When I was a teenager, I became obsessed by the idea of being able to tune into my surroundings and learn so rapidly that I could adapt to and overcome any circumstance.
There wasn't any unusual need or mission that spurred this fixation, just the normal teenage angst of finding one's way in the world. I was more socially inept than most teenagers- I can say that now with affection- so I suppose the idea of becoming some sort of super-adaptive ninja appealed to me.
The teenage-me reasoned thusly: if I could be really, really good at learning from my environment and adapting to what I learn, then I could circumvent all awkward social situations, always know how to make the best of fickle fortune, and ultimately acquire the quiet confidence and easy-going nature I so desperately desired.
In other words, my sixteen-year-old self desired some superpowerful, panacea-like mental framework that would not only cure me of my psychological ailments but also transform me into the exact opposite, the antonym, the antithesis, of who I currently was. I would be the ultimate badass because I could learn any skill and overcome any circumstance.
Let no one accuse me of not dreaming big.
Ultimately, my juvenile pursuit of this one-mindset-to-rule-them-all, like so many searches, was eventually forgotten to time as I became distracted with more immediate tasks like graduating high school and University, achieving some semblance of success with girls, and figuring out what I actually wanted to do with my life (unfortunately my University didn't as yet have a "super-adaptive ninja" major, but I hear one is in the works).
Don't get me wrong. My intentions were good. But I didn't really know where to begin looking for such ideas, or how to piece together the fragmented research I was doing. I became vaguely aware of the importance of east-Asian meditative philosophies to my research, and the idea of Mindfulness proposed by a Harvard researcher named Ellen Langer. That was about as far as I got.
Fast forward to about two month ago.
Boyd and the OODA Loop
I was reading a book called Boyd: The Fighter Pilot that Changed the Art of War. The subject of the biographical work is Colonel John Boyd, a near-mythological figure to those that knew him and know of his work. He did incredible things, and these accomplishments were all the more impressive because they were across such a wide variety of fields.
He was perhaps one of the greatest fighter pilots the world has ever seen. Nicknamed 40 second Boyd, he had a standing bet that he could defeat anyone in a dogfight in less than 40 seconds. He never lost.
He revolutionized the theory and practice of dogfighting and literally wrote the manual on flying fighters.
He discovered the Energy-Maneuverability theory, which completely changed the way fighters were flown and designed. In fact, he used these theories to help design the F-15 and F-16.
Later in his life, he stopped flying and instead devoted himself to purely intellectual pursuits. He investigated the nature of creativity, for example.
Perhaps most famously, he invented the OODA loop.
The OODA loop is short for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It's a decision making framework for taking in new information and reacting to that information to make the best of the real-world circumstances and achieve success.
On the one hand, seems too simple. We do these things (observing, orienting, etc) routinely, it doesn't take a genius to draw all four of them in a big circle, right?
The importance is in how the loop is explained and applied.
And more importantly for the ghost of the hopeful sixteen-year-old me, I felt the faint-yet-intoxicating spark of recognition, a spark that "lit my fire and fired my soul", to paraphrase Douglas Hofstadter (I am a Strange Loop).
And not just because it seemed like the key piece I'd been missing in my search for personal growth acceleration. In fact, I didn't even draw the connection to my long-lost quest of years past until I began writing this article. It sparked a burning recognition because I realized I already knew and understood the key concepts in the OODA loop.
Agile and Lean Startup
At least, I knew them as they were applied to entrepreneurship and product development.
I'm referring specifically to Agile methodologies and Lean Startup in particular, since that's what I'm most familiar with.
In Lean Startup, the idea is to take a rapid approach to validating one's hypotheses about a new product, service, or feature. Part of the ambiguity of a new business idea is that you don't know what your customers think. Lean Startup is a framework for getting customer feedback on a product iteration as rapidly as possible- say, two weeks instead of two years.
This is important because you could spend two years developing a product and launch it without getting any customer feedback. Your "loop" is two years long in that case.
But what happens if the product fails because it is out of touch with what customers want? You've wasted 2 years. You've gained valuable feedback on what your customers want, but it came too late in the game to be useful. By accelerating the rate at which you get real customer feedback on something tangible- be it a prototype, experience, or mock-up- you instead gain actionable insights, or what's called validated learning. The learning is actionable because you're getting it fast enough to feed back into your product to improve it.
And by getting these insights, you're effectively getting inside the mind of your customer. You're understanding who they are and ultimately, how to build a product that solves a real problem of theirs and that they will want to buy. The nuance here is that it requires a deep empathic understanding of the customer and their problems, frustrations, and aspirations. You've empathized and understood them so deeply that you've internalized who they are and what they care about.
Getting Inside the Loop
Now let's look at the OODA loop. Here's what Robert Coram had to say about it in Boyd:
Before Boyd came along, others had proposed primitive versions of an OODA Loop. The key thing to understand about Boyd's version is not the mechanical cycle itself, but the need to execute the cycle in such fashion as to get inside the mind and the decision cycle of the adversary. This means the adversary is dealing with outdated or irrelevant information and thus becomes confused and disoriented and can't function (p. 346)...
The faster you can perform all the steps, the faster you can assimilate new information and put it to use to achieve whatever your objective at that moment in time is. But as Coram noted, the key is to use each loop to understand the opponent. Your actions can't occur in a vacuum- they have to elicit a response or feedback of some kind from the opponent that serves to peel back a further layer of their mind and see how they think and how they work.
Each loop is an iteration of action and reflection, allowing you to course-correct each time. If you're directly competing against someone, or something, moving through the loop faster and using it to gain validated learnings about their behavior allows you to react more quickly, throw your opponents off balance, and evolve a winning strategy while everyone else is still struggling to get their bearings.
The goal is to "get inside the other guy's loop" and out-iterate him to whatever success in that instance means to you. If you're moving through the entire loop twice as fast compared to the competition, then you're learning and changing your behavior for the better twice as fast. It's not just that you're doing twice as much as the opponent- it's that the action that you do take is more effective, more deadly, and more in touch with the actual circumstances because you're assimilating and learning from the environment twice as quickly. You're gaining validated learning about his behavior and the environment more quickly than him, and each loop gives you the opportunity to reflect and assimilate that information before beginning the loop anew.
The ideal outcome in both the OODA loop and Lean Startup is the same: that you come to know someone else so deeply and intimately that you know exactly how they'll respond to your actions and decisions. In Lean Startup it's your customer, in the OODA loop it is whoever you're competing against. As stated before, this is a function of speed paired with the measured feedback from calculated real-world action. A sense for human psychology and a keen empathic sense also seem crucially important to reach this final, key stage of these cycles.
Josh Waitzkin wrote an insightful passage on discovering this experience in his excellent book The Art of Learning:
...The 19th century sage Wu Yu-hsiang [wrote] a typically abstract Chinese instructional conundrum:
I think these are all powerful theories because they put the emphasis on being agile and in-tune with the ambiguous real world circumstances that any new initiative faces when implemented. Empowering the people you're working with becomes paramount. Technology, size, and resources become less important. According to Coram, Boyd's mantra was "Machines don't fight wars, people do, and they use their minds" (p. 367).
What strikes me is that both cycles, at their core, are about increasing the tempo at which you're able to act, learning from your actions, and adjusting to improve, all with the goal of getting inside the loop. The faster you learn, the faster you win.
What's key is that the learning is validated. It's not about reading a book or talking to someone or taking a test and having "learned" in the academic sense. It's about learning by doing. Your learnings are validated by the fact that you can actually see the effect your actions have in the world. This real-world learning can then be applied to change your behavior for the better. As my friend Eric Morrow puts it, "if your behavior isn't changing after an experiment you run, then you're wasting your time."
As with the OODA loop, the power of Lean Startup comes from moving through the entire loop as quickly as possible. The faster you can move through the loop and get customer feedback on prototypes, the faster you can course-correct and iterate your way to a product that customers want and will pay for. With each iteration, you're gaining insights validated by the people who are supposed to be paying you- in other words, the only people who's feedback about your product you should trust! If you halve the time you make your way through the loop, you've effectively halved the time it will take to iterate your way to a successful product. You've doubled the rate at which you're learning and improving.
For any superficial differences, these two decision-making methodologies from very different fields are talking about the same things once you reduce them to their core principles. In particular:
These same principles lie at the heart of all Agile methodologies, not just Lean Startup. There's the emphasis on getting feedback from customers and clients through rapid prototypes or "potentially-shippable features", and moving through "sprints" as quickly as possible. Team structure is decentralized, as the team members need to have the freedom to design the best possible product based on client feedback, not mandates from an out of touch manager.
What's interesting is that many of the disparate Agile methodologies all evolved independently and have only been lumped together post-creation. While programmers invented the Agile philosophy and many of its most popular applied methodologies, like Scrum, Lean actually evolved from Japanese car manufacturers long before. Lean Startup, while inspired by Lean manufacturing, evolved from the particular issues entrepreneurs faced.
The funny thing is, this isn't the first time I've recognized these same ideas packaged in the jargon of a different field or profession. I had the same feeling of recognition about a year ago when I read Christopher Alexander's A Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language. Alexander describes these same concepts in different words, and applied to architecture and urban planning.
Alexander's approach includes:
Then you have Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design, similar philosophies to the aforementioned which evolved from yet again distinct fields. Both encapsulate nearly all the principles I've discussed previously with the OODA loop, Agile, and Alexander's Pattern Language. Their unique angle is that they focus above all else on empathizing with the user to fully understand their problems before working with them to develop and test rapid prototypes.
So far we have what appears to be a set of universal decision-making principles designed to guide us to success in uncertain and ambiguous circumstances. They vary superficially based on the unique application in various fields of human endeavors. Entrepreneurs, soldiers, designers, and architects call them by different names, but at heart they're talking about more or less the same thing: a way of engaging with the world on ambiguous terms and guaranteeing good outcomes.
Who's to say where these same ideas will crop up again? And in what untapped human pursuits could these principles be applied to create new value? After all, one of the easiest ways to innovate and create value is to take innovations and ideas from one field and cross pollinate them into a new field. Lean Startup is just old concepts (the scientific method and hypothesis testing, plus the Lean manufacturing idea of maximizing value and minimizing waste) applied to a new field (the traditionally ambiguous and unscientific field of business).
These principles don't inform what the ideal outcome is, rather, they describe the process for reaching it: Make a bunch of small tests, and use the data to gradually improve each time. Make each iteration of the process as short as possible to learn as quickly as possible. Each test should be as close to the real thing as possible. Accumulate a database of validated learnings that allow you to empathize with and understand whoever will be reacting to your test: the client, the end-user, the enemy. Empathize with them and understand their problems and frustrations, to design the best way to overcome those problems (or use them against them in combat).
I mentioned that when I was a teenager, I obsessed about the idea of finding the ultimate mental framework that would allow me learn anything, adapt to anything, overcome any obstacle to achieve anything. I never did get anywhere close- ultimately I was too young, too scattered, too unsure of where to even start looking for such a framework.
But now that I think about the suite of principles circumscribed by Agile, the OODA loop, Design Thinking, and Pattern Languages, I think I may have found something pretty damn close to it. I'm excited to think about how these can be applied and used to accelerate something new.
...sees much and knows much