Tag Archives: OODA

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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Agile is Dead! The Rise of High-Performing Teams: 10 Lessons from Fighter Aviation

Software and hardware industry leaders are leveraging the lessons from fighter aviation to help their businesses navigate the speed of change and thrive in today’s complex and hostile environment. The emergence of the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop—an empathy-based decision cycle created by John Boyd (fighter pilot)—in today’s business lexicon suggests that executives, academia, and the Agile community recognize that fighter pilots know something about agility.

For example, Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup and entrepreneur, attributes the idea of the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop to John Boyd’s OODA Loop [1]. At the core of Steve Blank’s Customer Development model and Pivot found in his book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany, is once again OODA [2]. In his new book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, Dr. Jeff Sutherland, a former fighter pilot and the co-creator of Scrum, connects the origins of Scrum to hardware manufacturing and fighter aviation (John Boyd’s OODA Loop) [3]. Conduct a quick Google book search on “Cyber Security OODA” and you will find over 760 results.

This fighter pilot “mindset” behind today’s agile innovation frameworks and cyber security approaches is being delivered to organizations by coaches and consultants who may have watched Top Gun once or twice but more than likely have never been part of a high-performing team [4].

So What?

According to Laszlo Block, “Having practitioners teaching is a far more effective than listening to academics, professional trainers, or consultants. Academics and professional trainers tend to have theoretical knowledge. They know how things ought to work, but haven’t lived them [5].” Unfortunately, most agile consultants’ toolboxes contain more processes and tools than human interaction knowhow. Why? They have not lived what they coach. And this is what is killing Agile.

Teaming Lessons from Fighter Aviation

To survive and thrive in their complex environment, fighter pilots learn to operate as a network of teams using the cognitive and social skills designed by industrial-organizational psychologists—there is actually real science behind building effective teams. It is the combination of inspect-and-adapt frameworks with human interactions skills developed out of the science of teamwork that ultimately build a high-performance culture and move organizational structures from traditional, functional models toward interconnected, flexible teams.

10 Reasons Why Your Next Agile High-Performance Teaming Coach Should Have a Fighter Aviation Background

OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide.-Act). According to Jeff Sutherland, “Fighter pilots have John Boyd’s OODA Loop burned into muscle memory. They know what agility really means and can teach it uncompromisingly to others.”

Empathy. A 1 v 1 dogfight is an exercise in empathy, according to the award-winning thinker, author, broadcaster, and speaker on today’s most significant trends in business, Geoff Colvin. In his 2015 book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will, Geoff pens, “Even a fighter jet dogfight, in which neither pilot would ever speak to or even see the other, was above all a human interaction. Few people would call it an exercise in empathy, but that’s what it was—discerning what was in the mind of someone else and responding appropriately. Winning required getting really good at it [6]” Interestingly, empathy is baked-in Boyd’s OODA Loop.

Debriefing (Retrospective). The most important ceremony in any continuous improvement process is the retrospective (debrief). Your fleet average fighter pilot has more than 1000 debriefs under their belt before they leave their first tour at the five-year mark of service. In Agile iterations years, that is equal to 19 years of experience [7]. Moreover, when compared to other retrospective or debriefing techniques, “Debriefing with fighter pilot techniques offer more ‘bang for the buck’ in terms of learning value [8].” Why is this? There are no games in fighter pilot debriefs, no happy or sad faces to put up on the white board – just real human interactions, face-to-face conversations that focus on what’s right, not who’s right. Fighter pilots learn early that the key to an effective retrospective is establishing a psychologically safe environment.

Psychological Safety. Psychological safety “describes a climate in which people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings [9].” Fighter pilots learn to master this leadership skill the day they step in their first debrief where they observe their flight instructor stand up in front of the team and admit her own shortcomings (display fallibility), asks questions, and uses direct language. Interestingly, according to Google’s Project Aristotle, the most important characteristic to building a high-performing team is psychological safety [10]. Great job Google!

Teaming (Mindset and Practice of Teamwork) [11]. Although not ideal, fighter pilots often find themselves in “pickup games” where they find a wingman of opportunity from another squadron, service, or country—even during combat operations. Knowing how to coordinate and collaborate without the benefit of operating as a stable team is a skill fighter pilots develop from building nontechnical known stable interfaces. These stable interfaces include a common language; shared mental models of planning, briefing, and debriefing; and being aligned to shared and common goals. Yes, you do not need stable teams and you they do not need to be co-located if you have known stable interfaces of human interaction.

Empirical Process. The engine of agility is the empirical process and in tactical aviation we use a simple plan-brief-execute-debrief cycle that, when coupled with proven human interaction skills, builds a resilient and learning culture. The inspect and adapt execution rhythm is the same around every mission, whether it be a flight across country or 40-plane strike into enemy territory, we always planned, briefed, executed the mission, and held a debrief. There is no room for skipping steps—no exceptions.

Adaptability/Flexibility. The ability to alter a course of action based on new information, maintain constructive behavior under pressure and adapt to internal and external environmental changes is what fighter pilots call adaptability or flexibility. Every tactical aviator who strapped on a $50M aircraft knows that flexibility is the key to airpower. Every flight does not go according to plan and sometimes the enemy gets a vote – disrupting the plan to the point where the mission looks like a pick-up game. 

Agility. Agility is adaptability with a timescale.

Practical Servant Leadership Experience. Fighter pilots have practical experience operating in complex environments and are recognized as servant leaders. But don’t take my word for it; watch this video by Simon Sinek to learn more.

Fun. Agility is about having fun. Two of my favorite sayings from my time in the cockpit are “You cannot plan fun” and “If you are not having fun, you are not doing it right.” If your organization is truly Agile, then you should be having fun.

So, who’s coaching your teams?

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

[1] “The idea of the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop owes a lot to ideas from maneuver warfare, especially John Boyd’s OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop.” Ries, E. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. (Crown Publishing, 2011)

[2] “…Customer Development model with its iterative loops/pivots may sound like a new idea for entrepreneurs, it shares many features with U.S. warfighting strategy known as the “OODA Loop” articulated by John Boyd.” Blank, S. The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Successful Strategies for products that win. (2013)

[3] “In the book I talk about the origins of Scrum in the Toyota Production Systems and the OODA loop of combat aviation.” Sutherland, J. Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. New York. Crown Business (2014).

[4] I do not recommend the movie Top Gun as an Agile Training Resource.

[5] Block, L. Work Rules! That will transform how you live and lead. (Hachette Book Group, 2015).

[6] Geoff Colvin. Humans are Underrated: What high achievers know that brilliant machines never will, 96, (Portfolio/Penguin, 2015).

[7] Assuming two teams with iteration length of two weeks. And 100% retrospective execution.

[8] McGreevy, J. M., MD, FACSS, & Otten, T. D., BS. Briefing and Debriefing in the Operating Room Using Fighter Pilot Crew Resource Management. (2007, July).

[9] Edmondson, A.C. Teaming. How organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. Wiley. (2012)

[10] Duhigg, C. Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets to Being Productive in Life and Business. Random House. (2016).

[11] Edmondson, A.C. Teaming. How organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. Wiley. (2012)

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OODA: The Mindset of Scrum

Recently, a trusted source reported that the Oracle of Scrum, Jeff Sutherland, has proclaimed that OODA is the Mindset of Scrum.  A few weeks ago I tried my best to explain this “Mindset” when I co-coached with Joe Justice during his Scrum in Hardware – Train the Trainer course. It was a daunting task considering I was surrounded by some of the world’s finest Scrum Trainers and Agile Coaches and was asked to deliver the “Origins of Scrum” using Scrum, Inc.’s slide deck. Not easy.

Knowing that much has been written about the connection between Scrum and OODA including Steve Adolph’s 2006 paper, What Lessons Can the Agile Community Learn from A Maverick Fighter Pilot, I decided to spend my limited presentation time focused on two lesser known features of OODA: empathy and fast transients. Before rolling-in on these two features, here is a quick-and-dirty introduction to OODA and Scrum.

OODA and Scrum

Over the skies of Korea, years before Jeff Sutherland and his RF-4C’s Weapons System Operator’s (WSO) flight plans were constantly disrupted by North Vietnamese gunfire, SAMs, and fighters, John “40-Second” Boyd was trying to understand how a seemingly inferior aircraft, the American built F-86 Sabre, had a kill ratio of 10:1 over the nimbler, more agile MiG-15. As an F-86 pilot who regularly engaged with MiG-15s, Boyd realized that it was the F-86’s bubble canopy that provided American pilots better situational awareness (the ability to better observe and therefore process reality) over MiG-15 pilots. It was from fighter combat, a 1 v 1 dogfight (a socio-technical system vs. a socio-technical system) that the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop was born.

According to Jeff Sutherland, Scrum’s origins are in OODA and hardware manufacturing, not software. In fact, for those of you who are Lean Startup practitioners you may want to adopt OODA as your mindset as well considering the Lean Startup is based on OODA. Similarly, Cyber Security borrows from Boyd’s OODA Loop as do several product design approaches.  Back to Scrum.

Scrum is widely practiced by software development teams but is applicable across the routine-complexity-innovation continuum. For example, in the past two weeks, I coached Scrum to a world-class surgical center, an aerospace giant’s flight test team, and a geographical combatant command (GCC). Best place to learn about scrum is the 16-page Scrum Guide. If you happen to fly fighter or commercial jets, then it should not surprise you that CRM is applicable to coaching Scrum…but that’s another story.

OODA: The Mindset…

As I had limited time during my “Origins of Scrum” presentation, I decided to focus on empathy and fast transients, two lessor known characteristics of OODA.

Empathy: Get inside the mind of your customer

A 1 v 1 dogfight is an exercise in empathy, according to the award-winning thinker, author, broadcaster, and speaker on today’s most significant trends in business, Geoff Colvin. In his 2015 book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will, Geoff proposes that “Even a fighter jet dogfight, in which neither pilot would ever speak to or even see the other, was above all a human interaction. Few people would call it an exercise in empathy, but that’s what it was—discerning what was in the mind of someone else and responding appropriately. Winning required getting really good at it.” (Page 96) In his 1995 briefing, The Essence of Winning and Losing, John R. Boyd points out that analysis and synthesis are dependent on implicit cross-referencing across different domains including empathy.

Fast Transients: The organization that can handle the quickest rate of change survives

The ability for your organization to transition from one state to another faster than your competition will ensure your organizations survival. Moreover, “Fast Transients” will bring confusion and disorder to your competition as they under or over react to your activities.

Orientation is Schwerpunkt (focal point)

Orientation is the “genetic code” of an organism and cognitive diversity is key to creating innovative solutions to complex problems.

Focus on Feedback Loops

One feature of complex adaptive systems are feedback loops. Learn how to provide feedback. Effective retrospectives are a great start.

Leverage Uncertainty

We live in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Agility is Adaptation with a Time Scale

Adaptability is a cognitive skill found in High-Performance Teaming™ and Crew Resource Management. Agility is adaptability with a time scale and that time scale is rapidly shrinking.

Non-Linear Systems Have Inherently Identical Structures

When looking for solutions to problems, look outside your industry. The future already exists.

I look forward to your feedback and comments.

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

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What Agile Teams Can Learn from Flight Crews

Small, cross-functional teams working together with devices, focused on a shared objective, surrounded by complexity and frequently changing conditions. Welcome to the world of software development. And commercial aviation. Think the similarities between software development and aviation end here? Think again.

Aviation continues to have a profound influence on software development, organizational agility, cyber security, and transforming managers into leaders. For example, the complexity-busting framework, Scrum, used by technology companies to build complex software, comes from fighter aviation and Lean manufacturing. The Lean Startup, a popular business-model framework used by today’s hottest Silicon Valley startups, is based on John Boyd’s OODA Loop, an empathy-driven decision cycle that captures how fighter pilots “get inside” their opponent’s decision cycle to gain a competitive advantage.  Similarly, OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) is used to rapidly design products and in the burgeoning business of cyber security. On the management front, aviation is reported to be the inspiration behind the Holocracy movement, a social system where authority and decision-making are distributed throughout self-organizing teams. But you already knew all of this, right?

Next Time You Fly on a Commercial Carrier…

Commercial aviation flight deck and cabin crews follow the empirical process of plan, communicate, execute, and assess on each leg of their assigned trip (mission). Similarly, software developers around the globe follow the same empirical process found in Scrum—Sprint Planning (plan), Standups (communicate), Sprint Execution (execute), Review and Retrospective (assess). A sprint or iteration is a time-boxed mission (one to four weeks long) where potentially shippable software is delivered. With empowered team members and solid execution, Scrum builds a culture of continuous learning and innovation.

There’s more?

The human interaction skills needed on the flight deck and on software development and business teams are exactly the same; these cognitive and social skills include empathy, collaboration, discipline, communicationleadership, situation awareness and teamwork. Moreover, the silent killer found in the cockpit is also the top threat among software development and business teams.

Slow and insidious, poor Workload Management is the silent killer. However, software developers and Lean experts refer to Workload Management as Work in Progress (WIP). When business and software teams try to do too much (too much WIP), or do not have a shared purpose or objective, rapid value delivery (effective productivity) and quality decreases—detriments to business survival.

Prioritization of work in and out of the cockpit is an imperative but flight deck and cabin crews have a marked advantage over software and business teams: flight crews are trained on the effective use of all available resources needed to complete a safe and efficient flight; software and business teams are not. The non-technical skills training flight crews receive is called Crew Resource Management (CRM) and Threat and Error Management (TEM).

CRM, affectionately known as “Charm” school, teaches the cognitive and social skills individuals need to be part of high-performing teams in complex, rapidly changing environments. TEM is a human-system approach to building habits and skills team members need to manage threats and errors within complex operating environments.

What if technology teams applied the cognitive and social lessons learned from CRM and TEM to the world of software development?

Instead of “Scaling Agile,” what is needed is a Crew Resource Management- and Threat Error Management- influenced Agile Operating System–a system that builds leaders and empowers teams and individuals at every level. This operating system should enhance Scrum through a simple, repeatable, proven, and scalable set of interconnected and interdependent planning, communication, execution, and assessment processes that drive innovation, create leaders, and build a continuous learning culture. Think of this human operating system as the non-technical skills teams need to overcome complexity—those skills that flight crews have burned into muscle memory.

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering Naval Aviator and Commander in the U.S Navy Reserve. He is the co-founder of AGLX, LLC, a Seattle-based Agile Leadership Consulting Team, and a ScrumTotal Advisory Board Member.

(c) Can Stock Photo

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