Observe, Orient, Decide, Act: The loop for making rational decisions under pressure

Devised by strategist and US Air Force Colonel John Boyd, OODA Loop is designed to enable rational thinking in chaotic situations. As it benefits fighter pilots, it can also find its purpose in a business manager's day-to-day

Updated: Jun 14, 2021 11:23:32 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

Everything is getting faster. Either, we live in a blur or we strive to develop the ability to make effective decisions, faster. As individuals, corporations, states, nations, and humanity, our ability to survive and thrive depends on it.

These decisions can be as follows -

  • Can we gain relevant information, recognise potential biases, decide, and act fast?
  • How do we distinguish between real expertise and confident bluster?
  • Do we pay attention to an informational structure that facilitates good predictions?
  • How and when do we recognise errors? How do we make corrections and gain feedback for continued learning?
  • Do we build upon the available evidence to make better predictions?
  • Do we have ‘pattern appreciation’? Can we reduce it to formulaic representation?
  • Is the quality and speed of our decision making improving? Is that true for error detection as well?

To learn how to make rational decisions under pressure, it is helpful to look at the techniques people use in extreme situations. What works in the most drastic scenarios is likely to be effective in more routine ones.

I find the OODA Loop, developed by legendary strategist and US Air Force Colonel John Boyd, to be a practical process. OODA stands for ‘Observe, Orient, Decide, Act’. Remember the Loop part. It is intended to be repeated again and again. It was designed to enable rational thinking in chaotic situations. What suffices for fighter pilots in deadly combat, as they travel faster than sound, can work for business managers when making critical decisions.

The French have an expression—coup d'œil which means 'a glance that takes in a comprehensive view'. Napoleon was reputed to possess a legendary coup d'œil and could understand the field of battle with one look. An observation of a field of action must aim at building the most accurate and comprehensive picture of it.

Observation is not about soaking in information. It is about composing a picture and injecting a meaning relevant to the context. This is why an interview ranks above the reading of a resume. The most lifesaving capability of observation is to be able to identify the signal from the noise.

If we want to make good decisions faster, we need to master the art of observing our environment. For a fighter pilot, atmospherics, placement, available firepower are the basics. In a marketing war, it may be timing, reach, and creative firepower. In both cases, one must learn to watch our reaction to what we observe. We must not react in a manner that might hamper our capacity for further observation. Counterintelligence experts claim that observation of subtleties yields far more information than what is blatantly obvious. An expert observes a lot from a little. He then processes it into understanding adding iteratively, while he keeps on observing.

A fighter pilot in action is always in a grave situation. He is acting under extreme volatility and uncertainty. However, Boyd underlined the point that uncertainty is irrelevant if we have a process. He concluded that we must cope with uncertainty at the observation stage.

John Boyd said, “Orientation isn’t just a state you’re in; it’s a process. You’re always orienting.

The difficulty is that orientation is learned. It is not instinctive. It allows you to recognise any barriers that might interfere. Stimulus is observed even when we don’t try, but orientation calls for effort.

Orientation in this context means seeing the world as it really is, as free as possible from the influence of cognitive biases and shortcuts. The most common reason for our inability to orient is that we are lazy as thinkers. We are used to bias. It is comforting as a shortcut. It affects our ability to examine and amalgamate facts. Habit trumps thinking when we don't practice and develop it and that is why when the presented information changes fast, it spells trouble. That change scrambles our ability to observe. For such a scenario, Boyd appealed for 'deductive destruction'. This means weeding out bias by recording the ‘before’ and ‘after’. Focus on past mistakes. Do not repeat them.

In one of his famous lectures, Boyd spoke of the ‘mental snowmobile’ which refers to the ability to make associations in the mind. He said, “a loser is someone (individual or group) who cannot build snowmobiles when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change; whereas a winner is someone (individual or group) who can not only build snowmobiles but also employ them in an appropriate fashion when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change.” 

Make informed decisions a prerequisite to taking action. If there are multiple viable decisions, choose and make one. Then loop it to judge if you made the right choice. Boyd warned against the ‘first answer is the right answer’ bias. In business, we often don’t proceed with a valid hypothesis. Therefore we don’t have confirmatory decisions emerging from the observations that we make.

There’s a difference between making decisions and executing them. So many decisions languish in emails, reports, and intent documents. Action is what makes things happen. By taking action, we commit ourselves. The results will tell us if we were right or not but without action, there is no consequential feedback into the OODA Loop.

Act and begin observing all over again.

To conclude, it is all about being decisive, taking initiative, and staying self-directed. These apply to business and combat in the same measure.

Once we follow the OODA Loop in our day-to-day decision-making process, we will start to notice new things. We will reason before concluding and not act reflexively on our biases. We will feedback on the consequences of our actions.

The pandemic is teaching us that great threats are lurking in our blind spots. Let us be ever vigilant and observe, orient, decide and act to make the world better.

The writer is a global head of marketing and brand for Royal Enfield. Views are personal

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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