by Bret & Kate McKay
I have been a student and advocate of the OODA loop for many years. It has real application and value in missions, Church planting, even understanding what to do (and what not to) in hostile cultural surroundings. I recommend it to any and every student of mission and homiletics. Here’s why.
John Boyd is described by some as the greatest military strategist in history that no one knows. He began his military career as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, but he slowly transformed himself into one of the greatest philosopher-warriors to ever live.
In 1961, at age 33, he wrote “Aerial Attack Study,” which codified the best dogfighting tactics for the first time, became the “bible of air combat,” and revolutionized the methods of every air force in the world. His Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) Theory helped give birth to the legendary F-15, F-16, and A-10 aircraft. Perhaps his most significant contribution to military strategy, though, came from a series of briefings he gave. In them, Boyd laid out a way of thinking about conflict that would revolutionize warfare around the world.
The idea centers on an incredible strategic tool: the OODA Loop — Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Nation-states around the world and even terrorist organizations use the OODA Loop as part of their military strategy. It has also been adopted by businesses to help them thrive in a volatile and highly competitive economy.
The OODA Loop is an oft-cited, but typically misunderstood idea. If you’ve heard of it, it was most likely presented in a fairly superficial way – as a 4-step decision-making process where the individual or group who makes it through all the stages the quickest, wins. That’s one element of the OODA Loop, but there’s much more to it than that.
The reason the OODA Loop is so frequently misunderstood is that John Boyd never described it in detail in a technical paper. In fact, despite all his contributions to military strategy, he only has one very short paper to his name – “Destruction and Creation.”Instead, he developed and explained the OODA Loop through a series of sometimes five-hour-long briefings. The only notes we have are his briefing slides and a few tape recordings and transcripts that exist of his presentations. (Because he never wrote his ideas down, militaries and businesses often use his ideas without giving him credit. The lack of documentation likely explains why so few people today know about John Boyd.)
As you look through these materials, you quickly learn that a lot of hard thinking and philosophizing went into the development of the OODA Loop. Boyd combined a deep understanding of military history and strategic thinking with a wide range of other intellectual domains and theorems, including quantum mechanics, cybernetics, chaos theory, Popperism, and Neo-Darwinism. For this reason, to truly understand the OODA Loop, one must be familiar with the scientific and philosophical developments that helped create it.
Thus, once you move past the simplified, Cliff Notes version of the OODA Loop, you find that it’s actually pretty heady stuff. It’s not “groundbreaking” in the sense of revealing insight never before conceived; rather, its power is in the way it makes explicit, that which is usually implicit. It takes the basic ways we think, decide, and operate in the world — ways that often get confused and jumbled in the face of conflict and confusion — and codifies and organizes them into a strategic, effective system that can allow you to thrive in the heat of battle. It is a learning system, a method for dealing with uncertainty, and a strategy for winning head-to-head contests and competitions. In war, business, or life, the OODA Loop can help you grapple with changing, challenging circumstances and come out the other side on top.
I have spent the last month diving deep into the OODA Loop – reading everything available on it, from Boyd’s briefing notes to biographies to analyses of the theory by other authors. I also met with Curtis Sprague, a former U.S. Air Marshal and Lead Instructor at the Federal Air Marshal School in Dallas, and an avid student and instructor of the OODA Loop, to get his insights. Below you will find a synthesis of what I have learned. My goal is to provide the most thorough, but also accessible primer on the OODA Loop out there.
To begin your journey in mastering the “Tao of Boyd,” read on.