Project Management Institute

Timely decisions



QUESTION: I‘ve read lately about shortening decision cycles using something called “OODA Loops.” What are OODA Loops, and what do they have to do with project management?

In war or in business, there is ever-increasing emphasis on faster decision cycles. In all settings, time is increasingly seen as a competitive weapon.

Take, for example, the earliest days of the current war in Iraq. Remember all the talk about “shock and awe” and “disrupting the enemy's decision cycle?” In the corporate world, the words may be softer, but the ideas are the same. A recent Boeing CEO put it this way: “If I can make decisions faster than my competitor, if I can get inside his decision cycle, then I‘ve got him.”

This emphasis on rapid decision-making, on “getting inside” the decision cycles of our competitors, is based on the work of the late John Boyd. As a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, he was known as “Forty-Second Boyd,” because of a standing bet he offered: Starting from positions of equal advantage, he could defeat any fighter pilot within just 40 seconds, or he'd pay $40.

There were many takers, but Mr. Boyd never had to pay up, because he knew the secret to aerial combat: Whoever had the fastest, most-effective decision cycle would be the winner, every time. In a competitive environment, Mr. Boyd knew that whoever could more rapidly “observe, orient, decide and act” would come out on top. And thus the “OODA Loop” was born.

ANSWER: Whoever can more rapidly observe, orient, decide and act (OODA) will succeed. In a fast-moving environment, project team members need a common understanding of mission, empowering them to make quicker decisions.

Mr. Boyd didn't stop there. If rapid OODA Loops produced victory in dogfights, then the ideas might apply to other areas as well. Largely ignored by his own U.S. Air Force, Mr. Boyd gained traction in other arenas for his ideas. He spent the rest of his life adapting OODA concepts to ground combat, counter-terrorism, international relations and business.

What does all this have to do with project management? Most obviously, project management allows organizations to implement strategic change more quickly and effectively, and thus enables more rapid decision cycles. Recently, a senior executive with Procter & Gamble discussed his firm's two major 21st century initiatives: globalism and faster product development cycles. And he expected project management to be central to both.

The Most Crucial Loop

Chet Richards, Ph.D., is with J. Addams and Partners, specializing in helping firms use time as a competitive advantage. His newest book, Certain to Win, applies Mr. Boyd's ideas to the business world. For Dr. Richards, the most crucial part of the OODA Loop is orientation, where we filter and evaluate the meaning of observed events. By orienting more correctly and more quickly— better and faster than the competition—we better understand the world around us.

Moving from observation and orientation toward decision and action, Dr. Richards points out the importance of “common outlook,” what Mr. Boyd called einheit (the German word for “unit”). Here we see an idea common to great project teams: In a fast-moving environment, there's rarely time to seek permission before every decision. Instead, project team members need a common understanding of mission—what the military calls “commander's intent”—to achieve the success and the speed they desire. A team that understands the project manager's intent is on track toward faster OODA Loops, as people feel empowered to employ initiative in timely pursuit of project objectives.

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“This orientation (filtering) process is particularly relevant to the project manager due to the number of stakeholders throughout the project life cycle—project sponsor, executive team, functional peers, project team members, customers, etc.,” says Nick Horney, Ph.D., co-author of Project Change Management.

Boyd Book Club

To learn more about the remarkable John Boyd, see and The best books on Boyd and OODA are Chet Richards’ Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd Applied to Business and Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.

Even if all these stakeholders have the same observations—which of course, they won't—their orientations will vary widely. So einheit—that commonality of outlook so prized by Mr. Boyd—will be possible only with serious effort on the part of the project manager. Dr. Horney addresses this mismatch with various assessment tools to evaluate constituents’ personality profiles, decision styles and attitudes toward change.

Mr. Boyd wrote no books, no articles, no scholarly papers. His work lives on only through the efforts of his followers. But for those who know of and study him, his visions forever alter the way they see their world. PM

Bud Baker, Ph.D., is professor and chair, Department of Management, and associate dean for Graduate, International and Community Programs of the Raj Soin College of Business at Wright State University.


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