Fast Conflict? Think Like a Fighter Pilot: the OODA Loop

I have just finished the excellent book ‘Wait: The Art and Science of Delay’ by Frank Partnoy, which suggests a more measured approach to life, and a thoughtful approach to how and when we decide to act. I will draw on some of its other lessons in later postings, but given how many people seem to think that disciplined approaches to conflict take too long, I particularly liked the model Frank draws from the work of military strategist John Boyd, who based it in turn on the work of the ancient Chinese military writer Sun Tzu.

The model has four stages:

Observe the rapidly changing environment

Orient yourself based on these observations, process the disorder and understand when and how your opponent might become confused

Decide what to do

Act quickly at just the right moment, operating just within your opponent’s time cycle.

Once your opponent moves, gauge his degree of over-action or under-action and swoop in accordingly. This process is called the OODA loop (observe-orient-decide-act). The aim is to act fast, but not necessarily first. The central insight of this model is that we can make better decisions if we can minimize the time it takes to decide and act so we can spend more time observing and orienting. The more time we have to understand what needs to be done, gather information, and analyze the issues. If we take too much time to decide and act, then we have to finish the observing and orienting sooner and act too quickly, the problem/situation might have changed.

The model was developed from looking at military strategies, and applied by John Boyd to the micro-second world of F-16 fighter pilots in aerial combat, and it also applies to similar fast situations in sports and financial markets. But there is no reason we can’t apply it in slower situations, and the time periods could be minutes, hours, days depending on the situation we face.

And it mirrors my favorite advice from Jerome Koopman in his book ‘How Doctor’s Think’: ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.‘ Though it is not a call for paralysis, but for correct timing. Conflict negotiators and professionals are past masters at this sense of timing. I often paused or called for an adjournment in critical negotiations to allow the time needed to gain insight and orientation.

And of course, the process applies even in non zero sum games, where we are seeking not to defeat an opponent, but come up with a creative, breakthrough solution that benefits both sides.

Here is a graphic with a bit more detail including feedback loops to improve the process. And more commentary at:


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict Processes, Marital and Relationship Conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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