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This article describes the concept op the OODA Loop, developed by John Boyd in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful decision making process tool.

What is an OODA Loop?

John Boyd developed the OODA Loop based on his experiences as a fighter pilot during the Korean War and later as an instructor.

This decision making process consists of Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. It is a cyclical model. By using this OODA Loop you are able to continuously adapt to changing circumstances and use this to draw on your strengths. In aerial combat, split-second decisions are crucial. When you respond too late, the enemy gets the upper hand. We live in a rapidly changing world. If you do not change with the times, chances are that you will go under.

Interaction with environment

Boyd developed the OODA Loop from this key concept. This is the process in which an individual or organization responds to an event. By responding quickly to situations and taking appropriate decisions, you can get ahead of your opponents. John Boyd assumed that intelligent organisms and organizations are in constant interaction with their environment. According to him, it causes complexity in an organization when managers and employees become prisoners of their own views. An organization can only survive if it breaks through this impasse by adapting itself to changing external conditions.

OODA Loop model

OODA Loop by John Boyd - toolshero

Boyd divided this decision-making process into four interacting and overlapping main processes:

1. Observe

By understanding quickly what is going on, you can observe the changing situation clearly. You will have to look at yourself and the situation as though you were an outsider and not from your own point of view. All senses are used at this stage, as a result of which as much information can be collected as practically possible.

2. Orient

At this stage you will know what has to be done. This does not only concern position, but also the possible options you can visualize. John Boyd distinguishes the following factors that play an important role in this stage including genetic inheritance, cultural traditions, past experiences, analysis and new information. Orientation does not only indicate how you see the world, but also what kind of world you are capable of seeing. The orientation stage is described as the most important process in the OODA Loop. The information from step 1 is organized.

3. Decide

This stage is about learning from experiences. Based on someone’s current mental perspective, they make decisions and determine what actions they need to take. The right decision is taken and actions follow from this.

4. Action

The physical execution of the decision is a fact at this stage. The selected approach is actually carried out. Experiences and/ or consequences of the approach are forwarded to the first stage, observe, after which the loop is complete and the cycle starts over again. It is a very quick process.

The objective is that a potential opponent does not get the chance to complete the loop as well, so that the opponent always keeps running behind the facts. The combination of observation and orientation leads to a decision which in turn leads to action. And then the cycle starts over again. It is a continuous process in which you should always be on the alert in a changing environment. When there is an equilibrium state, there is little chance of survival.


Unfortunately, John Boyd never wrote down his ideas in articles or a book, but he mentioned them in his presentations. This is why there are various interpretations of the OODA Loop. Although the model is detailed and widely used, it does have certain disadvantages:

  1. The OODA Loop model skips ‘memory’. When a situation has occurred before, the wheel does not have to be reinvented all over again by going through the OODA Loop again.
  2. The OODA Loop model has not been tested scientifically, so there is no proof that the OODA Loop is correct.
  3. The OODA Loop does not incorporate an opponent, although we have to reckon with opponents by being faster than they are.
  4. The OODA Loop model does not include the factor ‘cooperation’ and is based too much on gunfights. By working with teams in accordance with the OODA Loop model, a new outcome is created. Other factors then also come into play, including negotiation, task allocation, hierarchy, human behaviour, motivation, and so on. These are all factors that affect the decision-making process.

It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Is the OODA Loop model applicable in today’s modern business and personal challenges? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors for a good decision making process?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

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More information

  1. Brehmer, B. (2005, June). The dynamic OODA loop: Amalgamating Boyd’s OODA loop and the cybernetic approach to command and control. In Proceedings of the 10th international command and control research technology symposium (pp. 365-368).
  2. Boyd, J. R. (1996). The essence of winning and losing. Unpublished lecture notes, 12(23), 123-125.
  3. Ford, D. (2010). A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the Ooda Loop, and America’s War on Terror. Daniel Ford.
  4. Ullman, D. G. (2006). Making robust decisions: decision management for technical, business, and service teams. Trafford on Demand Pub.

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  1. The disadvantages discussed reveal a superficial understanding of John Boyd’s work and the OODA loop concept itself.
    1. “Orient”, in fact, refers to the collective, shared memory of a person within an institution. Orient refers to a sort of “muscle memory” for decision making that unconsciously impacts all of us. In the group setting, it’s the institutional memory embedded in how we train and incentivize our people.
    2. I’m not sure how one would test this scientifically, exactly, but it maps well to other time tested processes such as the Scientific Method and PDCA cycle. Are those “scientifically proven”? It also maps well to System I and System II thinking–the inside and outside OODA loops–well documented in cognitive science and psychology (See Daniel Kahneman, “Thinking Fast & Slow”.
    3. OODA Loop is exactly and precisely about dealing with an opponent in a conflict–this is the domain that John Boyd had in mind when creating model. The Observation step is grasping the unfolding circumstances and environment inflicted on you by the opponent. The feedback loops are about adjusting your mental models based on your observations of how the opponent changed the environment.
    4. OODA Loop has a great deal to say about cooperation in groups large and small. Boyd’s domain was warfare, where large groups of soldiers have to make rapid, independent decisions toward common goals under extreme stress and uncertainty. Much of what Boyd had to say about cooperation lay in the idea of creating a common orientation between different members of a team. And this orientation comes from shared experiences, usually built through training and story telling. Orientation is deliberately embedded in the center of the loop.

    While it’s true that John Boyd himself did not publish his own thoughts on the OODA loop, there are several books and countless articles by his various apprentices and friends, and others who have followed in his footsteps.

    1. Andy, it has been a few years since you made your comments. I fully agree that Patty’s assessment on the disadvantages of Boyd’s OODA loop is based on a surface understanding of the concepts. Particularly, Orientation includes past experience and cultural heritage (thus, memory), and the Implicit Guidance and control can also include past and repetitive experience in decision making. In fact, engaging in the environment produces new knowledge about what impact your decisions and actions had on the outside world. I believe that the “disadvantages” mentioned here completely missed the boat.

  2. I use OODA to teach children ( 12 to 18 yrs old ) how to respond in a high stress situation such as an earthquake, fire, or active assailant event where the situation could change instantly. I would run fire drills before and after introducing them to OODA. After training with OODA there was a marked reduction in ‘information overload and freeze’ episodes. It simply works!

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