When Tom Cruise’s “Maverick” inverted his F-14 fighter jet and gave “the bird” to his Soviet opponent in the opening scene of 1986’s Top Gun, Cruise assured himself a lighthearted place in the history of the Cold War. What that scene also did, however, was provide one of cinematography’s great examples of a key concept of air-to-air combat: the OODA loop. Maverick’s uncanny ability to move rapidly through a complex decision cycle, always ending up in a superior position, not only made for great cinema but also represented one of the more complex theories to emerge from 20th Century military thinking.
The brainchild of now-deceased Air Force Colonel (ret) John Boyd, OODA (short for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) became a cornerstone of training for air-to-air combat in the latter half of the 20th Century. The OODA loop was Boyd’s way of simplifying a four-step cycle which he considered the backbone of an air-to-air engagement. When two pilots faced off in a dogfight, the pilot who was able to observe the variables, orient his aircraft to the best possible position relative to his opponent, decide on the best course of action to engage his opponent, and act rapidly on that decision would win the fight. The OODA loop has been popular with military planners ever since, driving everything from selection of personnel to large-scale military plans.
Special operations teams, for example, are known for their detailed planning, intensive training, and utilization of advanced technology. This effort goes far beyond “being prepared.” It is a conscious strategy to outpace the OODA loop of the opposition. Each element is designed to more effectively Observe the situation, Orient oneself or unit appropriately, Decide how best to maneuver, and take effective Action.
The OODA loop is well-suited for individual or small-team situations like aerial dogfights and ground skirmishes. But is the modern battlefield, enterprise, or marketplace too complex for the theory to hold?
We believe modern leaders face the same problem as Boyd’s fighter pilots decades ago: they need to make decisions better and faster than the opposition. Like fighter pilots, they must acquire data, turn data into insight, and then act on that insight. The difference is that modern leaders must enable entire organizations to have this capacity.
Can an organization learn to move like a fighter pilot? Can thousands of people collectively Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act?
In previous posts, we’ve discussed how special operations teams re-oriented their decision process in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to exponentially increase their ability to receive, analyze, and create collective understanding of broad amounts of data. This understanding ultimately drove a decision and action cycle that was able to outpace the terrorist networks they faced.
In the corporate world, organizations are also beginning to create large-scale OODA loops. Social media monitoring is one of the key technologies for creating OODA loops. During the Super Bowl blackout, Oreo received a lot of attention for its tweet, “You can still dunk in the dark.” This didn’t happen by accident. Lisa Mann, then VP of Cookies at Oreo-maker Mondelez International (she’s since moved up to Senior VP of Global Gum), had set up a “social media command center” — one that would have been very familiar to any special operations team. All of Oreo’s agencies and stakeholders were physically and virtually connected. “Everyone [was] in place to jump on a real-time marketing opportunity,” Mann said. Oreo had designed a system to give it an OODA advantage.
Dell is also using social media monitoring tools to Observe, but going further by creating OODA loops that extend beyond marketing into the entire organization. Dell has a permanent Social Media Command Center that monitors conversation and activity for every one of its products across all social channels. What sets Dell apart are the relationships between the Command Center and the lines of business. The communications channels enable the organization to respond quickly to what is observed in the marketplace. For example, Dell was able to change the pricing on a product in a single day, neutralizing a potential customer insurgency.
Some CEOs are beginning to apply large-scale OODA loops within the executive suite. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is known for putting his desk right in the middle of the action with line of sight to everything happening around him. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also has his desk in the middle of an open office, and has now hired Frank Gehry to create an entire corporate campus as a single open office.
The CEO of Scotts Miracle-Gro, Jim Hagedorn, is taking a different approach. Fittingly, Hagedorn spent his younger days as a jet fighter for the U.S. Air Force where the OODA loop became second nature to his thinking.
Hagedorn wanted to replicate what happens inside a jet fighter’s mind. Scotts’ Situation Awareness Room enables senior leadership to physically gather and share information in an open, common space. The room is ringed with real-time data tied to strategic priorities and advanced video-conferencing systems. The SAR is the central node of the network, intended to create collective understanding, then rapidly disperse decisions and plans for action.
Scotts’ Situation Awareness Room is well designed to Decide, and Act. But how do you get the data you need to Observe and Orient? Scotts’ answer is the Analytic Center of Excellence. A group of hand-selected personnel will each represent key nodes of the larger organization and sit right next to the Situation Awareness Room. The team will feed data and analysis to help leaders better Observe and Orient prior to Decide and Act.
What approach should you take? You might focus on collaboration in an open office like Facebook, or a highly structured intelligence network like Scotts. There isn’t a single right answer, just the right answer for you. Can you beat the competition to Observe the situation, Orient yourself to your goals, make Decisions swiftly, and take effective Action? If so, then you will have become a modern day “Maverick” and a Top Gun leader for the digital age.
Originally published in HBR by Mark Bonchek and Chris Fussell