The OODA Loop Explained

Self-defense and survival situations are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving. That language, “tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving” comes from Supreme Court decision in Graham v Connor which is the foundational case on police use of force. The Supreme Court stated “police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving”. I believe we could sum up the Court’s description of these situations with one word; ambiguous.

I believe good police officers thrive in ambiguous situations. Self-defense and survival situations are ambiguous and your ability to survive, or thrive, in these situations will be determined by your ability to appropriately process and think your way through them. John Steinbeck wrote, “The final weapon is the brain, all else is supplemental.” Fights are won and lost in the mind regardless of the tool in your hand or the ‘bugout bag’ on your back. It’s not the tools and gear that will save you, but your ability to think. If you can think, then you will appropriately apply the tools available to you.

I was giving a presentation on law enforcement at a high school career day. One student asked me if someone had ever pulled a gun on me. I replied, “No, so far I’ve always pulled my gun first and they chose not to pull theirs.” They may have planned on shooting me but when I had my gun out first it changed the dynamic so they were reacting to me. I had simply cycled through the OODA Loop faster than they had and won the encounter without firing a shot.

OODA What?
People tend to think linearly. They try to proceed from A to Z and hit each step along the way. Or they want a check list, flow chart type diagram that lists every possible scenario and what to do about it. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t work that way. In a self-defense or survival situation, you must be able to jump directly from A to F without proceeding through B to E. Uncertainty and ambiguity are irresolvable characteristics of these situations. Using linear style thinking leads to hesitation and in-action… and as one of my former team leaders always used to say, “Hesitation will get you killed”.

Jet fighter combat, or dog-fighting, is another one of these situations. Basically it’s one man inside a machine trying to kill another man in a machine. Colonel John Boyd was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force and was known as “Forty Second Boyd” for his ability to defeat any opposing pilot in air combat maneuvering in less than 40 seconds. Boyd served from 1951 to 1975 but remained highly involved in military doctrine and weapons development until his death in 1997. Boyd was highly instrumental in the development of the F-15, F-16, and F-18 fighter jets. In 1990, Boyd was called out of retirement by then Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, to assist in planning Operation Desert Storm. “Some regard Boyd as the most important strategist of the twentieth century, or even since Sun Tzu.” (Science, Strategy, and War, pg 2) Boyd’s ideas extended way beyond aerial combat and have been adopted by the U.S. Marine Corp as the basis for maneuver warfare. Boyd is best known for his discovery and documentation of the OODA Loop.

 

The idea of the OODA Loop is we Observe, Orient, Decide and then Act.  Many people stay at this superficial, simple version of the OODA Loop.  Like many simple ideas though, it’s actually much more in-depth.

Observe:

  • Situational Awareness
  • What is happening around you?
  • Watch the herd? How are other people around you acting?
  • Who or What does NOT belong?
  • What SHOULD be happening but is not?

Orient:

  • How you feel about what you observe.
  • What do you understand about your observations

Decide:

  • What are you going to do about your observations?

Act:

  • Your action is ALWAYS a result of your decision.
  • Don’t act simply for the sake of doing something.
  • Actions must be effective and accurate.

Basic OODA Explanation: 

Observation is purely physical.  It’s what comes into your mind, both conscious and sub-conscious, through your physical senses.  The Orient step is emotional and mental.  It’s what you feel and think about your observation.  If you fail to Orient, or Orient incorrectly, everything else in the loop will be ineffective and you will have to start the process over again.  How you Orient to Observations is based on a number of things like culture, personality, experience, training, paradigms, etc.

The simplest way for me to explain Orient is if you think about it in the sense of sexual orientation.  We hear about this day in, day out in the media and I think it’s something everyone can comprehend.  Your sexual orientation is how you sexually feel about other people.  A straight man observes a female he finds attractive and it produces an emotion.  The same man sees another man and he feels nothing.  It’s just another guy.  Now a gay man orients differently to the same observations.  Any decisions, that lead to actions, are based upon the orientation.  People can observe the same thing and all orient differently.

Decide is a result of Orient and Act is a result of Decide.  Your action has now changed the environment so you’re back to observing if your action achieved the goal or not and the whole thing starts over.

In a self-defense situation, your opponent is also going through his own OODA Loop.  This presents us with a couple of concepts 1) Process through your OODA faster and 2) Disrupt your opponents OODA so he is reacting to you and you act before he does.  They may seem one in the same, but they’re not.  The first concept is simply based on speed.  Think of two old-west gunfighters facing off on the street at high noon.  (I don’t think that really took place as much as we like to think, but for the sake of my explanation just play along)  One of them Observes his opponent, understands the reality of the situation (Orients), Decides to draw his gun and then Acts by drawing and shooting.  A lot of things could have happened.  He simply may have had a faster draw than the other guy.  The other guy may have made the decision to shoot, but simply wasn’t as fast.  The first gunman may have had more experience so he simply processed through the loop faster.  In Boyd’s actual diagram (see below) of the OODA Loop you’ll see he recognized the ability to go directly from Observing to Acting based upon experience and proven mental models of how things work.  Anyway, all I’m saying is that one concept of OODA is simply the speed at which you move through it.

The second concept is a bit more interesting.  As you are moving through your own OODA, what if you could disrupt your opponent’s ability to move through his?  In self-defense, all you really need to do is prevent your opponent from acting.  So if you can ‘get inside’ your opponents OODA, you can disrupt, delay, and maybe destroy, his processes so he never can act.  This goes back to the concept I’m always trying to drive home… You should be fighting his ability, his plans and his desire to continue to attack you.  So let’s go back to our analogy of the gunfighters.  Say that gunfighter 2 is less experienced, and definitely not as fast, as gunfighter 1.  If they go at each other simply on speed, then gunfighter 1 will win – assuming his shooting is accurate that it.  So gunfighter 2 needs an advantage.  As he’s walking to main street to face off, he picks up a rock and holds it in his non-shooting hand.  As he faces off with gunfighter 1, he reaches that moment where he knows it’s time to draw.  At that moment, he throws the rock at gunfighter 1.  Gunfighter 1 didn’t expect this.  Now he has to react to the rock flying through the air at him.  The rock coming at him was unexpected.  In that split second that he moves his focus from his opponent to the rock flying towards him, gunfighter 2 draws and shoots him.  Gunfighter 2 caused gunfighter 1 to reset his OODA which delayed him from acting.  Never fight fairly.  If you’re in a fair fight, you’re tactics suck!

I grew up watching Westerns and listening to stories about Butch Cassidy.  When talking about the OODA Loop, a scene from the 1969 movie, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid comes to mind.

Butch won the fight by resetting his adversary’s OODA Loop.

OODA In-Depth:

As you can see, the actual OODA Loop documented by John Boyd is much more in-depth than the one we typically see.  The first thing we notice is the ability to skip orientation and move directly from observation to action.  This is accomplished by developing mental models ahead of time and train for specific situations.  When you observe a situation, for which you have an action model in place, you already know what to do.  There is no need to orient or decide what to do.  This is what I call a Mental Model Match.  The observation matches a pre-planned decision so perfectly that you simply act.  Obviously when you’re dealing in fractions of a second, this can be the difference between life and death.

I have developed my own interpretation of the OODA Loop which is shown below.

Being aware of your environment is essential.  Obviously, if you fail to observe something, your OODA never starts.  In the real world, what you don’t know can hurt you.  If a tree falls in the woods, and there’s no one around, does it make a sound?  Doesn’t matter.  It still crushes whatever it falls on.  In self-defense and survival, situational awareness can mean the difference between life and death.  Pay more attention to what’s going on around you. Have you ever seen one of those animal shows where the predator is sneaking up on a large herd of prey out on the grasslands of Africa.  All the little deer are grazing away peacefully.  They take a few bites, look up, look around, and then take a few more bites.  But then suddenly, one of them sees the predator.  The other deer notice the change in their friends demeanor and start looking around.  Pretty soon, they’ve all spotted the danger and start reacting to it.

When you’re in a group of people, watch the herd.  It’s hard, if not impossible, to observe every person in the crowd, but if you watch the herd in general, you will pick up on how individuals are reacting to the people around them.  This can give you advanced warning of something, or someone, out of the ordinary.  How are the people in the crowd acting?  Who or what does not belong?  What should be happening, but is not happening?  Example… Imagine walking into a bank.  The parking lot is full of cars.  You walk into the lobby and there are no tellers at the windows.  In fact, there are no customers waiting in line to speak to the non-existent tellers.  Something is not right…  There should be three or four tellers helping customers with other customers standing in line waiting.  The normal activity that you’d expect is not happening.  This should be a clue…

Observations are input through two different channels; our conscious mind and our sub-conscious mind.  The conscious observations are easiest to deal with because we’re aware of them and they pass directly to the Orient stage.  We can point directly to the stimulus and connect it to our feelings about it.  The sub-conscious are obviously more ambiguous.  Gavin DeBecker’s excellent book, The Gift of Fear, discusses these sub-conscious observations, why we often ignore them and the consequences of doing so.  The sub-conscious inputs create feelings within us, but because we can’t directly connect to where they’re coming from, we often fail to Orient to them.  Even though we physically Orient to them (the emotions and feeling they produce, i.e. fear) they often get filtered out completely between Orienting and Deciding in what I call the ‘Self Negotiation Loop’ or Decide/Re-Decide.

But before getting into that, lets look at the Orient stage of the loop a little closer.  The key to achieving an effective action is how you orient.  In his book, Science, Strategy, and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd, Frans P.B. Osinga wrote, “Orientation is the Schwerpunkt. It shapes the way we interact with the environment –hence orientation shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act. Orientation shapes the character of present observation-orientation-decision-action loops –while these present loops shape the character of future orientation.”  Your orientation is determined by your personality, culture, religion, education, training and past experiences.

I go back to what I’ve said before, “Security and survival situations are won or lost in the mind.”  If you don’t have the software in place (training, experience, knowledge, etc), then you don’t understand or feel anything about what you observe… or you freeze like a deer in the headlights because there’s no software in your head to tell you what decision to make.  In the 1986 movie, Top Gun, Maverick makes the statement, “If you think, you’re dead.” – which I think means if you have to stop and think through a dangerous, life threatening situation you will never get to the Decision and Acting stage of the loop in time to survive.  The Samurai understood the concept of “Mind, No Mind.”  Further explanation of this concept is found in The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War, “suppose you are shooting with a bow and you think you are shooting while you are shooting; then the aim of your bow will be inconsistent and unsteady…When an archer forgets consciousness of shooting and shoots in a normal frame of mind, as if unoccupied, then bow will be steady.”  If you have to consciously think about what you are doing, you will most likely mess it up.  The purpose of all training, education, etc is to help you effectively orient to the situation or environment you’re dealing with.  The goal is to be so well trained, prepared, and skilled that you can process the OODA and act without consciously taking the time to think your way through it.

“Luke, Trust Your Feelings”

Animals survive by acting on their instincts.  People have instincts as well, but we often don’t follow them because of our innate, human ability to think about our thoughts.  Making critical decisions, in seconds or less, it often difficult for people as they enter the Decide/Re-Decide or Self Negotiation Loop and get stuck there.  In self defense and survival situations, what we observe is often so outside of our normal existence that we question or deny the observation.  I’ve had experiences where I’ve seen something so crazy that I’ve questioned, “Did that really happen?  Did I actually see what I think I did?”  That takes us off track in OODA and into the interior of the loop.  In real life, unlike professional sports, there is no replay.  You don’t get to freeze the action and determine is that really a gun in his hand.  You see it for a split second in low-lighting and question if you really saw it or not.  Instead of continuing through the loop and acting on a bad decision, we want more information.  It’s impossible to go back to the Observe point of the loop again because it’s already passed.  All we can do is make sense of what we initially observed.

The first stage of Self Negotiation is denial.  We deny the emotions/feelings, or the way we oriented to the situation, because we don’t want to believe what we’re feeling.  We suppress the initial orientation and loop back looking for additional meaning or a way not to act on what we’re feeling.  If you haven’t read  The Gift of Fear you need to read it.  Humans, unlike any other living creature, will sense danger and yet still walk right into it.  DeBecker wrote, “You’re in a hallway waiting for an elevator late at night. The elevator door opens, and there’s a guy inside, and he makes you afraid. You don’t know why, you don’t know what it is. And many women will stand there and look at that guy and say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to think like that. I don’t want to be the kind of person who lets the door close in his face. I’ve got to be nice. I don’t want him to think I’m not nice.’  And so human beings will get into a steel soundproof chamber with someone they’re afraid of, and there’s not another animal in nature that would even consider it.”

The Gift of Fear opens with the story of a woman named Kelly who denies multiple warning feelings she has regarding a stranger in her apartment building that offers to help her with her groceries.  She goes against her gut feeling and lets him help her.  Once inside her apartment he raped her.  She oriented to the danger correctly, but didn’t like the Decision and Actions (not being polite to this nice man offering to help her) and re-decided back to suppress her orientation until she just ignored it.  I think we all do this in one way or another.  We feel something, we perceive the decision and actions we need to take, but don’t like that decision so we re-decide until we get something we’re more comfortable with.

The next delay in decision making is something called Hicks Law.  In a nutshell, Hicks Law “describes the time it takes for a person to make a decision as a result of the possible choices he or she has: increasing the number of choices will increase the decision time logarithmically.”  Basically, the more choices you have the more time it will take you to make a decision.  If you have multiple response options, you can get caught in the Decide/Re-Decide Loop playing through all the options in your head until you find one you like.  In a remark about his Model T, Henry Ford said, “You can have any color as long as it’s black.”  Easy decision because there’s only one color option.  But I believe you always have at least two choices in any situation.  You can act or not act.  Choosing not to take action is a decision as well as an action in and of itself.  Before my time in law enforcement, cops only carried a revolver and nightstick.  The options for using force were hands, nightstick, revolver.  Three options.  Now we have many more options – which is a good thing, but can delay the OODA processing.  Now we have hands, pepper spray, Taser, baton, less lethal round (beanbag shotgun), handgun, patrol rifle.  Hesitation can occur when trying to choose the right tool for the situation.

Prior to making a decision, we also assess the Risk and Reasonableness of the decision and may Rationalize our reasons for making said decision.  All of these thought processes take time and delay our movement through OODA.  If we perceive the risk of an anticipated decision as too high, we have to loop back and re-assess.  We may question if our decision is reasonable or not.  Additionally, taking time to rationalize our decision within ourselves often causes hesitation.

The key to eliminating the Decide/Re-Decide/Self Negotiation loop is act upon your feelings.  Trust what you feel and go with it.

Completing the Loop

Once you move out of self negotiation, and choose a decision, your action will always be a direct result of that decision.  People never decide one thing and do another.  Whatever they do is always a result of a decision.  You cannot make an action without a decision to act – or not act – as discussed earlier.  An action is physical.  It’s the offspring of a decision (mental).  The mental creation (decision) always precedes the physical (action).  Some times people say they spoke without thinking.  Not true.  It’s impossible.  Now, they may have spoke before thinking of how stupid they would appear, or how hurtful their words would be, but they thought about what they were going to say before they said it.  These utterances are often how they truly feel because they said it before the filters in their mind (Decide/Re-Decide) could prompt them to change their words or not speak at all.  In this case, they moved so rapidly from orienting to action that their words came out unfiltered.  Then they often go back and try to change their story, rationalize, deny, and my favorite “just kidding.  I didn’t mean that”.  Sure you did!

Action is pretty self-explanatory.  It’s just the result of everything preceding it.  Action is always intended to accomplish an objective so your action must be effective.  One misconception people take from OODA to make lots of quick, unexpected actions to throw off the opponents OODA.  You can’t miss fast enough to win a gunfight.  You can fire 100 rounds in 5 seconds at your opponent with your fancy, tricked out self defense gun, but if they all miss and you opponent walks up and cracks you in the head with a baseball bat, you lose!  You’re not taking action simply for the sake of acting first.  It’s about being the first one to take effective action.  This reminds me of one of my favorite movie scenes…

The guy with the sword was the first to act.  In fact he took a lot of actions before Indiana Jones did anything.  But Indy’s single action was more effective than all of the swordsman’s actions.  Once you completed the action, the question is “did it work?”  You instantly move back into Observing if your action worked as intended and the whole thing starts over again.

Conclusion

OODA simply explains and diagrams how people think and act.  By understanding OODA you can better prepare yourself so you can Observe and Act without taking time to Orient and Decide.  Additionally, your opponent is experiencing his own OODA.  Disrupt his OODA so he can’t act and you win.  Long before John Boyd, Sun Tzu stated it this way, “The condition of a military force is that its essential factor is speed, taking advantage of others’ failure to catch up, going by routes they do not expect, attacking where they are not on guard.”  Fights are won and lost in the mind and in the heart rather than the strength of the arm or the gun in a hand.

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