Using OODA Loops To Make Faster, Better Decisions

Most of us have to make decisions of one kind or another every day. For some folks, this can get overwhelming at times, which leads a lot of people to lock up and become unable to make decisions. Even worse than no decision at all, sometimes failing to take decisive action can lead to the worst possible outcome in a given situation.

Thus, in this piece, I want to take a moment to walk through what I think is an effective tool to use in making decisions, OODA Loops. Of course, I’ll start by defining OODA and giving you some context for it as a decision-making tool. From there, I’ll propose several contexts in which I use OODA loops, and where I think you can make good use of them, too.

OODA is an acronym, which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. It’s an intellectual framework that was developed by Colonel John Boyd to aid Cold-War era fighter pilots make clear, good decisions quickly. It has seen been longstanding practice among that crowd, which makes me think it’s worth considering. None of my decisions on a daily basis are made at the speed of sound, and never involve explosive ordinance but, if this tool can be used for conditions that are both high stakes and fast-moving, it’s probably worth considering.

The first step in OODA is to collect as much information as you can (Observe), and then internalize it either in writing or by committing it to memory. From there, you, the decider, Orients yourself to the information, trying to be as clear-headed as possible so that you aren’t influenced unduly by past experiences (for example, an accident in the past that has led to a phobia), your biases, or so on. Once you have a clear idea of your observations and orientations, Act in the way you think will lead to your desired outcome. Here is where things get clever: whether or not you succeed, the outcome of your action becomes the observation for the next loop. OODA is not a one-time thing, it is an iterative process.

I use OODA every semester when I teach. While I often teach the same courses, at the same institutions, each group of students is different. Thus, I have to take a moment, observe how these particular students react to given information, types of assignments, and so on. From there, I change the course in some meaningful way, and observe the impacts of that change. This has, over the years, made my classes some of the best-reviewed at all of the institutions at which I have taught.

OODA loops are, of course, good for more than classrooms and fighter cockpits. I think they are also highly useful in any context in which you have to do the same thing several times, as the iterative nature of the loop leads to, ideally, honest feedback and improvement over time. These loops can also be an awesome management tool: printing them out and having new employees fill them out as they learn skills can help them become more effective quickly, and, even more importantly, teaches them how to think and adapt on the fly.

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