA stands for observation, orientation, decision, action. Explained in brief, observation is sensing yourself and the world around you. The second element, orientation, is the complex set of filters of genetic heritage, cultural predispositions, personal experience, and knowledge. The third is decision, a review of alternative courses of action and the selection of the preferred course as a hypothesis to be tested. The final element is action, the testing of the decision selected by implementation.  The notion of the loop, the constant repetition of the OODA cycle, is the essential connection that is repeated again and again.  Put simply, Boyd advances the idea that success in war, conflict, competition even survival hinges upon the quality and tempo of the cognitive processes of leaders and their organizations.

The OODA loop is generally shown as the schematic below:

Simple OODA

John Boyd’s final version of the OODA loop is given below:


From Osinga:

(Boyd) was the first to observe that the common underlying mechanism involved tactics that distort the enemy’s perception of time. He identified a general category of activities to achieve this distortion, the ability to change the situation faster than the opponent could comprehend, which he called “operating inside the Observation– Orientation–Decision–Action (OODA) loop.”

Boyd wonderfully explains the idea of getting inside the opponent’s OODA loop in his paper, “Destruction and Creation.”

Destruction and Creation:

Boyd starts with explaining that we have conceptual models of the external world, the reality. We interact with reality, and we update this model based on our continuous interaction. He stated:

To comprehend and cope with our environment we develop mental patterns or concepts of meaning. The purpose of this paper is to sketch out how we destroy and create these patterns to permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment. In this sense, the discussion also literally shows why we cannot avoid this kind of activity if we intend to survive on our own terms. The activity is dialectic in nature generating both disorder and order that emerges as a changing and expanding universe of mental concepts matched to a changing and expanding universe of observed reality.

Boyd said that we are in a continuous struggle to remove or overcome physical and social environmental obstacles. This means that we have to take actions and decisions on an ongoing basis for our survival. We have to keep modifying our internal representation of reality based on new data. He called this destruction and creation, which he further detailed as analysis and synthesis. We have to use a reductive process of taking things apart, and assembling things together to gather meaning.

There are two ways in which we can develop and manipulate mental concepts to represent observed reality: We can start from a comprehensive whole and break it down to its particulars or we can start with the particulars and build towards a comprehensive whole.

Readers of this blog might see that the ideas of analysis and synthesis are very important in Systems Thinking. Boyd was an avid reader and he was able to see similar ideas in various fields and bring them all together. His sources of inspiration varied from Sun Tzu, Toyota to Kurt Godel.

Boyd continued that the acts of analysis and synthesis require verification to ensure that the newly created mental representation is appropriate.

Recalling that we use concepts or mental patterns to represent reality, it follows that the unstructuring and restructuring just shown reveals a way of changing our perception of reality. Naturally, such a notion implies that the emerging pattern of ideas and interactions must be internally consistent and match-up with reality… Over and over again this cycle of Destruction and Creation is repeated until we demonstrate internal consistency and match-up with reality.

Boyd brilliantly brings in the ideas of the great logician, mathematician, and analytic philosopher Kurt Godel. Godel in 1931 shook the world of mathematics and logic with his two phenomenal theorems – the Incompleteness Theorems. He proved that in any formal systems there will always be statements that cannot be proven within the logical structures of the system, and that any formal system cannot demonstrate its own consistency. Godel’s ideas were so powerful that the great polymath von Neumann is said to have remarked, “it’s all over!”

Boyd used ideas from Godel, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and entropy to further explain his OODA loop. Boyd explained Godel’s ideas as:

“You cannot use a system’s own workings to determine if a system is consistent or not…One cannot determine the character and nature of a system within itself. Moreover, attempts to do will lead to confusion and disorder.”

This was the great insight that Boyd had. One has to continuously stay in touch with his environment to have a consistent internal representation of reality. If the link to the environment is cut off, then the internal representation gets faulty, and the continuous destruction and creation of the internal representation is then based on faulty references.

“If I have an adversary out there, what I want to do is have the adversary fold back inside of himself where he cannot really consult the external environment he has to deal with, if I can do this then I can drive him to confusion and disorder, and bring him into paralysis.”

Boyd stated:

According to Gödel we cannot— in general—determine the consistency, hence the character or nature, of an abstract system within itself. According to Heisenberg and the Second Law of Thermodynamics any attempt to do so in the real world will expose uncertainty and generate disorder. Taken together, these three notions support the idea that any inward-oriented and continued effort to improve the match-up of concept with observed reality will only increase the degree of mismatch. Naturally, in this environment, uncertainty and disorder will increase as previously indicated by the Heisenberg Indeterminacy Principle and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, respectively. Put another way, we can expect unexplained and disturbing ambiguities, uncertainties, anomalies, or apparent inconsistencies to emerge more and more often. Furthermore, unless some kind of relief is available, we can expect confusion to increase until disorder approaches chaos— death.

Orient – the Most Important Step:


In the OODA loop, the most important step in OODA is the second O – Orient. This is the step about our mental models and internal representation of the external world. This is where all the schema reside.

Boyd wrote:

The second O, orientation—as the repository of our genetic heritage, cultural tradition, and previous experiences—is the most important part of the O-O-D-A loop since it shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act.

From Osinga:

Orientation is the schwerpunkt (center of gravity). It shapes the way we interact with the environment.

In this sense, Orientation shapes the character of present observations-orientation- decision-action loops – while these present loops shape the character of future orientation.

Chet Richards, friend of Boyd, writes about orientation:

Orientation, whether we want it to or not, exerts a strong control over what we observe. To a great extent, a person hears, as Paul Simon wrote in “The Boxer,” what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. This tendency to confirm what we already believe is not just sloppy thinking but is built into our brains (Molenberghs, Halász, Mattingley, Vanman. and Cunnington, 2012) … Strategists call the tendency to observe data that confirm our current orientations “incestuous amplification”.

Final Words:

OODA loop is a versatile framework to learn and understand. We already use the concept unconsciously. The knowledge about the OODA loop helps us prepare to face uncertainty in the everchanging environment. You can also see in today’s world that intentional misinformation can heavily disorient people and distort reality.

We should always stay close to the source, the gemba, to gather our data. We should keep updating our mental models, and not rely on old mental models. We should not try to find only data that corroborates our hypotheses. We should continuously update/improve our orientation. We should start learning from varying fields.

We should allow local autonomy in our organization. This allows for better adaptation since they are close to the source. The idea of not being able to adapt with a fast changing environment can also be explained by Murray Gell-Mann’s maladaptive schemata. From Osinga:

One of the most common reasons for the existence of maladaptive schemata is that they were once adaptive, but under conditions that no longer prevail. The environment has changed at a faster rate than the evolutionary process can accommodate.

In case you missed it, my last post was AQL/RQL/LTPD/OC Curve/Reliability and Confidence: