aka: Boyd Cycle


John Boyd was a fighter pilot and Pentagon advisor developed an incredibly insightful mental model that centers around how people make decisions. His work was aimed at helping someone survive a dynamic situation, and it’s as effective as it is simple & thorough.

Essentially, he said that any unfolding situation where we are forced to act is composed of four stages:

  1. Observe: see what’s happening

  2. Orient: understand its relationship & meaning

  3. Decide: build a plan of action

  4. Act: put it into motion

Let’s look at each in more detail.

Observe

If you’re not even aware something is happening, how can you make any difference? You first have to observe what’s going on if you want to have any hope of changing its outcome.

Also, you must be aware of changing circumstances, new information, and any difference in the environment / agents of action within the context of the event.

The more accurately you can observe all these details, the higher resolution understanding you’ll have of all the pieces and how they fit together.

Orient

After observing what can be seen, you interpret what it means in relationship to your culture, traditions, quality of analysis, previous experiences, new information, heritage, training, beliefs, and other filters.

This is especially difficult with completely un-relatable knowledge or experiences that are entirely outside our realm of experience.

At first glance this seems like an automatic part of the process that we should gloss over as quickly as possible so we can get to planning, but it’s actually the most important step of the whole cycle.

What something means tells us what to value, what to prioritize, what to ignore, and what to pursue.

Single vs Multi-layer Orientation

Most people consider the implications of the decision making cycle as it relates to an individual, but it also applies to group decision-making. More people means more complexity. Complexity increases time. The longer something takes, the less adaptable the process becomes.

Decide

Once you know what something means and why it’s important, you make your choices. You know the environment and all the variables that matter (observe), know how they’ll play out (orient), and now you have a reasonable hypothesis of what to do about it.

If your plans adhere to first principles, you’ll spend less time entertaining choices that have low probability of working because they’re based less on fantasy and what you wish.

Action

No decision is truly a decision until it’s put into action. A decision put into action cuts off all other potential choices. It’s the heart of opportunity cost; action puts your values into motion.

And it’s an experiment where you test your hypothesis about the situation. It’s also where your skills are put to the test. You can have all the knowledge, best plans, but have no ability and you’ll lose.

Badly.


Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Your actions will (or won’t) cause changes in the situation. This creates new information for you to observe, interpret, and formulate new decisions with.

Recursive Multiplication

Each stage of the cycle can feed back to any earlier stage in the cycle. This means you can stay in the observation stage of the cycle, and stay passive in the process.

With these new observations, you have more information you can use to interpret what’s going on more accurately. With a new interpretation in your world view, you can go back to the observation phase with greater clarity and nuance.

Or, maybe you move to your decision, but you don’t put it into action. You make your choice but choose to observe the situation a little longer. Do this too long, however, and you’ll be stuck in an infinite cycle of “what if?”

Action is the only way to influence a process or change an outcome so that it potentially benefits you.

Quality of Process

The only way to improve the effectiveness of your actions is to improve the quality of each stage of the process. Improve the accuracy of your observations. Identify where you’re wishing, or allowing your ideas to twist what you see.

Also, you have to be diligent to understand how your preferences, traditions, and training  change your interpretations of what everything means. This is a process that happens non-consciously, but can be affected with conscious retraining.

Be open to making different choices. If you never make difference choices, you’ll never get different results. Plus, making the same choices with new situations, new beliefs, or new information is insanity.

And, worse, is making a different choice, but falling into typical behavior patterns (act). Decisions and action are two sides of the same process; don’t let too much time lapse between one and the other. (Otherwise, you may not take changes in the environment into account which leads to low-quality choices.)

Out-Cycle the Enemy

Your enemy might have a better view of what’s going on, a better orientation to the situation, but make poor choices. This means you can still defeat him.

Or, maybe, your opponent is more skilled at each stage of the process for themselves, but they spend too much time on each. That’s why I love this quote:

“If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.” — Jeff Bezos

You can be wrong, but if you can correct yourself faster than anyone else, you’ll win.

Decide fast, decide often, and increase how many times you can work your way through the cycle to improve your “tempo.” If you operate at a consistently higher tempo than a competitor or opponent (even if they’re technologically superior, more skillful, or otherwise better than you) you’ll still have a fighting chance.

Here’s the cycle visualized. Notice how you can always get feedback which can inform your observations, but only action will lead to influencing a situation’s trajectory. (Choosing not to act can still be an action, ironically.)