The Life and Mental Models of John Boyd

“Fuck a wind tunnel. The biggest wind tunnel in the world is up there. Its called reality.”

-John Boyd

John Boyd’s OODA loop is in my opinion one of the most valuable mental models to apply in basically all aspects of life, especially  where there is high stakes competition. Boyd’s life makes for an entertaining bio, and Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art Of War is one of the first completely detailed versions to cover his development as a person, and strategist.. The book develops his character through a series of political battles and personal trauma”. He had an intense belief in empirically testing everything, and he was willing to struggle in the wilderness for decades until he got everything right. His bio tracks how his thinking evolved over time, culminating in several important aeronautical engineering theories, along with the OODA loop.

“Do not write it as a formula. Write it as a way to teach officers to think, to think in new ways about war. War is ever changing and men are ever fallible. Rigid rules simply won’t work. Teach men to think.”

“If you want to understand something, take it to the extremes or examine its opposites,”

The OODA loop

The quick version:

… to shape the environment, one must manifest four qualities: variety, rapidity, harmony, and initiative.

A commander must have a series of responses that can be applied rapidly; he must harmonize his efforts and never be passive. To understand the briefing, one must keep these four qualities in mind. After marching through commander must operate at a faster OODA Loop than does his opponent.

Boyd said there are two ways to manipulate information gleaned from observation: analysis and synthesis. We can analyze whatever process or event we are observing by breaking it down into individual components and interactions. And from this we can make deductions that lead to understanding. Or we can synthesize by taking various sometimes unrelated components and putting them together to form a new whole.

Key quotes on the OODA loop and related theories:

The purpose of the briefing was not to reveal the “Answer” but to jar listeners out of complacency and into thinking on their own. Boyd abhorred the idea that his briefing might be considered dogma. In fact, he often said listeners should take the briefing out and burn it before they considered it dogma.
Boyd found many such instances in history, and in these victories by numerically inferior forces he found a common thread: none of the victorious commanders threw their forces head-to-head against enemy forces. They usually did not fight what is known as a “war of attrition.” Rather, they used deception, speed, fluidity of action, and strength against weakness. They used tactics that disoriented and confused—tactics that, in Boyd’s words, caused the enemy “to unravel before the fight.”

Becoming oriented to a competitive situation means bringing to bear the cultural traditions, genetic heritage, new information, previous experiences, and analysis / synthesis process of the person doing the orienting—a complex integration that each person does differently. These human differences make the Loop unpredictable. In addition, the orientation phase is a nonlinear feedback system, which, by its very nature, means this is a pathway into the unknown. The unpredictability is crucial to the success of the OODA Loop. Only three arrows are on the main axis, and these are what most see when they look at the Observe > Orient > Decide > Act cycle. But this linear understanding and its common result—an attempt to use the Loop mechanically—is not at all what Boyd had in mind.

Application of OODA Loop:

The ability of an aircraft to perform fast transients does two things, one defensive and one offensive: it can force an attacking aircraft out of a favorable firing position, and it can enable a pursuing pilot to gain a favorable firing position. The advantage gained from the fast transient suggests that to win in battle a pilot needs to operate at a faster tempo than his enemy. It suggests that he must stay one or two steps ahead of his adversary; he must operate inside his adversary’s time scale.

Thinking about operating at a quicker tempo—not just moving faster—than the adversary was a new concept in waging war. Generating a rapidly changing environment—that is, engaging in activity that is so quick it is disorienting and appears uncertain or ambiguous to the enemy—inhibits the adversary’s ability to adapt and causes confusion and disorder that, in turn, causes an adversary to overreact or underreact. Boyd closed the briefing by saying the message is that whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who survives.

The danger—and this is a danger neither seen nor understood by many people who profess a knowledge of Boyd’s work—is that if our mental processes become focused on our internal dogmas and isolated from the unfolding, constantly dynamic outside world, we experience mismatches between our mental images and reality. Then confusion and disorder and uncertainty not only result but continue to increase. Ultimately, as disorder increases, chaos can result. Boyd showed why this is a natural process and why the only alternative is to do a destructive deduction and rebuild one’s mental image to correspond to the new reality. Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science, and Joseph Schumpeter, an economist, recognized the destructive side of creativity. But Boyd was unique in his explanation of how the process is grounded in fundamentals discovered by Godel and Heisenberg and by entropy.

What will be the scene at your funeral?

Boyd was both a thinker and a doer, the quintessential man in the arena.

Boyd saw himself as a man of principal fighting superiors to do what was best for his country. He wasn’t one to suffer fools, or careerists, or bureacrats beyond the minimum military courtesy required.He took enormous career risk in order to advance the intellectual caliber of the US air force. He document and codified with mathematics techniques that truly worked in the air. This made the world a safer place.

Over time he built up a team of proteges who admired him intensely.

“Boyd’s Acolytes minimize his faults. They say it is more important that his core beliefs were steel-wrapped and his moral compass was locked on true North, that he never misspent his gifts. His motivation was simple: to get as close as possible to the truth. He would have been the first to admit there is no absolute truth. But he continued chasing something that was always receding from his grasp. And in the pursuit he came far closer to the unattainable than do most men. “

This was the description of the eulogy that one of Boyd’s proteges gave for him:

“Not many people are defined by the courts-martial and investigations they faced,” raucous laughter echoed off the white walls of the chapel. Sprey told how Boyd once snapped the tail off an F-86, spun in an F-100, and how he not only stole more than $1 million worth of computer time from the Air Force to develop a radical new theory but survived every resulting investigation. Chuck Spinney, a boyish Pentagon analyst who was like a son to Boyd, laughed so loud he could be heard all across the chapel. Even those in the congregation who barely knew Boyd took a certain pride in his profanity and coarseness and crude sense of humor. He cared little for his personal appearance and could be demanding, abrasive, and unreasonable. And while in his professional life Boyd accomplished things that can never be duplicated, in his personal life he did things few would want to duplicate.

Work Habits

Boyd’s work habits, were, um, interesting. Here was the perspective of one of his colleagues:

He would look up from his work to see Boyd staring at the wall, oblivious to the world, for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. Boyd was, as he described it, “having a séance with myself.” Then it was as if a switch had been turned on: suddenly Boyd spun around in his chair and picked up the conversation, waved his arms like a windmill in a hurricane, leaned across his desk.

Boyd went to the library—it was open until 1:00 A.M.—and continued working on equations. He made a list of what had to be done next, which equations had to be written and solved, what theories must be followed up and developed. He filled sheet after sheet of his yellow legal pad. When the library closed he drove up Buford Highway, turned onto McClave Drive, entered his home and continued working. Then he called Spradling( colleague with who he worked). It was about 4:00 A.M. in Atlanta, three hours earlier in Las Vegas.

Boyd, as a senior officer, lived in a trailer. By all accounts he worked eighteen- and twenty-hour days. He bought a reel-to-reel tape deck, and every night as he did paperwork his trailer was filled with the ominous “Ride of the Valkyries” or the majestic “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.”

His search ranged far afield. From the base library he checked out every available book on philosophy and physics and math and economics and science and Taoism and a half dozen other disciplines. He was all over the map, searching but not quite knowing for what.

It was obvious from Boyd’s phone calls that he was not only spending a disproportionately large amount of his retirement pay on books but was reading them all. Christie’s phone might ring at 2:00 A.M. and when he picked it up Boyd would say, “I had a breakthrough. Listen to this.” And without a pause he would begin reading from Hegel or from an obscure book on cosmology or quantum physics or economics or math or history or social science or education. Christie thought Boyd had taken leave of his senses. Except for the year at NKP, the past nine years of Boyd’s life had been devoted to hosing his superiors. He was a man of action. But when he walked out of the Building, he walked into a world of ideas. There was almost no transition. One day he was on the phone checking on the progress of the F-16 and the next he was calling people at 2:00 A.M. to read German philosophy. And for what? What was this learning theory he kept talking about? He said he had begun work on the thing back at NKP and he still had nothing to show for it. Why didn’t Boyd just retire?

Underestimated

One of John’s favorite stories, one he was to tell all his life, revolved around entering high school on September 2, 1942. He said he took a series of tests, one of which showed he had an IQ of only ninety. When offered the chance to retake the test, he refused. The test gave John what he later said was a great tactical advantage in dealing with bureaucrats—when he told them he had an IQ of only ninety, they always underestimated him.

Of course Boyd did have an advanced degree in aeronautical engineering. So he obviously wasn’t dumb. Apparently he worked harder than anyone at checking every single equation he worked on. Even if he wasn’t the smartest, his intense study over his lifetime allowed him to make all the important contributions that he did.

The right side of history

The 1960s were years of protests and demonstrations on college campuses across America. But not at Georgia Tech. In 1961 the president of Tech called a mandatory all-student meeting and announced that the first black students had been accepted, that all students would welcome them in friendship and cordiality, and any student who behaved otherwise would be dismissed and there would be no appeal. Thus, Tech became the first desegregate peacefully and without being forced to do so by court order. Tech and its students were too serious about academics to become sidetracked by such issues. During the 1960s the most avant-garde activity at Tech was the English professor who sometimes held classes at Harry’s Steak House on Spring Street. This professor’s “liberalism” was the talk of the campus.

Unconventional technique of internal politics and internal diplomacy

If your boss demands loyalty, give him integrity. But if he demands integrity, then give him loyalty.

In his new job, Boyd saw problems that needed immediate attention everywhere he looked. But 7th Air Force sent down paperwork daily that took hours to answer. Boyd thought Air Force bureaucracy was keeping him from the job at hand. His solution was to respond but to add material that caused 7th Air Force more paperwork than 7th Air Force caused him. “Pain goes both ways,” he said. In only a few weeks the time-consuming requests from 7th Air Force shrank to almost nothing.

John Boyd as a diplomatic representative

Then there was the story of the junior officer who was having an affair with a Thai woman. There was nothing unusual about this. Thai women are extraordinarily beautiful and many American officers formed close relationships But this particular officer was married and soon was overcome with guilt. He broke off the relationship. The woman in question was the daughter of an influential village official who felt his family lost face when his daughter was spurned. He was about to charge the young officer with rape. Boyd said he called in the young officer and gave him the big picture of how many base activities depended on the good will of Thai officials. He ordered the young officer, guilty or not, to continue the relationship.

“I’m giving you a direct order to screw her every night until you are transferred out of here,” Boyd said he told the officer. “Sir, I don’t believe that is a lawful order,” the officer said. “Goddammit, I issued it and you better obey it. We’re at war and bigger things are at stake here than your guilt. Your dick can cause you problems but it is not going to cause problems for America. You do as I say or I will make your life a living hell

Hey, sometimes a guy needs to take one for the team.

Boyd also thought the Base Exchange (B-X) at NKP was an unnecessary indulgence. He said a store selling everything from hair dryers to television sets to stereos had no place on a combat base—that such things made Americans “soft.” Persky recalls that once, he and Boyd were talking when Boyd pointed at the B-X and said everything in the store should be loaded aboard C-130s and parachuted into North Vietnam. “Let them get used to the good life and then we can just walk in and take over,” he said. Boyd also dealt with situations

Seems Capitalism did sort of do this in the long run.

Decentralized Management

In a Blitzkrieg situation, the commander is able to maintain a high operational tempo and rapidly exploit opportunity because he makes sure his subordinates know his intent, his Schwerpunkt. They are not micromanaged, that is, they are not told to seize and hold a certain hill; instead they are given “mission orders.” This means that they understand their commander’s overall intent and they know their job is to do whatever is necessary to fulfill that intent. The subordinate and the commander share a common outlook. They trust each other, and this trust is the glue that holds the apparently formless effort together. Trust emphasizes implicit over explicit communications. Trust is the unifying concept. This gives the subordinate great freedom of action. Trust is an example of a moral force that helps bind groups together in what Boyd called an “organic whole.”

 

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