Thursday, September 22, 2011

Capacity Focus, 11: How John Boyd's OODA Loop can help us understand and respond well to our times, their opportunities and challenges

The OODA Loop
A few days ago, I came across a reference to the late USAF Col. John Boyd's OODA model for strategic decision-making. This model helps pull together a lot of my recent thinking on strategic decision-making, and so it has triggered a fair amount of reflection.

I think this is highly relevant to the question of building effective strategic decision-making capacity for the Caribbean.

As Wikipedia helpfully summarises:
Boyd hypothesized that all intelligent organisms and organizations undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with their environment. Boyd breaks this cycle down to four interrelated and overlapping processes through which one cycles continuously:
  • Observation: the collection of data by means of the senses
  • Orientation: the analysis and synthesis of data to form one's current mental perspective
  • Decision: the determination of a course of action based on one's current mental perspective
  • Action: the physical playing-out of decisions
Of course, while this is taking place, the situation may be changing. It is sometimes necessary to cancel a planned action in order to meet the changes.

This decision cycle is thus known as the OODA loop.
 This was of course developed in a military context (actually, from an analysis of fighter aircraft combat success), and it is helpful to look at a classic example, the German panzer-led attack in France in 1940:

How the French High Command failed in 1940

Now, of course, business or political competition with battling brands or candidates and ad or public relations campaigns and debates can easily be seen as all too closely parallel to this sort of military struggle, and even the struggle of an organism to survive. But, how does this relate to say the Christian life, or the challenge of church leadership, or Christian educational leadership?

The quick quip is that spiritual warfare is worldview war, complete with hostile spiritual powers and deceived dupes caught up in worldly systems of deception, manipulation, and domination. As a classic text, we may cite Paul's comparison to the heavy infantryman of his day, the fully armed and well-trained Roman Legionnaire:
Eph 6: 10In conclusion, be strong in the Lord [be empowered through your union with Him]; draw your strength from Him [that strength which His boundless might provides].
    11Put on God's whole armor [the armor of a heavy-armed soldier which God supplies], that you may be able successfully to stand up against [all] the strategies and the deceits of the devil.
    12For we are not wrestling with flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the despotisms, against the powers, against [the master spirits who are] the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spirit forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) sphere.
    13Therefore put on God's complete armor, that you may be able to resist and stand your ground on the evil day [of danger], and, having done all [the crisis demands], to stand [firmly in your place].
    14Stand therefore [hold your ground], having tightened the belt of truth around your loins and having put on the breastplate of integrity and of moral rectitude and right standing with God,
    15And having shod your feet in preparation [to face the enemy with the [a]firm-footed stability, the promptness, and the readiness [b]produced by the good news] of the Gospel of peace.
    16Lift up over all the [covering] shield of [c]saving faith, upon which you can quench all the flaming missiles of the wicked [one].
    17And take the helmet of salvation and the sword that the Spirit [d]wields, which is the Word of God.
    18Pray at all times (on every occasion, in every season) in the Spirit, with all [manner of] prayer and entreaty. To that end keep alert and watch with strong purpose and perseverance, interceding in behalf of all the saints (God's consecrated people). [AMP]
Quite an analogy!

But the more insightful answer is a bit subtler. 

Already, for that, we have a hint in the emphasis above on truth, trust and trustworthiness, integrity etc.

The key to that lies in the orientation phase of the OODA loop, in light of two contrasting (but not conflicting!) scriptures:

1 Chron 12:32 Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command. [ESV]

Matt 16: 1 And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered them,1  “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. [ESV]
To orient ourselves correctly, to make rightly guided decisions, we must understand our times, by correctly observing and "reading" the signs of our times. Which preicisely highlights the dominant phase of the loop, orientation. Clipping a more detailed version of the loop model:

The key to how we understand the signs of our times lies in:
1: Our genetic inheritance as people that determines our basic capacities.

2: Cultural traditions (community and institutional) that shape how we have built on that inheritance.

3: Previous experiences that have shaped us as we come to our current situation

4: The new information that we must access, filter and process in a timely fashion

5: How we therefore continuously analyse and synthesise -- pull together as a whole -- a new picture of ourselves, our situation, opportunities, challenges, threats, action-priorities, etc.
All of this must be done in a timely fashion, or we will be caught in the situation of lagging the developing reality, which may be fatal. We must determine not to be caught off balance, and not to so delay action that in our eagerness to avoid the riskiness of change, we take the greatest risk of all: being caught out of synch with our times.

And, to be frank, this is a major (and longstanding) concern I have for the region, and for the Church in the region. I fear that -- in the face of the tidal waves from the north [dechristianisation] and the east [radical islamISM], as well as other trends and issues -- we are out of synch with our times, and are lagging the pace of events and acts by others very badly. In addition, we have a great potential in the global mission and mandate of the church in the world, that seems to go largely unrecognised. Perhaps this figure may help capture what I am seeing and thinking:

The response to this issue is that we must build up our capacity to respond and act in good time, based on being able to correctly read the signs of our times.

The OODA cycle is one step in that process, and so I draw attention to a more elaborate discussion here.

Beyond that, we have to focus on upgrading our strategic decision-making process as a region, and as the church in the region. 

In particular, we must beware of undue delays and misreadings, as these can throw us off balance, and leave us vulnerable to events and others who may well not have the best interests of our region in heart and mind.

And so, it looks like our region's strategic thinkers -- including those in the church and in our education systems --  need to do some OODA-oriented workshops and short courses; perhaps, a topic for a future KF blog Capacity Factor post. (The just linked presentation has some ideas for such, in light of the challenges we face.) END

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