Tempo and OODA: The Backstory

by Venkat on July 22, 2011

John Boyd’s OODA loop (observe, orient, decide, act) often comes up when I discuss Tempo with people from the more esoteric  decision-making traditions. Very few people in the decision sciences are even aware of OODA, despite Boyd’s significant technical contributions to fighter combat tactics and energy-maneuverability theory, which preceded his more conceptual, almost metaphysical OODA work. This is because, despite the very technical look of the classic OODA diagram, there is an element of mysticism surrounding OODA.

So I thought I’d tell the back-story of how OODA informed Tempo, and is continuing to inform the ongoing conversation that I hope will feed into a more ambitious second edition.

But first a heads-up: I’ll be participating in a panel discussion about OODA and its relevance to the business/startup world next Wednesday, July 27th, 11:55 – 1:00. It’s a free call-in webinar, but space is limited. If you’re interested, register here. The event is hosted by Sean Murphy, one of my early supporters in getting the Tempo project off the ground, a few years ago.

Now for the backstory. There’s two parts to it: the nature of the “Boydian community” itself, and how the ideas ended up informing Tempo.

Bottling Boydian Bushido

If you ignore that mystical element of OODA (as academia is wont to, and as I myself did, when I first encountered it sometime in grad school), you are likely to dismiss it entirely. Despite appearances, OODA is more Sun Tzu than feedback control block diagram. More Musashi than computer science flowchart. In fact, interpreted through those narrowly technical lenses, it can appear to be a clunky and impoverished model of human decision-making.

To get to the essence of OODA you have to take the apparently mystical element seriously.

You have to try to make sense of the cryptic utterances in OODA culture, such as “you must get inside the tempo of your adversary” or “fight the enemy, not the terrain.” There are layers of meaning to peel back there. As my martial artist friend Ho-Sheng Hsiao would say, the OODA loop is more a kata than a recipe.

You could also think of it as a sort of mandala, to be meditatively pondered rather than merely executed. As you learn from his biography, Boyd was almost obsessively concerned with every detail of how he presented an idea, so you can be sure that every word and visual element in the diagram was put in with extreme care and deliberation. If something seems like an arbitrary or throwaway piece, you just haven’t unpacked its meaning yet.

If such mystic characterizations bother you, simply think of the diagram as a highly compressed (in the sense of file compression) representation of a much bigger gestalt of ideas. It must be uncompressed to be clearly understood.

I am not saying that the ideas in the mystic cloud around OODA are actually mystical (though some will no doubt disagree). They are simply very hard to demystify. We lack a clean vocabulary, so those who try in well-intentioned but naive ways often end up oversimplifying OODA to the point of triteness, rather than demystifying it.

As a result of this difficulty, OODA has been highly influential in the practice of decision-making, but not in the theoretical study of decision making in academia. Clean concepts and definitions are a prerequisite for that kind of scrutiny to be productive.

The influence of OODA among practitioners has been largely subterranean, passed on via illegible networks of influence, conversations, circulation of canonical documents that were never formally published, and very noisy word-of-mouth transmission of core concepts (in which I have participated in recent times).

There is of course a cost to this illegibility. Besides the noise that accompanies illegible intellectual cultures, Boydians can come across as almost cultish, and some of them to be honest, are cultish in their approach to the core ideas. This is one reason I don’t consider myself a true Boydian. Apart from my general aversion to fanboyism, my other influences sometimes conflict with Boydian orthodoxy (ironically, there is such a thing, despite the association of Boydianism with unorthodoxy).

So I am going to be touching upon Boydian themes (which are really part of a much longer intellectual culture) a lot in future blog posts, so as a heads up, that’s going to be my program of exploration: carefully, critically and selectively demystifying what I agree with and am able to clarify.

I hope to roll that up into a cogent treatment of adversarial decision-making in a future edition (Boydian thought is one of the handful of directions from which I am approaching adversarial decision-making).

But let me tell you about how this illegible, subterranean universe of ideas seeped into Tempo. It is the tale of an appropriately illegible pattern of influences on my own thinking.

Soaking up a Gestalt

The backstory is interesting primarily as an illustration of the degree to which a book is really the product of partly subconscious collective processes rather than the imagination of a single individual. As a result, there can be more inside a book than an author consciously puts in.

But that can only happen if you allow your subconscious to channel influences from a broader tradition of ideas into your work, and view yourself as an instrument of a grander historical process through which an idea discovers itself. You have to choose to take part in a particular bucket brigade. It’s a matter of trusting your intuitions during writing, and keeping it partially permeable to osmosis processes.

OODA is one of the ideas that made it into Tempo more through such zeitgeist-channeling than any explicit inclusion decisions on my part. Though I only have a couple of passages explicitly devoted to OODA, the entire text has a somewhat Boydian flavor, which I never consciously intended to put in.

Allowing the zeitgeist channeling to occur is an admission that it takes a village to write a book, and those who are unwilling to make this admission end up suffering from what Bloom called the anxiety of influence: an attempt to first socialize into and then individuate oneself out of, a broader intellectual culture. When the anxiety prevails, the work of individuals tends to get impoverished.

As I mentioned earlier, I mostly dismissed OODA when I first encountered it. Sean Murphy’s feedback on a few early chapters however, made me take a second, harder look.

Back then, I thought I understood OODA, based on a casual first encounter and my own background as a control theorist (the field is all about feedback loops, and OODA at first sight just looks like a feedback loop diagram).  With my second look however, I realized that there was a lot more to the loop. So I bookmarked it as a “Hmm! This really isn’t a standard control-theoretic loop” but didn’t dig much deeper.

In making the final cut of ideas to include in the book, I decided to leave out adversarial decision-making, so I limited my explicit discussion of the OODA loop to a few passages, and decided to defer further research into it. But my intuitions about the parts of OODA that I hadn’t delved into back then, seem in retrospect to have guided how I wrote the rest of the book.

When I was nearly done with the manuscript,  I finally had time to dig deeper. Dan Pritchett‘s timely recommendation of Robert Coram’s Boyd biography provided the perfect starting point. From there, I moved on to famous Boyd documents like Destruction and Creation and Patterns of Conflict.

I was surprised to discover just how deeply the ideas in Tempo resonated with OODA. Though I was using a different vocabulary and exploring decision-making phenomena in non-adversarial settings, I seemed to have converged on many of the same core foundational themes, such as entropy, mental models, narratives and of course, tempo itself.

The validation was reassuring. Further conversations with people more immersed in OODA-lore, such as Mark Safranski, increased my sense that despite my differing priorities, I’d basically been attacking the same mysteries that OODA takes on, from a different approach vector.

My exploration of OODA has only gotten more interesting since then. One particularly rich conversation I have ongoing is with martial artist Ho-Sheng Hsiao (Hosh). Thanks to his deep knowledge of esoteric martial arts and the philosophies of Musashi and Sun Tzu, he has been able to point out deeper layers of meaning in my own ideas. Though I originally introduced him to Boyd through my email newsletter, he now knows way more about the subject than I do. That’s how these village-productions work, I guess. In particular, through some concrete examples, he helped me understand why “inside the tempo of an adversary” and “faster tempo than the competition” are not the same thing. Previously, I’d only had a vague intuition about this idea, based on a poor analogy to one signal interfering with another.

In some ways, with respect to some of the ideas I put into Tempo, driven more by intuition than analysis, people like Hosh and Mark understand what I’ve written better than I do myself.

I really like the thought of that: that perhaps by allowing myself to be unconsciously influenced, I’ve made the book smarter than myself. I suspect this is what Skinner was getting at in his famous “on having a poem” lecture (which is a sort of alternative statement of Bloom’s anxiety of influence idea).  One of the items on my to-do list is to reread Tempo thoroughly in about 6 months, to see if I can consciously pull out what I unconsciously put in.

Of course, there is no mystery or Jungian collective unconscious at work here. Thanks to Boyd’s pervasive influence within the US military,  I am sure I must have absorbed a lot of the ideas indirectly during my years as a postdoc working on Air Force sponsored research, during which I talked to pilots and pored through many military doctrine documents.

Ideas that Boydians understand through Boyd are also not unique to that community. There are other traditions that also stumbled upon the same ideas in other domains. For example, Lakoff’s model of conceptual metaphor is very Boydian, and Boyd’s thought is very Lakoffian. The same can be said of James Scott’s ideas on legibility and my own ideas on organizational dysfunction in the Gervais Principle series. At the risk of sounding wooly-headed, it’s all connected. A lot of what I do is make those sorts of connections explicit and transparent.

Most recently, I was pleasantly surprised to discover, during a conversation with a chemist friend of mine at UCLA, that he’d been sort of rediscovering certain ideas I’d classify as “Boydian” through his study of how certain virus RNA molecules fold onto themselves. That conversation helped me connect some crucial dots that I’ll talk about another day. Hint about the connection: the word unfolding occurs a few times in the OODA diagram; there is a certain sense in which OODA “unfolding” is related to protein folding.

With that cryptic teaser, I’ll leave you to go ponder the OODA Mandala on your own.


Ho-Sheng Hsiao July 23, 2011 at 10:39 pm

I look forward to the demystification 😀

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