OODA Loop

I was posting a throwback Thursday instagram and realized, while flipping through a hundred shots that were relatively the same, I had witnessed Zach employ the OODA Loop in realtime as we spent time at the shore in Massachusetts. I've been fascinated with the OODA Loop as an improviser, business owner, speaker and coach for a long time. I was introduced to the concept by a student 10 years ago while facilitating a class on creative problem solving. One of my students, retired military, recognized the process we were using (which would now be referred to as design thinking) as the decision making cycle developed by military strategist and pilot John Boyd. I have more than a few posts drafted about improvisation and design thinking, but this trip to the ocean, this was definitely war with the waves and Zach (the Young Man and the Sea) was clearly engaged in a mental dogfight.

Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.

As a decision making cycle, the OODA Loop continues until a goal has been achieved. Once you reach the step where you Act, you repeat the process from your new position relative to the concern. In my son's concern with the water off Nantasket Beach it was unclear what his ultimate goal may have been (outside of simply jumping in the ocean), but he engaged nonetheless.

1. Observation: collection of data by means of the senses

In the first photo, in his best (classic) Peter Pan stance, hands on hips, Zach faced down the waves. He studied them, how frequently they came in, when and how far they went back out, how cold his exposed toes became as the New England water washed over his Crocs.

2. Orientation: analysis of data to form your position

The second shot felt like the most active photo and fit this part of the process. The step to orient yourself absolutely can feel like the most active part of the cycle and Zach appears hard at work assembling all the information he has and where he stands relative to the "enemy" (the waves).

The observe and orient steps are often repeated before moving on to decide or act. The repetition of these steps may be conscious or unconscious. As you start OODA the steps of the loop can be fluid (waves, ha!) and can also appear to run out of order. You need to stay present in the moment and available to process new information in realtime, but ultimately you will need to keep moving forward. If you simply observe changes and orient yourself mentally and remain for too long without moving, low tide will eventually become high tide and the water will overtake you.

3. Decision: the determination of a course of action based on your current position (perspective)

Determination rang out when I looked back on the third photo of Zach, reinforced by that incredibly confident shadow, shell in hand, as if he had already done battle with the Sea, took a prisoner, and was ready to dive back in. The decision gets made and then you must be ready to act quickly (your next step), before the conditions which led to that decision, your observation and orientation, change. 

4. Action: the physical playing-out of decisions

We see the reaction shot here. Zach went for it. He ran out into the surf and was delighted by the cold water and the waves, which splashed up high enough to get his pants wet. Now that he has acted the loop would start over again, observation from his new position relative to the concern. And let me tell you, we were (as a family on the beach) in that loop for a solid hour.

In the above concern of the Young Man and the Sea, the stakes are clearly low. I imagine my son was planning to run into the water, decided and ready to act, even before we rolled up his pants. For most of us the perception of our concerns and the potential consequences of failure paralyze us, they prohibit us from taking any action, and we find ourselves stuck right where we stand. Then the tide changes, the waves come in, and we fail anyway. The only answer is to move forward. With integrity and positivity, observe and orient yourself to the reality of your current conditions. Based on those facts and your perspective, make a decision that you believe will produce a constructive future result. Then act on that decision. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Failure happens. Know that. Hold onto that. You are not alone. And remember that our personal and professional failures rarely end with the same consequences of the aerial dogfights that gave us the OODA process. We are alive. I am challenging myself in 2018 to be grateful for that and to always keep moving forward, running into the waves even when I know the water may be cold at first.