What You Can Learn from Fighter Pilots About Making Fast and Accurate Decisions

“What is strategy? A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.””

— John Boyd

What techniques do people use in the most extreme situations to make decisions? What can we learn from them to help us make more rational and quick decisions?

If these techniques work in the most drastic scenarios, they have a good chance of working for us. This is why military mental models can have such wide, useful applications outside their original context.

Military mental models are constantly tested in the laboratory of conflict. If they weren’t agile, versatile, and effective, they would quickly be replaced by others. Military leaders and strategists invest a great deal of time in developing and teaching decision-making processes.

One strategy that I’ve found repeatedly effective is the OODA loop.

Developed by strategist and U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd, the OODA loop is a practical concept designed to be the foundation of rational thinking in confusing or chaotic situations. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.

Boyd developed the strategy for fighter pilots. However, like all good mental models, it can be extended into other fields. We used it at the intelligence agency I used to work at. I know lawyers, police officers, doctors, businesspeople, politicians, athletes, and coaches who use it.

Fighter pilots have to work fast. Taking a second too long to make a decision can cost them their lives. As anyone who has ever watched Top Gun knows, pilots have a lot of decisions and processes to juggle when they’re in dogfights (close-range aerial battles). Pilots move at high speeds and need to avoid enemies while tracking them and keeping a contextual knowledge of objectives, terrains, fuel, and other key variables.

Dogfights are nasty. I’ve talked to pilots who’ve been in them. They want the fights to be over as quickly as possible. The longer they go, the higher the chances that something goes wrong. Pilots need to rely on their creativity and decision-making abilities to survive. There is no game plan to follow, no schedule or to-do list. There is only the present moment when everything hangs in the balance.

Forty-Second Boyd

Boyd was no armchair strategist. He developed his ideas during his own time as a fighter pilot. He earned the nickname “Forty-Second Boyd” for his ability to win any fight in under 40 seconds.

In a tribute written after Boyd’s death, General C.C. Krulak described him as “a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war. Indeed, he was one of the central architects of the reform of military thought…. From John Boyd we learned about competitive decision making on the battlefield—compressing time, using time as an ally.”

Reflecting Robert Greene’s maxim that everything is material, Boyd spent his career observing people and organizations. How do they adapt to changeable environments in conflicts, business, and other situations?

Over time, he deduced that these situations are characterized by uncertainty. Dogmatic, rigid theories are unsuitable for chaotic situations. Rather than trying to rise through the military ranks, Boyd focused on using his position as colonel to compose a theory of the universal logic of war.

Boyd was known to ask his mentees the poignant question, “Do you want to be someone, or do you want to do something?” In his own life, he certainly focused on the latter path and, as a result, left us ideas with tangible value. The OODA loop is just one of many.

The Four Parts of the OODA Loop

Let's break down the four parts of the OODA loop and see how they fit together.

OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. The description of it as a loop is crucial. Boyd intended the four steps to be repeated again and again until a conflict finishes. Although most depictions of the OODA loop portray it as a superficial idea, there is a lot of depth to it. Using it should be simple, but it has a rich basis in interdisciplinary knowledge.

1: Observe
The first step in the OODA Loop is to observe. At this stage, the main focus is to build a comprehensive picture of the situation with as much accuracy as possible.

A fighter pilot needs to consider: What is immediately affecting me? What is affecting my opponent? What could affect us later on? Can I make any predictions, and how accurate were my prior ones? A pilot's environment changes rapidly, so these observations need to be broad and fluid.

And information alone is not enough. The observation stage requires awareness of the overarching meaning of the information. It also necessitates separating the information which is relevant for a particular decision from that which is not. You have to add context to the variables.

The observation stage is vital in decision-making processes.

For example, faced with a patient in an emergency ward, a doctor needs to start by gathering as much foundational knowledge as possible. That might be the patient's blood pressure, pulse, age, underlying health conditions, and reason for admission. At the same time, the doctor needs to discard irrelevant information and figure out which facts are relevant for this precise situation. Only by putting the pieces together can she make a fast decision about the best way to treat the patient. The more experienced a doctor is, the more factors she is able to take into account, including subtle ones, such as a patient's speech patterns, his body language, and the absence (rather than presence) of certain signs.

2: Orient

Orientation, the second stage of the OODA loop, is frequently misunderstood or skipped because it is less intuitive than the other stages. Boyd referred to it as the schwerpunkt, a German term which loosely translates to “the main emphasis.” In this context, to orient is to recognize the barriers that might interfere with the other parts of the process.

Without an awareness of these barriers, the subsequent decision cannot be a fully rational one. Orienting is all about connecting with reality, not with a false version of events filtered through the lens of cognitive biases and shortcuts.

“Orientation isn't just a state you're in; it's a process. You're always orienting.”

— John Boyd

Including this step, rather than jumping straight to making a decision, gives us an edge over the competition. Even if we are at a disadvantage to begin with, having fewer resources or less information, Boyd maintained that the Orient step ensures that we can outsmart an opponent.

For Western nations, cyber-crime is a huge threat — mostly because for the first time ever, they can’t outsmart, outspend, or out-resource the competition. Boyd has some lessons for them.

Boyd believed that four main barriers prevent us from seeing information in an unbiased manner:

  1. Our cultural traditions
  2. Our genetic heritage
  3. Our ability to analyze and synthesize
  4. The influx of new information — it is hard to make sense of observations when the situation keeps changing

Boyd was one of the first people to discuss the importance of building a toolbox of mental models, prior to Charlie Munger’s popularization of the concept among investors.

Boyd believed in “destructive deduction” — taking note of incorrect assumptions and biases and then replacing them with fundamental, versatile mental models. Only then can we begin to garner a reality-oriented picture of the situation, which will inform subsequent decisions.

Boyd employed a brilliant metaphor for this — a snowmobile. In one talk, he described how a snowmobile comprises elements of different devices. The caterpillar treads of a tank, skis, the outboard motor of a boat, the handlebars of a bike — each of those elements is useless alone, but combining them creates a functional vehicle.

As Boyd put it: “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 build snowmobiles, and employ them in an appropriate fashion, when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change.”

To orient ourselves, we have to build a metaphorical snowmobile by combining practical concepts from different disciplines.

Although Boyd is regarded as a military strategist, he didn’t confine himself to any particular discipline. His theories encompass ideas drawn from various disciplines, including mathematical logic, biology, psychology, thermodynamics, game theory, anthropology, and physics. Boyd described his approach as a “scheme of pulling things apart (analysis) and putting them back together (synthesis) in new combinations to find how apparently unrelated ideas and actions can be related to one another.”

3. Decide

No surprises here. Having gathered information and oriented ourselves, we have to make an informed decision. The previous two steps should have generated a plethora of ideas, so this is the point where we choose the most relevant option.

Boyd cautioned against first-conclusion bias, explaining that we cannot keep making the same decision again and again. This part of the loop needs to be flexible and open to Bayesian updating. In some of his notes, Boyd described this step as the hypothesis stage. The implication is that we should test the decisions we make at this point in the loop, spotting their flaws and including any issues in future observation stages.

4. Act

While technically a decision-making process, the OODA loop is all about action. The ability to act upon rational decisions is a serious advantage.

The other steps are mere precursors. A decision made, now is the time to act upon it. Also known as the test stage, this is when we experiment to see how good our decision was. Did we observe the right information? Did we use the best possible mental models? Did we get swayed by biases and other barriers? Can we disprove the prior hypothesis? Whatever the outcome, we then cycle back to the first part of the loop and begin observing again.

Why the OODA Loop Works

The OODA loop has four key benefits.

1. Speed

Fighter pilots must make many decisions in fast succession. They don’t have time to list pros and cons or to consider every available avenue. Once the OODA loop becomes part of their mental toolboxes, they should be able to cycle through it in a matter of seconds.

Speed is a crucial element of military decision making. Using the OODA loop in everyday life, we probably have a little more time than a fighter pilot would. But Boyd emphasized the value of being decisive, taking initiative, and staying autonomous. These are universal assets and apply to many situations.

Take the example of modern growth hacker marketing.

“The ability to operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than an adversary enables one to fold the adversary back inside himself so that he can neither appreciate nor keep up with what is going on. He will become disoriented and confused…”

— John Boyd

The key advantage growth hackers have over traditional marketers is speed. They observe (look at analytics, survey customers, perform a/b tests, etc.) and orient themselves (consider vanity versus meaningful metrics, assess interpretations, and ground themselves in the reality of a market) before making a decision and then acting. The final step serves to test their ideas and they have the agility to switch tactics if the desired outcome is not achieved.

Meanwhile, traditional marketers are often trapped in lengthy campaigns which do not offer much in the way of useful metrics. Growth hackers can adapt and change their techniques every single day depending on what works. They are not confined by stagnant ideas about what worked before.

So, although they may have a small budget and fewer people to assist them, their speed gives them an advantage. Just as Boyd could defeat any opponent in under 40 seconds (even starting at a position of disadvantage), growth hackers can grow companies and sell products at extraordinary rates, starting from scratch.

2. Comfort With Uncertainty
Uncertainty does not always equate to risk. A fighter pilot is in a precarious situation, where there will be gaps in their knowledge. They cannot read the mind of the opponent and might have incomplete information about the weather conditions and surrounding environment. They can, however, take into account key factors such as the opponent's nationality, the type of airplane they are flying, and what their maneuvers reveal about their intentions and level of training.

If the opponent uses an unexpected strategy, is equipped with a new type of weapon or airplane, or behaves in an irrational, ideologically motivated way, the pilot must accept the accompanying uncertainty. However, Boyd belabored the point that uncertainty is irrelevant if we have the right filters in place.

If we don’t, we can end up stuck at the observation stage, unable to decide or act. But if we do have the right filters, we can factor uncertainty into the observation stage. We can leave a margin of error. We can recognize the elements which are within our control and those which are not.

Three key principles supported Boyd’s ideas. In his presentations, he referred to Gödel’s Proof, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Gödel’s theorems indicate that any mental model we have of reality will omit certain information and that Bayesian updating must be used to bring it in line with reality. Our understanding of science illustrates this.

In the past, people’s conception of reality missed crucial concepts such as criticality, relativity, the laws of thermodynamics, and gravity. As we have discovered these concepts, we have updated our view of the world. Yet we would be foolish to think that we now know everything and our worldview is complete. Other key principles remain undiscovered. The same goes for fighter pilots — their understanding of what is going on during a battle will always have gaps. Identifying this fundamental uncertainty gives it less power over us.

The second concept Boyd referred to is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In its simplest form, this principle describes the limit of the precision with which pairs of physical properties can be understood. We cannot know the position and the velocity of a body at the same time. We can know either its location or its speed, but not both. Although Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle was initially used to describe particles, Boyd’s ability to combine disciplines led him to apply it to planes. If a pilot focuses too hard on where an enemy plane is, they will lose track of where it is going and vice versa. Trying harder to track the two variables will actually lead to more inaccuracy! Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle applies to myriad areas where excessive observation proves detrimental. Reality is imprecise.

Finally, Boyd made use of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a closed system, entropy always increases and everything moves towards chaos. Energy spreads out and becomes disorganized.

Although Boyd’s notes do not specify the exact applications, his inference appears to be that a fighter pilot must be an open system or they will fail. They must draw “energy” (information) from outside themselves or the situation will become chaotic. They should also aim to cut their opponent off, forcing them to become a closed system. Drawing on his studies, Boyd developed his Energy Maneuverability theory, which recast maneuvers in terms of the energy they used.

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

— Sun Tzu

3. Unpredictability

Using the OODA loop should enable us to act faster than an opponent, thereby seeming unpredictable. While they are still deciding what to do, we have already acted. This resets their own loop, moving them back to the observation stage. Keep doing this, and they are either rendered immobile or forced to act without making a considered decision. So, they start making mistakes, which can be exploited.

Boyd recommended making unpredictable changes in speed and direction, and wrote, “we should operate at a faster tempo than our adversaries or inside our adversaries[’] time scales. … Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (non predictable) [and] thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries.” He even helped design planes better equipped to make those unpredictable changes.

For the same reason that you can’t run the same play 70 times in a football game, rigid military strategies often become useless after a few uses, or even one iteration, as opponents learn to recognize and counter them. The OODA loop can be endlessly used because it is a formless strategy, unconnected to any particular maneuvers.

We know that Boyd was influenced by Sun Tzu (he owned seven thoroughly annotated copies of The Art of War), and he drew many ideas from the ancient strategist. Sun Tzu depicts war as a game of deception where the best strategy is that which an opponent cannot pre-empt. Apple has long used this strategy as a key part of their product launches. Meticulously planned, their launches are shrouded in secrecy and the goal is for no one outside the company to see a product prior to the release.

When information has been leaked, the company has taken serious legal action as well as firing associated employees. We are never sure what Apple will put out next (just search for “Apple product launch 2017” and you will see endless speculation based on few facts). As a consequence, Apple can stay ahead of their rivals.

Once a product launches, rival companies scramble to emulate it. But by the time their technology is ready for release, Apple is on to the next thing and has taken most of the market share. Although inexpensive compared to the drawn-out product launches other companies use, Apple’s unpredictability makes us pay attention. Stock prices rise the day after, tickets to launches sell out in seconds, and the media reports launches as if they were news events, not marketing events.

4. Testing

A notable omission in Boyd’s work is any sort of specific instructions for how to act or which decisions to make. This is presumably due to his respect for testing. He believed that ideas should be tested and then, if necessary, discarded.

“We can't just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we've got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in.”

— John Boyd

Boyd’s OODA is a feedback loop, with the outcome of actions leading back to observations. Even in Aerial Attack Study, his comprehensive manual of maneuvers, Boyd did not describe any particular one as superior. He encouraged pilots to have the widest repertoire possible so they could select the best option in response to the maneuvers of an opponent.

We can incorporate testing into our decision-making processes by keeping track of outcomes in decision journals. Boyd’s notes indicate that he may have done just that during his time as a fighter pilot, building up the knowledge that went on to form Aerial Attack Study. Rather than guessing how our decisions lead to certain outcomes, we can get a clear picture to aid us in future orientation stages. Over time, our decision journals will reveal what works and what doesn’t.

Applying the OODA Loop

In sports, there is an adage that carries over to business quite well: “Speed kills.” If you are able to be nimble, able to assess the ever-changing environment and adapt quickly, you'll always carry the advantage over your opponent.

Start applying the OODA loop to your day-to-day decisions and watch what happens. You'll start to notice things that you would have been oblivious to before. Before jumping to your first conclusion, you'll pause to consider your biases, take in additional information, and be more thoughtful of consequences.

As with anything you practice,  if you do it right, the more you do it, the better you'll get.  You'll start making better decisions more quickly. You'll see more rapid progress. And as John Boyd would prescribe, you'll start to DO something in your life, and not just BE somebody.

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