How Fast are Your OODA Loops?
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How Fast are Your OODA Loops?   by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine February 2000

One of the great things about a website is that it reaches a diverse readership. Because this readership spans more than two generations, I felt it was important to share with you a shocking insight that I had the other morning. I was preparing an exercise for our annual planning meeting - a fun game intended to accomplish the goal of effective project selection through audience distraction - when it hit me!

I imagined my teenage son walking in while I was working and asking me what I was doing. After I explained the exercise to him, the first thing he said was "Why do you have to play games to get people to make the right decision?" He followed up this comment with "Adults always seem to make decision making so difficult." I instantly switched to a recent memory where I was trying to teach the basic quality tools to some new employees that were barely older than my son. They had been equally amazed that "we" tended to drag out the decision making process so much.

What does it say about the majority of current day managers when games have to be played in order for a skill to be learned? Aren't the young leaders in today's Internet society making critical decisions without the benefit of such games? Are these same new leaders of the future commerce system effectively using information to make decisions without the benefit of hand-drawn Pareto charts? Is it possible that they could become the "boss" of those who currently hold middle and upper management positions because they can make better decisions, and make them faster?

Is it the ability to make fast, and accurate, decisions that are conditioned by Nintendo that give them this power, or are they simply using information better than those in the older generation because they have grown up with the technology? Will having a fast OODA loop and the ability to faultlessly program a VCR both be requisites for a management position? I consider myself to be computer literate, even though I have yet to create a website. Could I be overestimating the value of my current skill set?

When Colonel John Boyd first introduced the OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) loop concept during the Korean War, he was referring to the ability possessed by fighter pilots that allowed them to succeed in combat. The concept's application however is universal - simply watch other drivers during your ride to and from work. You will see different levels of OODA loop proficiency in action! We observe-orient-decide-act ourselves through life each day, usually not bothering to examine how quickly or accurately our OODA loop functions.

I have been intrigued by the concept of OODA loops for a few years now. Having a teenager that was equally fascinated with and proficient at non-violent video games only further fueled this intrigue. As I experimented with both video and computer games myself, I became more perceptive as to how well my OODA loop worked. I also noticed how many of these games actually taught systems thinking as well. The question is "Did my decision making ability improve as a result of playing these games?"

If individuals have OODA loops, it stands to reason that teams (or groups of individuals) have them as well. Team effectiveness would in turn somewhat be a function of the collective OODA loop speed of the group. Think about the teams you have been on recently. Were they efficient and accurate in their decision making? Think about your own OODA loop. When does it work well and when is it a little slower than you would like? Will OODA loop speed become a key human performance measure in the coming years?

A person who grows up around computers and electronic games thinks differently than one who can remember getting their first television set or hand calculator. There are definitely pros and cons to both high-tech games and growing up with technology, but I really wonder how these two factors will affect the way we make decisions in tomorrow's workplace. Women having been telling men for years "You aren't female so you just can't understand." We would like to think that we can, but when it comes right down to it, they are right. Is it possible that us "forty pluses" can't grasp the magnitude of change that technology will have (is having) on both our personal and work lives? Is there more of a message in the "Are You Ready?" commercial than we realize?

I have, and will continue to try, to think digitally. I continue to explore how the current pace of change will change the workplaces I plan on working in for the next twenty or so years. It no longer takes days or weeks to collect, and especially analyze, data. I am conditioned however to using certain tools and thought processes to make decisions, both on my own and in a group. How much do I need to alter my personal approach to decision making, and the process that I teach to others, in the coming years? I can't decide. Keep improving!

If you would like have a digital conversation about mind speed and the key role that it plays in leadership effectiveness, please send me an e-mail!


"Each step on the road to high performance begins with a choice." -- Kevin McManus, Great Systems!


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