OODA Loops & Game-Like Operations

Michael Hugos, Principal, Center for Systems Innovation | 2/12/2013 | 13 comments

Michael Hugos
If the CIO can provide one capability that will help the business most, it is the ability to respond in real-time to a fast-changing business environment.

Understanding the OODA Loop, a real-world feedback system created by a jet pilot, will help CIOs create the environment the business side needs to stay ahead.

The four steps in the OODA Loop are shown in the diagram below. Those steps are: observe, orient, decide, and act. And what connects these steps and influences how they operate is real-time feedback. The OODA Loop is a feedback loop and it drives a process of constant sensing and responding to high-change environments -- like those faced by the military and also by businesses.

The steps in the game
The first step is to observe -- to collect and communicate information about the environment.

The next step is to orient, which in a business setting means to turn information into understanding or situational awareness. Orienting is the most important step because it determines how the next two steps will be used.

If the situation shows the emergence of something brand-new then the "decide" step is invoked and people create different plans for responding to this new thing and evaluate which will work the best.

The last step is to act. If players are responding to a situation they already know, then they follow existing procedures (implicit guidance). If they are responding to something brand-new, they follow new procedures (explicit guidance). And their action produces results that are picked up by the observe step and the cycle continues.

The OODA Loop describes how soldiers and commanders behave in high-change environments, such as combat. It also describes how players in games such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online behave in the high-change environments of those massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). There is a big opportunity for businesses to learn from these two groups and adopt the OODA Loop to guide their own operations in that high-change world known as the real-time economy.

Each of the four steps needs to be supported by smart use of IT. Enterprise architects and system designers can use the process framework provided by the OODA Loop to organize their thinking about how best to employ IT to give their companies a competitive advantage.

The OODA Loop as business process blueprint
Sensor networks and transaction processing systems already in place in many companies provide a rich source of data (big-data) for the observe step.

For the orient step, look at how the military and MMO games use technology. They create war rooms with animated maps and real-time data displays, and they create heads-up displays (HUDs) to concentrate important information into single easy to understand screens for moment to moment decision making.

In the decide step, both groups make extensive use of simulation to try out different courses of action and see which is the best way to proceed. In the act step, soldiers and gamers both employ technology that responds instantly to their movements and commands.

Business is already moving in this direction with online dashboards and scorecards that display daily operating status and results. Many companies also have systems that automate significant parts of their workflows. Good examples of this are companies in the financial services and commodities markets. They use war room-style trading environments to orient people and have automated trade execution systems that act instantly to carry out decisions.

The fighter pilot who created the OODA Loop (John Boyd) did it as a way to organize and teach the skills and practices needed to win in aerial combat dog fights. Now businesses can do the same. The military and the gamers have already done a lot of the work and their examples are ready to be adopted by business.

Military games and MMO games are driven by feedback loops. They employ technology to enable people to collaborate and coordinate their actions so as to accomplish common goals. They enable people to continually sense and respond to changing situations, and in the process, people learn and continually improve the skills they need to accomplish their goals.

That's why games and game-like operations are important to business, too. And the OODA Loop is a field-tested process blueprint to use as you explore the use of game-like operations in your company.

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Susan Nunziata   OODA Loops & Game-Like Operations   3/14/2013 9:39:37 PM
Re: Training needed?
@Michael: belated thank you for this, I missed this comment earlier. I'll check this book out. Much appreciated!
Michael Hugos   OODA Loops & Game-Like Operations   2/13/2013 9:01:25 AM
Re: Training needed?
Susan - I think the best book about Boyd and his OODA Loop is a book titled Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, by Robert Coram - here's the Amazon listing - http://www.amazon.com/Boyd-Fighter-Pilot-Who-Changed/dp/0316796883

Boyd himself did a lot of writing but never pulled it together in a book. His work is in briefings and presentations. A good compilation of his work is on a website run by a defense think tank in Australia. Maybe his best known briefing is "A Discourse on Winning and Losing" - here's the link - http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-Boyd-Papers.html

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Salik   OODA Loops & Game-Like Operations   2/13/2013 8:31:27 AM
Re: Benefits
@CMTucker, I meant that in a business the number of OODA loops that exists are directly proportional to the environment. The more the OODA loops there are, the more an organization will be adapting to its environment in a continuous manner. Moreover, the faster the users will be able to cycle through the OODA loop, the more competitive the organization will be in its performance and efficiency. Thats a huge plus.


Susan Nunziata   OODA Loops & Game-Like Operations   2/12/2013 10:48:13 PM
Re: Training needed?
@Michael: Thanks. I'm going to get Boyd's book, I think it should be required reading for any organizational leaders. The kind of "situational awareness" you refer to is lacking in the enterprise, IMHO as much because of internal politics as incomplete or poorly rendered data.
Michael Hugos   OODA Loops & Game-Like Operations   2/12/2013 9:36:51 PM
Re: Training needed?
Hi Susan - As David and Sara have noted, I think most of the effort needs to go into making companies and managers better at the Orient step. Companies get lots of data but the problem is we don't know what to make of it all. Most BI packages still just present line graphs, bar charts and scatter plots. Those are often isolated snap shots from a sea of big data and they often don't form a coherent picture.

The Business Spheres of P&G are a step toward pulling it all together and painting a big picture that can be used to orient people. MMO games and the way they use heads-up-diaplays are another example of good orientation. 

In John Boyd's work on the OODA Loop he goes into lots of discussion on the importance of the Orient step. Orient is the basis for what the military calls "situational awareness". When people have an incomplete or flawed picture of what's going on then they make bad decisions. So I think companies need to focus first on training and technology to help them in the Orient step. There is a lot of training and writing on this from military and disaster response organizations. Companies can start by absorbing those lessons and applying them to their own circumstances.

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Susan Nunziata   OODA Loops & Game-Like Operations   2/12/2013 9:15:04 PM
Training needed?
@Michael: Excellent post! I confess I had not heard of OODA Loops before reading this. The concept immediately strikes me as a perfect way to shape organizational thinking. While soldiers and jet pilots clearly must go through rigorous training to employ this approach, I'd imagine that MMO game players take to it naturally. So, my question is: How much training do you recommend, or do you think is required, to apply the OODA Loop approach to enterprise decision-making processes?
Sara Peters   OODA Loops & Game-Like Operations   2/12/2013 5:36:32 PM
Re: Benefits
@Dave  Good points. Visualization definitely fits into that "Orient" category and although the visualization capabilities on analytics tools are getting better, I still there's still plenty of room for improvement.
David Wagner   OODA Loops & Game-Like Operations   2/12/2013 5:26:20 PM
Re: Benefits
@Sara- I think we do fairly well with "observe," especially as big data grows. I think our biggest problem right now is with "orient." Visalizing, reporting, and analyzing all that data is where a lot of businesses are failing. CIOs should invest in capabilities (human and technological) to help.

Michal talked a lot last week (or maybe two weeks ago) about decision environments. I really think the decisin environment is the best way to facilitate the orient phase.
Sara Peters   OODA Loops & Game-Like Operations   2/12/2013 4:28:22 PM
Re: Benefits
@Dave   Agreed.  "If you think about technology in terms of improving one or more steps in an OODA Loop, you can really zero in on the technology you need."  So I suppose the next question is, what technologies fall under what letter? What techs do all four?
David Wagner   OODA Loops & Game-Like Operations   2/12/2013 2:18:10 PM
Re: Benefits
I like OODA Loops because they sound like a breakfast cereal or a small person you put to work in your magical factory.

Seriously, I think some people instinctively do this, but it is great to see it codified. If you think about technology in terms of improving one or more steps in an OODA Loop, you can really zero in on the technology you need.
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