Michael On Everything Else

Boyd on Decision-Making

One of my favorite, contemporary philosophers is military strategist and Rogue ThinkerTM Colonel John Boyd. Boyd was instrumental in the design of the F-16, easily one of America’s all-time-greatest combat platforms. His Energy-maneuverability theory is still in use today.

I go through phases where I fixate on Boyd’s ideas and writings (all slide presentations, he never put a book together) and today I was going through some of my notes on Boyd’s theory of decision making; the OODA Loop, which is observe, orient, decide, and act.

From the all-knowing-wiki:

Boyd applied the concept to the combat operations process, often at the strategic level in military operations. It is now also often applied to understand commercial operations and learning processes. The approach favors agility over raw power in dealing with human opponents in any endeavor.

The notion of agility resonates with me and the way I approach things. Take for instance my recent project with coffee farmers in Bali—that deal was literally a handshake in the middle of a plot of coffee trees after only two weeks of interaction with the family. The reason it was so easy for me to come to that decision rapidly was because I had (consciously and sub-conciously) been employing Boyd’s theory of orientation for years before making the final decision and taking action.

Boyd calls orientation a “many-sided, implicit cross-referencing” process involving the information observed, one’s genetic heritage, social environment, and prior experiences, and the results of analyses one conducts and synthesis that one forms.

(Richards & Richards, 2004)

Orientation is a process, not an end result, happens constantly, and can be explicit and/or implicit (though the best is usually explicit).

Returning to my example of the project in Bali, part of my orientation was the belief that quality coffee starts at the farm and that the quality “baked in” at the farm and the mill define the quality of the final product. This was an explicit orientation; I gathered information over time (observed), I analyzed and synthesized ideas, and I packaged it all into a living, ever-developing theory of quality.

I also had an implicit orientation, culturally derived from my home country, which can loosely be described as the American “can do” attitude. More so with previous generations, Americans just got shit done. The culture is largely entrepreneurial, innovative, and progressive. Yes, these are broad generalizations and no I’m not comparing the culture to others or saying it’s the best culture out there—” America, fuck yeah,” and all that. But I will say that there are other cultures, which don’t possess this desire for action, initiative, and progress and they can be found in many third-world countries.

Cultures include not only customs, values and attitudes, but also skills and talents that more directly affect economic outcomes, and which economists call human capital.

(Sowell, 2015)

But I digress. I was talking about Boyd’s theory of orientation. One of his recurring themes could be stated as ‘Go out and get all the information you can by whatever means possible’ because you can’t be certain which information or ideas can be used to solve a problem. (Richards & Richards, 2004) This is also part of the concept of lateral thinking, which became popular in the late ‘60’s, early ‘70’s.

This hunger for information means listening more than talking, watching more than acting. Being curious. Observing. Do it often and do it explicitly.

Boyd was also a Rogue ThinkerTM. So much so, that he was often shunned by his peers for his radical ideas but in the end he beat them all, often literally. He was called “Forty Second Boyd” because he had a standing bet that beginning from a position of disadvantage, he could defeat any pilot within fourty seconds. He never lost that bet.

  1. Richards, C., & Richards, C. W. (2004). Certain to Win. Xlibris.
  2. Sowell, T. (2015). Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective. Basic Books.