Saturday, 10 April 2010

John Boyd and the little differences

John Boyd is a name too few people have heard, but reading his ideas and approach to military campaigning were the first time I was exposed to some of the core concepts of campaigning. I started to understand the difference between tactics and strategy.

Boyd was a military strategist and fighter pilot in the USA. Although now sadly deceased he was a well respected, if eccentic figure. He was fascinated by high strategy, as well as the tactical level of air combat.

For those new to campaigning I thoroughly recommend the excellent book Certain to Win, by Chet Richards. This book gives an interesting and well written overview of John Boyd's theories and their applicability to the world of business and campaigning. I will do a full review of this book soon.

The most important of these ideas is the OODA loop. OODA stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action, the 4 steps by which we all relate to the environment around us at all times.

There is a logical utility of this loop for campaigners, who are constantly having to address a changing environment and adapt to circumstances, while staying within the overall strategy of the campaign. Constant observation, orientation and reorientation, a decision based on the first two stages and finally the action (or indeed reaction)

You can see a full version of the OODA loop here, although this is the more complex version it should be relatively comprehensible.

In my view a major part of the curve is using it at speed. Speed is key, speed kills, being faster than your opponent is vital to any campaign. The best projects I have worked on have been the ones where the reaction to any change in circumstances has been nearly instant, with the team knowing what to do, and the client trusting us to go ahead and do it.

One of Boyd's key projects was the comparison of the Russian MiG-15 and US F86-Sabre. The Sabre was, on paper at least, an inferior plane to the MiG-15, yet the Sabre consistantly came out ahead in the field. Boyd and his team worked out that the defining difference was the bubble canopy used in the Sabre. This allowed the pilot to see more of the sky and assess where the enemy was more swiftly.

The message here is not a particularly subtle one. The more information you have and the quicker you are able to obtain it, the better your position will be in relation to your opponent. Even a guess is better than nothing, so long as it is an educated guess.

It is also an object lesson, that it is rarely the obvious things which make the ultimate difference. It is the hidden elements, or at least the less than obvious details which make a campaign. This is why you have to have a structure in place which is able to swiftly adapt to change and is firmly linked to the core message of your campaign.

The most important part of the OODA loop is that you act. Acting is often the most difficult part. People are scared to take that leap of faith and want to rethink the decision, or worse yet take it to a committee. In my opinion it is better to act, punch through your indecision and come out the other side. The odds are that your decision will be right, and if not, you've learned something along the way and you won't make the same mistake again.

I'll definately be revisiting Boyd, probably time and again. He is a key figure in my thoughts on campaigning and I advise anyone with an interest to read Certain to Win.


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