The choices we make at the personal level are influenced by our experiences and our environment. We are not always fully aware of these influences, and may need someone else to point them out to us. The same is true of the strategic and operational choices made by organizations.
In a rapidly changing environment, we need a feedback loop that continuously aligns our behaviour to these changes. This is an important aspect of agility. And in a competitive situation, competitive success depends on our being more agile than our competitors - in other words, having a faster and more accurate loop.
A good model for this is the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop created by John Boyd. Some people confuse this with the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) loop popularized by Shewhart and Deming. However, the key difference between PDCA and OODA is the explicit inclusion of sense-making, which Boyd calls Orientation. Boyd himself produced a second model, IOHAI, which is largely an expansion on the sense-making area.
In order for the OODA loop to produce real agility, there needs to be agility in each of its parts.
Agile Observation. One criticism that has been levelled at simplified versions of the OODA loop (for example Benson and Rotkoff) is the tendency for what you observe to be narrowed to just those things that seem to help with decision making. (David Murphy describes this tendency as "inevitable".)
Simon Thornington raises a related issue in a comment to David Murphy's blog. "So much of what is observed is via instrumentation (or alternatively the output of models). Without the observer having prior knowledge of the construction and assumptions of the models, he or she cannot orient effectively based on the observations." Simon suggests that this was a factor in the recent Airbus crash, various space program mishaps and throughout finance.
But Boyd understood these points perfectly well, as do those who use OODA properly. In his reply to Benson and Rotkoff, David Lyle acknowledges this tendency. "Studies by cognitive neuroscientists have demonstrated that as a basic human trait, we are stressed more by uncertainty than unpleasant certainties. But in our efforts to achieve parsimony and the false cognitive ease often associated with it, we sometimes cut out too much detail and end up building expensive empires on theoretical foundations of sand." (via Cameron Shaefer)
Agile Orientation. David Murphy points out that "really big risks are often not acted upon because we are oriented so that we cannot decide", and reminds us what happened to those people who tried to act against the firm’s orientation at MF Global, or Enron or HBOS.
Discussing strategic planning through the OODA lens, Henrik Mårtensson points out the importance of orientation. "If we only know one strategic paradigm, and choose a strategic method from within the range of options provided by the paradigm, we loose (sic) the ability to improve beyond what the paradigm allows. ... Boyd believed it is absolutely necessary to be able to switch paradigms at will."
Agile Decision, Agile Action. Henrik argues that "operating with a crippled OODA loop and a strategic model that separates strategy and action may not kill you, but the faster the environment changes, the more hampered your organization will be by its own strategic model". Henrik recommends William Dettmer's Strategic Navigation, which in his opinion combines the principles of Maneuver Warfare with the analysis and planning tools of The Logical Thinking Process. "The result is fast high quality strategic planning, and seamless integration between planning and execution."
The limitations of the OODA model appear when there is too much emphasis on speed (especially response speed) and not enough appreciation of complexity. For example, in I've Got the OODA Blues, Adam Elkis argues as follows.
and Adam concludes
"Taking the OODA Loop literally can be misleading for cyber defenders because a “faster, faster” model implies that speed of response is the most crucial aspect of network defense. There’s a lot more to it than that. Alex Olesker’s post on Dronegate, for example, is really about a failure of Orientation and an overemphasis on speed of action. The Air Force claimed that it detected the virus instantly and isolated it, in effect placing a premium on the ability of automated processes to improve their ability to instantly observe, orient, decide, and act to contain a virus. This is a response rooted in the “faster, faster” OODA Loop interpretation."
"strategic learning within the organization enables, upon the next cycle, a better ability to Observe, a sounder Orientation, and a corresponding ability to make sounder decisions under fire. This response, however, is not something that can be automated–it depends on organizational policy decisions made by CIOs as well as the soundness of network defense systems and processes."
Sources and further reading
Kevin Benson and Steven Rotoff, Goodbye OODA Loop (Armed Forces Journal, October 2011)
David Lyle, Perspectives: Looped Back In (Armed Forces Journal, December 2012)
Blogs by Sean Lawson, Henrik Mårtensson, David Murphy, Chet Richards, and Spartan Cops.