by Vicki Wrona, PMP:

I recently learned about a tool called the OODA loop. While the tool itself was created based on military fighter pilot observations and is now often used to train law enforcement, it has applications for use in business and personal life as well. Here we will discuss the applications of the OODA loop in business, and more specifically, in managing projects.

First of all, OODA stands for:

1. Observe
2. Orient
3. Decide
4. Act

The concept of the OODA loop was first created by US Air Force Col. John Boyd during the Korean War. We all naturally follow this loop. If you are in a confrontation, you want to interrupt, or get inside, somebody else’s loop so that you instead of following, you now lead and can react faster than they can. At that point, they are chasing you on your OODA loop terms. This technique is often taught to police officers and law enforcement. For example, if someone were to break into your house, they know what they intend to do and so their OODA loop is ahead of yours. What you want to do is somehow disrupt their loop, or get inside it, so now you are the one in the lead. While this loop works well with quick reactions, it also works with longer-term decisions that need to be made. Let’s explore this.

In business, this can be used to manage projects, staff or operations. Let’s take the example of a project that is already in process. Once a plan is in place, the project manager will monitor the progress made on the project to make sure it’s on track. That is the first stage of OODA, Observe. The second stage, Orient, has to do with watching the work as it progresses, listening to what is going on, analyzing the reports that are pulled, talking to stakeholders, etc. In pulling information and data from as many sources and vantage points as practical, you can determine if the project is on track and progressing as planned. There will be variances from plan; you need to decide if they are normal or an indication of trouble. Based on this, you move to step three, which is to Decide what course of action, if any, is needed. Maybe you need to add more resources to a particular piece of work to keep it on time. Maybe you need to look at options to cut cost in order to stay on budget. That’s your decision here. The next step is to Act. You follow through on that decision, and then repeat the cycle to observe the impact of your decision and whether to take additional actions. By nature, this cycle repeats constantly throughout the project.

This technique can be very useful in noticing and rescuing a troubled project earlier rather than later. What we want to do is interrupt what is going on in the project and improve it.

This cyclical process may sound very familiar to experienced project managers. This is similar to the PDCA (plan-do-check-act) cycle made famous by W. Edwards Deming. The cyclical nature of these cycles is built into project management and should be done constantly to effectively and pro-actively manage our projects. The Six Sigma version of PDCA is called DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control). Kaizen, also called continuous improvement or “for the better”, also follows this concept. With kaizen, small improvements and corrections are constantly being made to keep a project on track or to improve existing processes.

The reason I like the OODA loop concept is because, at least for me, it adds an extra dimension to the PDCA cycle. This dimension is the thought of interrupting and getting inside the loop on the bad things that are happening on your project or within your teams. It enhances the ability to adapt more quickly by remembering that we have to interrupt the current flow of work or status quo in order to put things back on track. With our teams, we may have to shake up our team in some way to get them out of their current rhythm or comfort area in order to do what is best. It is also adaptive in that on projects, the plan you go back to when you have completed a cycle may be different from the plan before the cycle was completed. This is fine, as long as the proper change control processes and sign-offs are followed.

While the PDCA cycle is cyclical in nature, I have observed that it tends to be viewed more methodically, slowly and with a longer-term attitude. That is not always true, of course, but that is how it often comes across to me in practice. The PDCA cycle is not always long-term and the OODA loop is not always short-term and quick, but when thinking of these concepts, it helps for me personally to keep them both in mind in order to properly manage my teams and initiatives both quickly and methodically.

Here is a link to a good description of the OODA loop in business called The OODA Loop: Playing chess with half the pieces. It is a book review with notable quotes on agility, overcoming the numbers, planning and strategy, on not following the rules, and on culture as a long-term competitive advantage from the book Certain to Win.

Think about the OODA loop and how it may apply to your processes, operations, teams or projects. How can you use this new perspective to better manage those?

7 replies
  1. Kerry
    Kerry says:

    This is a great concept that was taught in many military training environments. It certainly is basic and true. But watch out when someone get’s into your OODA-Loop. It forces you to move quickly and cycle through the decision process in uncharted territory.

  2. Jeff Wilkinson
    Jeff Wilkinson says:

    I think you got it! Very well analyzed and adapted to your world. Well written young lady. Keep attacking. Colonel W sends.

  3. Karen Smith
    Karen Smith says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights and perspective on OODA. OODA is a perfect example of what the authorities used during the terrorist bombing in Boston in the past several weeks. The authorities were able to “get ahead/disrupt the loop” of the terrorists before they did additional harm. Although that is an extreme example of the use of OODA, there are many other practical day-to-day uses of OODA. Thanks again for sharing.

  4. Vicki
    Vicki says:

    Thanks Kerry! I agree, if someone forces you into an area of discomfort or one where you are not properly practiced and trained, they will push you into making bad decisions. The good news is that the actions and decisions required on our projects move at a slower pace than military exercises, so hopefully we will learn how to think through a decision just long enough to make the right one. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  5. Vicki
    Vicki says:

    Excellent application of the OODA loop. I hadn’t thought of applying that to the events in Boston but you are right. It always amazes me what can be found if/when we are looking out for examples. Thanks for sharing that insight!

  6. Glenn
    Glenn says:

    Good piece. I am glad to see you touched on the process improvement aspect of the OODA Loop. This often gets left out when being discussed.

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