RLF Reflection: The “Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act” (OODA) Loop

During the asynchronous session on Thursday, January 14, 2021, Bobby Hobart gave a presentation about the OODA “Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act” Loop, a leadership concept formulated by seminal U.S. Air Force pilot John Boyd. Boyd had been credited with modifying the art of combat flying based on his violence-free and conflict-free combat performance and observations in Korea. Essentially, Boyd formulated a strategic philosophy which centers on the theory that “outthinking an opponent” involves overwhelming them with decision-making. Boyd’s decision cycle that he crafted is known as the “Observe, Orient, Decide, [and] Act” loop.

The first two aspects of the loop – observe and orient – involve taking the observations or data that we have and contextualizing them. We must consider our previous experiences and biases that we bring to the table, as well as how who we are influences what we observe.

The next two steps of the OODA loop – decision and action – require us to make a plan based on the information that we have. Within larger organizations, folks should participate in the “decision” phase earlier in the process. These actions subsequently create feedback, which enables us to cycle again through the process. Bobby mentioned that it is essentially critical for leaders to ensure that their subordinates act as they are by giving them the organization’s broader “intent” but also offering some agency.

Furthermore, Bobby explained that the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) – when executed properly – enables folks to outmaneuver their opponents. In fact, acting faster than one’s opponent becomes the tiebreaker when all else is created equal. Bobby outlined two examples that do a particularly good job (I think) of highlighting the OODA’s loop’s significance and effectiveness. He mentioned an example from the Korean War in which American planes observed North Korean planes coming towards them and subsequently found a vulnerability in the North Korean strategy that they can then exploit. Similarly, basketball players can outmaneuver their opponents by switching hands, holding the ball in a particular way, etc. Ultimately, the crux of the OODA loop is using the tools that one has available to them in a manner that surprises others and capitalizes on their less detailed planning or vulnerability.

Bobby concluded that we probably already practice the OODA loop to some degree, but we can continue to do so – and refine our practices – through “optimizing, internalizing, and visualizing at subordinate levels” how we, as leaders, can “empower those [we’re] leading to work most effectively towards your desired end state. Being more thoughtful about problem-solving processes is similarly important.

For further reading, Bobby recommended the Marine Corps pamphlet (MCDP-1) “Warfighting,” as well as Robert Greene’s article “OODA and You” that reinvigorated attention on the “Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act” loop. In addition, Bobby suggested reading John Boyd’s essay entitled “Destruction and Creation,” which was his primary publication. Finally, Bobby pointed out that what Clausewitz and other military leaders say about warfare is often applicable to the OODA loop and leadership as a whole, so further reading about warfare may be desirable.

-Written by Jake Maguire, Class of 2021 Rockefeller Leadership Fellow 

As Rockefeller Leadership Fellows, seniors gain a better understanding of the qualities and responsibilities expected of leaders. As Fellows take part in the workshops, discussions, and team-building exercises, they examine their skills, qualities, and attributes as leaders and analyze how these influence teamwork and achieving goals.