The OODA Loop: Lessons On Creative Thinking From A Fighter Pilot

OODABy Brijdeep Singh Bhasin

Too often people think that an idea is an atomic entity, you just need one brilliant idea and that is it, your life is set. Based on whatever I have read or experienced, this notion is far removed from reality. Ideas are not something you “get” but are thoughts & observations that evolve over a period to something worthwhile.

This post is in continuation on my last article about learning from books and applying the wisdom of experts and masters. The book Boyd: The Fighter Pilot who changed the Art of War traces the life of a U.S Fighter Pilot who is remembered for pushing the limits and always seeking near perfection in everything he did. After successful runs as pilot, an instructor, theorist, plane designer he increasing turned his attention to strategies of conducting successful campaigns. At the same time, he started exploring the nature of creative thinking itself and expounding on the lessons learnt researching historic wars. He articulated a strategy called the “OODA Loop” which stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action.

The world around is constantly evolving based on unfolding circumstances. These are partly due to the changes in our local environment, that is social, economic, technological etc. and also due to outside information like broad shifts at the global level. Under such conditions, it is imperative that we apply a keen sense of observation to take note of increasingly complex set of realities.  As we start understanding at a level abstracted from what is immediately apparent, we then start moving towards the right orientation of our perception of reality. This is done while taking into account aspects like cultural heritage, our value system, new information that we might have come across while assimilating this with our past experiences. At the same time, we need to understand and analyze the current systems, not just technological, but whatever systems that govern your line of work. The analysis is done through a process of destructive deduction by taking all the elements of the existing systems and mapping their parts and inter connections in a given domain. We then break them apart to find some common qualities or attributes. By looking for the connecting threads we then begin the process of creative synthesis by taking these parts and coming up with a new system that is still relevant on the basis of our earlier observations. The new system or “orientation” has an implicit guidance and control mechanism to check for consistency with the observational reality.

I know, it just sounds like some fundoo gyan swimming way over the head, but what Boyd is taking about is very similar to our very own tradition of Jugaad. We are supposed to be masters at observing whatever resources are available around us and then improvising or adapting them to suit our needs.  Boyd’s theory just provides a more scientific roadmap to apply into problems that require a solution bigger than slapping together a 4 wheel cart with a diesel generator for a make shift vehicle :) Anyways, coming back to the OODA Loop, the next two steps of Decision and Action are where we postulate specific hypothesis and then go out and test them in the market. There is also a need for proper feedback mechanisms attached from each of these steps to the original observations to guide the entire cycle. Translation – keep it real brother, Keep It Real.

Boyd said, “One can not determine the character or nature of a system within itself. Moreover, attempts to do so lead to confusion and disorder”.  We need to move beyond the comfort levels of what is known and accepted to be able to come up with something new and unexpected. And by gosh John Boyd lived through lots of struggle, criticism, and ridicule while overcoming tremendous roadblocks to give his ideas life. On a personal level, these constructs have at the very least helped me make sense of the world around me and think about our product in a way that would match real world scenarios. We may still miss the mark; we may not perceive subtleties or orient ourselves the right way. We may not make the right decisions or act at the right time. But as an old man from Kenya, Maruge, once said, “We must learn from our past. We must not forget. We must be better.”

Brij Bhasin

Brij Bhasin

Brij has somehow managed to live most of his life in either one of the hottest (Nagpur, India) or the coldest (Minnesota, USA) place in world before finally landing up in Bangalore. Software geek by training and a product startup guy by choice, he has loved working on early stage ideas, sculpting them to finished products and taking them to market over the past 10 years. While he never thought he would end up on the other side of the table, he is currently having a ball helping startups at the GSF Accelerator. He likes reading and recently devoured the entire Game of Thrones series books, but also has a special corner for non-fiction. Follow his tweets @brijbhasin