They called him “Forty Second Boyd.”
In the late 1950’s, the best fighter pilots in the world tested and trained at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB outside of Las Vegas. For any and all pilots who came through the school, John Boyd had a standing offer: he would spot you position on his tail, and if you could defeat him in a simulated dogfight in 40 seconds or less, you would win both glory and $40 of his cash earned as a FWS instructor. This challenge, which sounds more like a scene from Top Gun than real life, was taken up by pilots of all skill levels, from the Marine Corps and Navy as well as the Air Force, and from other countries as well. Flying the “quirky and treacherous” F-100 Super Sabre, Boyd took on all comers.
Col. John Boyd died in 1997. His $40 was never collected.
The secret to Boyd’s dominance against all comers, despite always starting in the position of disadvantage, lies in his theory of the OODA Loop. Understanding this decision cycle of Observe-Orient-Decide-Act, and how to accelerate it, enable Boyd to overcome any disadvantages of position, skill, and technical capability.
He posited that all conflict is composed of repeated, time-competitive cycles of observing, orienting, deciding, and acting. The most important element is orientation: whoever can orient more quickly to a rapidly changing situation acquires a decisive advantage because his slower opponent’s actions are too late and therefore irrelevant—as he desperately seeks convergence, he gets ever increasing divergence. At some point, he realizes he can do nothing that works. That usually leads him either to panic or to give up, often while still physically largely intact.
Boyd’s insight revolutionized air-to-air combat tactics, but its impact is not limited to the world of fighter pilots. The principle of the OODA Loop has both tactical and strategic implications for anyone competing in a complex environment in which change is fundamental feature of the competitive landscape. In such an environment, it is the speed with which information is acquired, implications are analyzed, decisions are made, and actions are taken that will decide competitive advantage, not the richness of resources nor the efficiency of processes. Building an organization’s capability to own the OODA Loop advantage isn’t sexy, and won’t show up in an improved financial performance in the near term. However, much like building a championship offense by building a strong offensive line, the dividends of investing in the tools, people, and organizational structure necessary to accelerate your organization’s OODA Loop cycle time will yield a foundational benefit for the future.