Bird flying so fast, it's wings are blurred

Bird Flying Faster

You are flying a jet fighter in the air enjoying the speed and the view. Suddenly you are attacked by another jet!  You need OODA!

You must make your decisions faster than your target using the OODA loop:

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Act


  • Public Relations war with a large target system
  • Building momentum for change in a community

The OODA loop was developed by a fighter pilot named John Boyd who tried to understand why some pilots always seemed to win their dogfights. He discovered that the good pilots made good decisions faster than the poor pilots. They weren’t faster physically, though. In Boyd’s terms, they cycled through decisions about what to do next faster than the other pilots. They went through the OODA loop faster. This is as true of successful organizations and movements as it is of dogfights.

OBSERVE: Observing the environment of change is more than just perceiving it. It is focused scanning based on the framework that organizes your change initiative. You are not scanning for anything in particular but are trying to note anything that impacts your change effort.

ORIENT: For my purposes a better term would be “interpret”, but OODA Loop rolls off the tongue. We assign meaning to what we scan based on our experience in general, this target in particular, the importance we give to our change effort – in other words, all the meaning we bring to bear on the purpose of our effort.

DECIDE: We make a choice about how we will respond to the meaning we have experienced. This decision is never the result of a careful and patient review of every possibility we might try. We don’t have time for that. It is more like the pattern recognition that drives our behavior when we see that we are about to have an automobile accident. Pattern recognition is developed through experience, successes, and failures, and is a far faster brain process than deliberative conscious decision-making.

ACT: Then, we act to change the dynamic of our advocacy situation. We respond to what we have learned in this cycle of the loop. Then we Observe to see how our action has changed the dynamic. We cycle through OODA again.

The best use of the OODA Loop is to undermine the target’s decision-making process by making your decisions before the target can make theirs. This is referred to as “getting inside” the decision loop of the target. Successfully doing this disrupts target decision-making and dramatically increases anxiety, which further disrupts target decision-making .

My experience with the OODA Loop in advocacy is that people have difficulty accepting the metaphor as valid in the context of advocating for rights. The process of change in disability rights seems to be viewed as linear and deliberative. Part of this is the way that (for example) the civil rights movement flowed out over time. We reflect on that movement as a series of specific marker events, like the Greensboro sit-ins in 1960 or the MLK Mall speech in 1963, minus all the chaos and quick thinking that actually underlies any significant progress in rights.

One of the lessons of the OODA loop is that change dynamics aren’t linear. An example of failing to understand this is the common advocacy approach of filing a complaint and waiting for a response. This is a tactical failure that costs our change efforts energy and impact and reflects a misunderstanding of the effective use of the OODA loop. A better approach is to multiply the ways of questioning the target’s status quo.

In the early 1980’s, ADD was not viewed as a real disability, and arguing for it as a qualifying disability under special education rules was an arduous task. Basically, advocates had to argue that a student with ADD qualified under POHI (Physically or Otherwise Health Impaired), a category used to qualify students who had physical or medical conditions that undermined their ability to benefit from education. Evidence for such qualification was viewed as entirely medical, requiring medical assessments (say neurological or neuropsychological). Because such assessments were not typical education assessments, there was a lot of game playing about whether schools would pay for such assessments, adding further complexity.

Advocates began to use Section 504 instead of special education rules, requiring schools to provide accommodations to individuals with ADD whether the student qualified under special education or not. The Section 504 accommodations strategy had the additional benefits of not allowing the school to use special education funds to pay for the accommodations and much greater simplicity in its use as an advocacy tool. When such an approach was used, districts tended to offer special education far more easily.

Also, disturbing a target through multiple pathways undermines the very common reality that targets get used to a disturbance if you keep using it over and over. They develop automatic ways of responding to that kind of disturbance. If you combine typical disturbances with rare ones, you increase the anxiety in the target about the unknown level of risk they face. Of course, this requires more effort and a more sophisticated response to whatever it is that the target does.

As part of effective use of the OODA Loop, we also need to become more adept at using social media (more in a later post).

We need to use our smallness, flexibility, and speed more effectively.  Instead of bureaucracies having size and implacability as advantages, we need to begin to make those traits disadvantages by enthusiastic use of the OODA Loop.

Next Post: The Forever Fountain

Creative Commons License
Change Strategy: Making Our Lives Larger by Norm DeLisle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, advocate50+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, Tom and Pepper the wundermutts

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