The OODA Cycle: A Critical Introduction
I often find myself amazed at the number of supposedly “trained” fighters who have never heard of the OODA cycle. In today’s world, where over a decade of combat in nasty, brutish parts of the world has clearly demonstrated the importance of scientifically valid, quantifiable training, the idea that someone could consider themselves trained, without knowing that basic concept, is beyond belief. Whether you are a power-lifting, door-kicking special operations gunslinger, a cop in a patrol cruiser, or a concerned citizen worried about cannibalistic San Franciscans, you cannot spend any length of time doing in-depth study of combat-relevant issues, and not come across the term. If you are completely unfamiliar with the term, I guarantee, with complete confidence, that you are not ready for the fight. It doesn’t matter how much “training” you’ve done, if it has been so elementary that you’ve never heard of Colonel Boyd’s “loop,” you’ve not really been training.
Unfortunately, even for those who have a passing familiarity with the OODA Cycle, in my experience, have just that—a passing familiarity. Regardless of how much they talk about “interrupting the OODA loop,” or “getting inside the OODA loop,” too many people do not understand what it actually means, or how to train to improve their response time with this natural, powerful tool.
If you’ve learned and practiced natural decision-making matrices, and know how to think critically under stress (and when to not bother), you can exert as much control over any given situation as humanly possible. If the other dude gets inside of your decision-making cycle though, and begin controlling what options are available to you, then you end up forced to play catch-up. This leaves you crammed into a position you don’t want to be in, and fighting your way out, against undesirable—perhaps even unbeatable—odds.
This will provide a grossly oversimplified, but still functional, overview of the OODA Cycle, and what we can do to improve our reaction times, through improved decision-making processes.
The initial step of any decision-making cycle is observation of the fact that something is occurring. This does not just mean seeing it. It may mean seeing, hearing, smelling, or even tasting. At a more esoteric—but arguably more important—level, it may even involve simple intuition, and “sensing” that something is going on.
This is more complicated than most people make it out to be. Good, useful observation is about “seeing” details. A lot of people spout the old infantry training platitude that “God is in the details.” These same people though, seldom understand exactly how detailed we’re talking.
“Oh, look at the pretty forest.”
“Did you see the trees?” is not sufficient.
“What kind of trees? Deciduous, coniferous, or mixed timber?”
“Gee, I don’t know?”
“Ugh…Broad leaves or needles?”
“Oh, broad leaves!”
“Great! Maples, hickory, oak, elm?”
“I thought you paid attention to the details!”
A coniferous forest may allow me to hide from thermal imaging devices, even in the winter. In a deciduous forest, in fall and autumn, and most of spring, there will be inadequate overhead foliage to hide my thermal signature.
You have to learn to look for details. One “game” I play with my wife, while we are driving, is to ask detailed questions about things we just passed. “Hey, Honey. What state was that red Ford pick-up from?”
“How the hell would I know?”
“Did you SEE the truck? It passed us going at least 90MPH!”
“Yes, I saw it!”
“Well, what license plates did it have on it?”
“Oh! Texas!” So, now she starts paying attention to more than just the fact that some idiot passed us driving way too fast. She’s started looking for DETAILS. This is also a useful game to play with your kids to build situational awareness and the ability to look around and see details in a hurry. If you lack the drive to remember to play this game though, there is a more traditional way to play the same basic game.
Kim Games (contrary to a popular belief, the name of Kim games comes not from an acronym for “Keep In Mind,” but from the protagonist of the Rudyard Kipling tale of the same name. It was described in some detail by Boy Scout founder Baden-Powell in his book “Scouting Games,” and is considered a pretty basic part of reconnaissance and sniper training) are designed for teaching us to see and remember details about things we need to observe.
At its most basic, Kim Games involve a table with various items of military significance placed on it. When the exercise begins, the contents of the table are uncovered for a specific amount of time, allowing you to study the items on the table. After the duration of the specified time, the table is covered again, and you are then alloted a certain amount of time to write down any notes about your observations. A more advanced version involves the same thing, without the note-taking allowance.
After your alloted note-taking time, you are asked questions about the items. Not simple questions like “What was on the table?” The questions should be specifics: “What type of rifle was on the table?” “Who manufactured the binoculars? What magnification were they?” “What was the serial number of the PVS-14?” “What position was the safety selector switch in on the 1911? What about the 1911A1?”
You WILL suck at this game initially, if your interrogator is doing his job correctly, and ask specifics. With practice though, you’ll learn to look for, see, and remember details more rapidly. That is the point.
In application, observation may initially be as simple as seeing a dude acting hinky ahead of you on the sidewalk. Unfortunately, you need to be able to express WHY his behavior is suspicious, if you are going to act on it, effectively. “I don’t know, he just looks suspicious!” doesn’t cut it. Even “well, he’s standing on a poorly lit street corner, at 0300, with one hand in his pocket, speaking out loud, with no one else around,” may not be sufficient cause to sucker punch him either. We need to understand proxemics and kinesics as well, and how to decipher them.
Observation, in the context of the OODA cycle may also involve having early warning devices out, watchful neighbors who can give you a telephone call when suspicious activities occur in the neighborhood, or having a local cop friend who can/will let you know if you’ve been targeted. It may be a matter of hearing multiple people in boots, stomping around on your porch in the middle of the night, or hearing radio static. It might be smelling out-of-place cologne, or stale cigarette smoke. Observation is not JUST seeing! It is any input received through sensory detection that provides you with raw data about your environment. It’s information.
The second step of the OODA Cycle is only relevant if you have some understanding of your METT-TC estimate of the situation. It is a determination of what your observations mean to you, within the context of your situation. Without any concept of what the situation is, you cannot make an accurate orientation if you observe incorrectly. If you don’t know what is going on, you’re not going to be able to determine what any specific stimulus means.
No one in my family smokes. I live in a small, tight-knit, largely Mormon community. If I smell cigarette smoke on my property, I can orient to the fact that a stranger is on my property. Without an understanding of my overall situation though, that might be useless knowledge.
“Any stranger is a threat” sounds great in dystopian prepper fiction. In the real world, today or post-SHTF, it’s simply not realistic however. Am I specifically being targeted by a criminal element, and the smoke is from someone in an observation site? Or is it just some out-of-town elk hunter crossing my property, because wherever he is from, they don’t bother teaching people how to read “No Trespassing” signs?
Without good intelligence collection and analysis efforts, and a resulting accurate understanding of what is going on, at an operational and strategic level, within your immediate operational area, you have no way to accurately orient to what your observations mean.
If we oversimplify things to the point of a fairy tale parody of real life, the decision phase of the OODA cycle can actually be the fastest step of the process. Too often, even in “high speed performance” tactical rifle and pistol training, this oversimplification occurs, and people end up with the simple “shoot/no-shoot” decision to make. On one level, that’s awesome. It makes the decision-making as streamlined and rapid as possible. It’s a simple shoot/no-shoot, binary decision-making matrix, and that allows us to rack up insanely fast shot times.
A basic understanding of the Hick/Hyman Law would seem to tell us this is a good thing. In the most basic layman’s terms, this law states that if you take two seconds to choose between two options, then adding a third option will increase your decision-making time exponentially. Adding a fourth option will again increase the time needed. The fewer options you force yourself to choose between, the less time it should take you to decide. This will allow you to act more quickly.
This SEEMS to be the explanation why the 98th degree black belt in Who-Flung-Poo Kung-Fu gets curb-stomped by the unschooled—but experienced—back alley brawler. The brawler closes in on Crouching Tiger boy, banging hard with continuous lefts and rights, hitting with hate. Hidden Dragon kid sees the first punch coming and orients to the fact that it means he’s about to get smoked in the grape. That part goes just fine. It’s when he starts trying to decide which block or evasion he should use that he gets left behind.
“Gee, that looks like a punch headed my way! Is it a straight punch or a hook punch? Should I use an outside forearm block, a rising block, an inside forearm block, or should I just duck? I think——-”
…and he catches a punch to the throat, and is now stuck trying to orient to THAT new observation, while brawler boy is already landing punch number two, three, and four.
“If I see someone with a gun, acting aggressively or suspiciously, they’re a threat, so shoot them!”
Well, that’s great…except what if it is a member of your group? What if it is a neighbor? What if it’s your kid, sneaking out to see her boyfriend?” It’s just not that simple, and—like orientation—it needs to be relevant to your situation’s METT-TC analysis.
A thorough understanding of the cyclic nature of the decision-making process allows us to see that the decide phase actually does always strip down to a simple binary choice. If I am deciding what to do, but I cannot decide if I should shoot, or if it’s the neighbor’s kid, I need to recycle, and observe again. If I see that it is the neighbor’s kid, I’ve started the cycle over at “observe.” It really is a never-ending cycle, and it will constantly interrupt itself and start over. The “trick” to accelerating the “decide” phase of the cycle is to accelerate and streamline the observation and orientation phases, and reduce your total decision-making matrix down to the fewest possible number of selections.
The other “trick” to accelerating the decide phase is having confidence in yourself and your abilities. If you’re not 100-percent confident in your ability to execute whatever course-of-action you decide on, then you’re going to hesitate, wondering if there might be a better choice. Complete, legitimate confidence, achieved through realistic, effective training, combined with achieving a measured, objective standard of performance, will allow you to decide on a course-of-action without fear or doubt interfering with your speed of decision.
This is the phase of the cycle that we all like to train to improve. That’s because it’s easy and fun. This is the square range drill phase. How fast can I draw and put three rounds into the A-Zone. How fast can I transition between targets? It’s also the dojo and combatives pit phase. Can I execute a punching combination? Can I shoot and hit a double-leg take down? Unfortunately, it’s actually the least important phase to execute quickly.
Think about it objectively for a moment. If I can draw my weapon and get rounds downrange 1/8th of a second faster than you, but you get through the process and start drawing your gun ½ second before me, I still lose. I’m not going to bemoan the practice of shooting fast, accurately. I’m simply pointing out that you need to get there before the other dude does. Any decent firearms trainer can teach you to be faster with your gun. Any good jiu-jitsu or boxing coach can teach you to throw a punch or execute a take down. A practical FIGHTING instructor however, needs to be able to teach you how to work through the OODA Cycle faster. They should be able to help you learn to interrupt and interfere with the other dude’s OODA Cycle, in order to slow down his ability to respond and react to whatever is happening.
INTERRUPTING THE OTHER DUDE
There are two basic ways to interrupt the other dude’s OODA Cycle. The first—and simplest—is to simply follow the advice of Nathan Bedford Forrest, and get there the “fustest with the mostest.” If you KNOW you’re about to get in a fight, smoke the dude in the grape with a lead pipe, before he even realizes that you know you’re about to get in a fight. If you know DHS is about to roll an MRAP up your driveway, then don’t be at home when they arrive. Keep them guessing and trying to figure out what you’re doing, after you’ve already started doing it.
This method however, relies on your natural ability to observe and orient to those observations, faster than the other side. It’s basically relying on either a) being lucky, or b) the other side being inept. Neither is particularly conducive to survival. The alternative method is to interrupt his observation and orientation phase, so that he’s either unable to make a decision, or so that he makes incorrect observations.
Examples of this involve camouflage and concealment. Whether it involves wearing multi-cam utilities and grease paint on your face in the woods, or concealing your gun and looking like all the other white-bread, suburban soccer moms from the suburbs, effective camouflage and concealment result in the enemy’s inability to observe you accurately as a threat. If they don’t know you’re “there,” they can’t orient to the fact that you are a threat. You’ve interrupted their ODDA Cycle, by preventing them from even getting it started correctly.
Deception operations, such as the mock guns and tanks deceiving the Nazis about where the Normandy invasions would happen, are another example of interrupting his orientation phase. If the dude who’s about to invade my home thinks I’m in my bedroom, reading myself to sleep, because he observed that my living room light is turned off, and my bedroom light is turned on at 2300, when I’m actually looking at him through a 10X Leupold MK4, mounted on a .338LM, from 1200 meters away, I’m already inside his OODA Cycle.
If a predator believes I’m broke, homeless, a street bum, or even a working class construction laborer, based on my attire and mannerisms, he’s not going to waste his time mugging me, when there are lots of white collar dudes with money and Rolex watches walking the street with their heads up their asses. He is making false observations, leading him to incorrect orientations. This in turn, leads to incorrect, or inapplicable, decisions and actions. In either case, I’m ahead of the other dude in the OODA Cycle, so when I decide to go to guns, he’s already behind me. It doesn’t really matter if he can draw and shoot faster than I can, because by the time he decides to do so, I’ve already gotten rounds into him.
A Real-Life Example
In my classes, I like to use completely unrelated examples to demonstrate principles. The reason I do this is two-fold. On one hand, this allows people to look for the actual lesson, instead of focusing on the gun-related aspects of the story. On the other hand, it’s something we’ve all experienced at some level, unlike actual gunfights. This helps students learn to apply the OODA Cycle in all of life, rather than just focusing on the “shoot/no-shoot” aspect of tactical scenarios.
Imagine for a moment, that you are back in high school, sitting in your home room class. If you were anything like me, you were probably more interested in staring around and daydreaming, rather than actually doing the class work that you were supposed to be doing.
As you look around, you notice that the cute new blond girl in school is smiling at you. Like any testosterone-addled teenage male, you instantly hone in on that. You’ve OBSERVED that a cute female is smiling at you. Now, you need to ORIENT to what that means to you, in the context of being in a high school home room class.
Is she smiling at you because she thinks you’re cute? Or, is she smiling at you, because the drool running down your face makes you look mildly retarded (in my life, this was generally the case)? Is she actually smiling at you at all, or is she actually smiling at the star quarterback who is sitting behind you?
Once you’ve wiped your face and realized there is no drool; you’ve looked around and realized there’s no one else sitting close enough for her to be smiling at anyone other than you, and that she is—in fact—smiling at you because she thinks you’re cute, then you have to DECIDE on a course-of-action.
Do you get up in the middle of class, walk over, and slap a slobbery kiss on her? Do you wait until class is over and do the same thing? Do you wait until class is over, and try to talk to her on the way out? Do you wait and try to catch her in the hall between classes and offer to carry her books for her? Do you write a note and have your best buddy slip it to her? Or, do you bask in self-loathing and a lack of self-confidence, and ignore the potential for a really hot prom date?
Running through the choices in your head, you quickly realize that walking up in class and kissing her, out of the blue, is probably a bad choice, so you bypass it. You DECIDE to catch her on the way out of class, after the bell rings.
When the bell rings, you start moving towards the door to cut her off and talk to her. As you’re moving though, you see the first-string basketball center walk up and start talking to her. Witting or unwitting, he just interrupted your OODA Cycle. That means it all starts over again. You OBSERVE that the target is now in a conversation. You ORIENT to the reality that it might mean he’ll ask her out before you get a chance. You have to DECIDE on a course-of-action.
Do you wait for him to get done talking, and hope he doesn’t ask her out, or that she says no? Do you walk up and sucker punch him in the back of the head with your Algebra book (don’t ask…), then ask her if she wants to go out with you, after you get out of in-school suspension? Etc…
The ability to understand the entire OODA Cycle – and not only accelerate the process by seeing faster, with more clarity, but then being able to interpret that data more accurately, faster, and then deciding on a suitable course-of-action, before acting decisively – will go a long way towards increasing your survivability. That is the case whether your perceived threat is cannibalistic San Franciscans roaming the countryside and burning women, raping homes, and pillaging fields, or jack-booted stormtroopers kicking in your door and flash-banging your puppy, before shooting your kids.
If you don’t understand the process your mind and body work their way through, all the training in the world regarding how to ACT faster will never get you where you need to be. Train to see the details, and to orient to which ones are important and what they mean. War-game possible courses of action in your training, based on potential scenarios you might face, in order to program appropriate recognition cues into your brain, and develop your confidence in your own abilities. This will provide you the confidence needed to avoid hesitation when the time comes to cry, “Fix bayonets, and follow me!”