In the Korean-US war in the early 1950s, the Koreans used the Russian MIG 15 and the Americans the Sabre F4. On all conventional counts, the MIG was better than the Sabre – it flew higher and faster, and turned tighter. But it was significantly outplayed by the Sabre. To begin with, the Americans put this down to better training and people, but it took a US fighter commander, Major John Boyd, to see things differently. He noticed two things – the Sabre had a big bubble cockpit on top that allowed the US pilots to see around far better than the MIG pilots could in their low-slung cockpits, and it had hydraulic controls, which worked quicker and with less effort than the MIGs’ controls.
It turned out that these key features enabled Sabre pilots to see around them quicker and better, make sense of what was happening faster, and then respond with more agility and dynamism, so getting the jump on the enemy.
Boyd put this into a concept which he called the OODA loop – which stood for: Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act. The OODA loop is often used as a template for strategic planning or action learning –and has proved to be useful, even if it is widely misunderstood.
But does this really matter? More so than you might imagine …
Typical strategic planning requires a long process of SWOT analysis, interpretation, planning, action and then feedback loops – with the process continually repeated. Seems sensible. But when you think about it, does this really make sense? Ask yourself a simple question: “Does the world around you change faster than your planning allows for?” Frankly, most people will say, “Yes,” to that. And that’s a big problem.
Leaders have to navigate a course that allows them to create value for clients through their organisations in a fast-changing world. Some of the ways in which the world is changing include technology, increasingly complex dynamics of international business and the ever increasing expectations both of our clients and of the people who are working with and for us – our employees.
The other way in which our context is changing fast is in competitor dynamics. How the business system works for all is to create competitors for us – competitors who continuously struggle to do better than us and so provide better value, to the benefit of our clients. It’s a battle. These are the reasons why Andy Grove, while CEO of Intel, famously said, “Only the paranoid survive”.
Good observation requires us to be alert, skilled and disciplined in observing what’s happening around us so that we note both the big, obvious changes as well as the small, subtle cues and vaguer hints.
But orientation is a much bigger and more interesting challenge. It’s not only about your being able to make sense of what’s happening, but doing so with a fresh mind free from prior assumptions, hypotheses and outdated sense-making frameworks. It’s also about doing it quickly enough to keep up with changes and, in effect, to get ahead of your competitors’ capacity to make sense.
If you can do that by reacting quickly and in different ways, getting inside your competitors’ OODA loops, you will appear unpredictable, erratic and illogical to them. This causes them to make mistakes by over- or under-reacting – generally giving you the advantage. This is also what Muhammad Ali meant when he said he ‘floated like a butterfly’ – dancingly observing and moving the changing game from above – before ‘stinging like a bee’.
And that’s why, in the end, the big heavy-metal fighter jets gave way to a modern generation of lighter, agile aircraft that could change the game.
Now, can you do the same with your business?
IMAGE CREDITS: http://www.jbsa.af.mil/