Preparation is at the heart of everything we do. Even seemingly simple and impulsive actions involve a process of understanding and decision-making which we may take for granted. By improving your comprehension of situations and decision-making ability you can improve the speed and efficiency of the process, for personal or professional gain.
Military strategist John Boyd suggested every decision we make is reached through a cycle of Observe-Orient-Decide-Act, which he named the OODA Loop. He suggested improving the mental processes required for each stage, anyone could develop their decision-making abilities. And by actively considering the stages of the cycle, long-term goals and projects could also be realised.
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An awful cliché, perhaps; but it is true that preparation is the key to success in whatever you are trying to do. It is the reason that athletes run hundreds of laps of the track, why actors read over their lines hundreds of times, and why musicians spend hundreds of hours in rehearsal studios. Practice and preparation conditions your mind and body to perform to its full potential in scenarios when perhaps others have not conditioned theirs to do the same. However, the true key to success is not how long you prepare, but how you prepare.
This preparation can extend to decision-making processes. John Boyd (1927-1997) was a former fighter pilot in the United States Air Force and a famous military strategist. He was the first to describe the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) – a tool that he explained was used by military forces around the world to help them plan out their strategic decisions. It was originally utilised for combat operations to help militaries plan their approaches based on agility, rather than the raw strength of their forces. However, it has now become an important tool for individuals around the world in positions that require crucial decision-making competencies – including business.
Boyd suggested that the each and every one of our decision-making processes run in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. An individual who was capable of operating this cycle quickly – observing, orientating and deciding rapidly to reach an action decision with ease – was able to “get inside” another’s cycle to gain a strategic advantage. The discussions of OODA were originally designed and developed in order to teach others how to focus their energies in such a way that they were able to defeat an adversary in combat.
If you think about it, you utilise OODA for the most nondescript of your everyday actions – what you are going to have for breakfast, how you are going to get to work. It is long-term, strategic decisions in which this technique is often neglected, or not utilised to its full potential. If you begin to use OODA for your important long-term choices as well as seemingly-impulsive automatic decisions, you will find much more success. Boyd described OODA in detail, explaining how each section is integrated into other loops – however, only the simple basic loop will be discussed here.
Observe kicks off the OODA Loop. The entire process begins with the observation of data from the world, environment and situation which you find yourself in. On the short scale, this is represented by the things your senses take in – what you see, what you hear, what you smell. This is probably most notable when you find yourself arriving at a location you have never been before; your body’s natural response is to examine the space around you. Over longer timescales, this applies to the compiling of information regarding your goals, aspirations and current scenario. For businesses, this can come in the form of market research, auditing, or other methods of gathering information which will be critical to form hypotheses and later, plans of action, regarding specific goals.
This is the moment that we take in all the information garnered during the observation phase and begin to process it. We consider the implications of each aspect of our situation and environment, what each facet means to us and to other people. This is probably the phase of the cycle that requires the most practice – if you can develop the mental processes required for orienting new information, then you can take your decision-making power and speed to new heights. Practice the different mental patterns you use to analyse data – how you see it, break it down into it’ constituents, and how you then relate that information to an area crucial to you. Alternatively, if this is a long-term decision that you are preparing for, you may pre-empt your data by developing and adapting a rehearsed mental process by which you will evaluate the information. Through rehearsal, you can create a pattern of examination which is second-nature to you and will therefore be able to perform your analysis in a far shorter timeframe. Also, this approach will reduce the number of unforeseen outcomes at the end of the process significantly, as all routes will be accounted for.
Decide will be the outcome of – and is entirely reliant on – your orienting phase. Ultimately, you should now be close to making a decision on your next step, and maybe other subsequent steps. Based on the data you were presented with, and your orienting processes, you may end with any number of potential pathways to follow – it is now about narrowing these down to one, or few, more feasible routes to success. This is a science – effectively, you are forming a hypothesis – a best guess of your actions’ implications based on your analysis of the evidence presented to you. Practice and experience can also help you with this. Knowing the likely outcomes of certain different practices and decisions can have overlap onto others. It is important that the outcomes of your previous experience and your orienting phase get you as close to an accurate prediction of your future actions and impacts as possible.
Now is the time to put the decision you made to the test. Action is the final part of the OODA Loop; however, as it is a cycle, any information which you gather from the results of your actions can be used to restart the analytical process. You are of course hoping the plan will be successful – but whether it is, or it isn’t, you should be learning from the effects, beyond the obvious. The scope of your actions may have far-reaching consequences, and you must always be prepared to analyse even the most successful projects in depth, in order to achieve continuous improvement.
This is the key to success. The stages of the loop are always going to be implemented, regardless of decision. It is your prerogative to improve your analytical and decision-making processes and patterns, and to make them ever-more efficient, in order to speed up the time of your decision-making process, and the effectiveness of your actions. Having a shorter OODA Loop will free up invaluable resources – time, energy, labour, money – which you can use to better yourself and your achievements yet further. Every day that you devote to accelerating one of the stages is another day that you will have to put in less effort than the last. With regards to major, long-term projects, engaging in an extensive OODA Loop will improve the efficacy of your final decisions and set you on the correct path for the future. For businesspeople, an efficient loop can allow you to get within that of your closest rivals and to gain a competitive advantage over others in the market. If you’re thinking faster and thinking better than them – you will be better than them.
Practice and preparation are key. Spend time on OODA and your decisions now, so you won’t ever have to again.