Cynefin & OODA: Sense- & Decision-Making for Today’s VUCA World (Part 1)

Explicitly connected to Scrum and the Lean Startup, the OODA loop is becoming part of today’s business vernacular. If you attend a Big Data, DevOps, Agile, or Cyber conference, there is a good chance that you will hear a speaker talk about “getting inside your competition’s OODA loop” or “flying the OODA loop.” OODA has even made its way into politics as a way for pundits to describe Donald Trump’s ability, purposeful or careless, to create mismatches or ambiguity for his less agile opponents—a key feature of Boyd’s OODA loop.

A decision-making process for dynamic situations, the OODA loop represents forty years of John Boyd’s research captured in several briefings and papers. His OODA loop sketch—and that’s what it is, a sketch—did not appear until 1996 even though many conference goers often hear that the loop was created in the 1950s. John Boyd has clear guidelines about the use of his sketch: (1) it can be drawn any way you want; (2) do not simplify it; and (3) do not make it more complicated than it is.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of video-conferencing with Chet Richards, author of Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business, and long-time friend of the late John Boyd. The purpose of our conversation was to take a look at where Boyd’s OODA loop fits in Dave Snowden’s Naturalizing Sense-Making matrix (below) and to see how we can map OODA to Cynefin, a sense-making framework. This post will look at the former and save the latter following conversations with Dave Snowden, Chet Richards and others.

Naturalizing Sense-Making Matrix: How Do We Avoid The Hype and False Promises (Dave Snowden)

On the left side of Dave Snowden’s 2×2 matrix is the scientific method. And on the right, is Observation + Hypotheses = Method. The items on the left scale at low risk and those on the right scale with high risk. Ideally, we want our management approaches that help us navigate VUCA to be in the bottom left; however, classic science is not applicable to human systems.

Methods that are supported by sound theory–those that can be replicated in different contexts—fall in the top left. The top left is good. Valuable methods derived from observations and hypotheses that have explanatory power fall in the top right. The top right is okay. Context specific methods that claim predictive power fall in the bottom right—most management approaches and Agile methodologies fall here—these are considered inappropriate. The bottom right heeds caution. To learn more about what methods may fall in each quadrant, watch this video or any of Dave Snowden’s recent talks.

Where Does the OODA Loop Fit in This Matrix?

The question Chet and I tried to answer during our call was, Where does the OODA loop fit in this matrix? Chet and I believe OODA falls in the top left. However, overcoming Popper’s falsification test is a current hurdle. And, I am sure Dave Snowden will have something to say about our justification.

Formative Factors Behind the OODA Loop: Air-to-Air Combat, Strategy and Science

Chet and I spent most of our 75-minute conversation examining the science that influenced Boyd and how he captured that in his OODA loop. Chet reminded me that Boyd defined science as “a self-correcting process of observations, synthesis/analysis, hypothesis, and test.” According to Chet, Boyd was deeply interested in how scientist learn and how knowledge grows; the work of Polanyi, Kuhn, and Popper influenced Boyd the most.

Natural sciences influenced Boyd’s thinking and are evident in several of his briefings prior to the 1996 unveiling of his OODA loop. In fact, science played a bigger role in the development of the OODA loop, more so than Boyd’s experience as a fighter pilot. However, most people associate the OODA loop with combat aviation, not the scientific method.

The sciences that provided John Boyd constraints and guidance on the development of his simple and elegant OODA loop sketch and his supporting briefings include Complex Adaptive Systems, Cognitive Science, Epistemology, Evolutionary Theory, Thermodynamics, Chaos Theory, Cybernetics, and Systems Thinking.

OODA Loop: How We Test Hypotheses

The OODA loop is how we test hypotheses. According to Chet, organizations that are trying to learn something new must use multiple safe-to-fail experiments, and through repeated OODA looping (observation, analyses & synthesis, hypothesis, and test), they see how their experiments work, and then add the results to their repertoire. To put it simply, OODA is the decision-making process that compliments the sense-making framework known as Cynefin. We will examine what this may look like in a later post.

Additional Notes

  • Chet wanted me to make it clear that Boyd took over 40 years to develop the OODA loop and one cannot learn the OODA loop in a two-hour seminar.
  • Many people use the OODA loop to sell their management and Agile methods—some of those methods fall in the bottom right quadrant of Dave Snowden’s Naturalizing Sense-Making Matrix.
  • John Boyd’s cross-disciplinary approach in building his OODA loop is similar to Dave Snowden’s approach to Cynefin.
  • Boyd claims that agility is an outcome of OODA. And that agility is an external, relative measure. Not an internal one.

I look forward to your comments and help!

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering naval aviator, co-founder of AGLX Consulting, LLC, and co-creator of High-Performance Teaming™ – an evidence-based, human systems solution to rapidly build and develop high-performing teams and organizations.


OODA Loop Sketch by HurricaneAllie Design

Special thanks to Chet Richards for taking time to discuss his passion. AGLX received prior permission from Chet Richards to use notes from our 12/21/2016 conversation.

Naturalizing Sense-Making Matrix image created by AGLX Consulting and is used with permission under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Noderivs license. The Cognitive Edge method is ©2017 Cognitive Edge (USA) Inc., used with permission under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Noderivs license

Richards, Chet (2004-06-24). Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business. Kindle Edition.

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