United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd is known as one of the most respected military strategist in history. Colonel Boyd developed the OODA Loop concept and it has been taught to military troops for the past several decades.
The OODA Loop is an acronym that stands for OBSERVE, ORIENT, DECIDE and ACT. It can be used as an organizational decision making model but more importantly, it can help you react more effectively in threatening situations.
OBSERVE is actively gathering information concerning the environment that you are in. More than just observing, it is recognizing all aspect of the situation and the position you are currently playing in the environment. Is anything out of place? Are the people that are sharing the immediate environment acting normal? Do they appear nervous? In other words you are identifying the dynamics of the your current environment. Observation requires the use of all your senses.
In order to perfect this stage of the OODA Loop you must practice your observation skills. When you are shopping at the grocery store, observe what other people are buying. As you pass by a cart, take a quick glance and try to identify six items they have purchased.
When you are in an airport, waiting for your flight, what are the expressions on the face’s of the people around you? Are they nervous, happy or maybe sad? What are they carrying on to the plane? What do you think their occupation might be?
When in a restaurant watch your waiter or waitress. Is he or she right handed of left handed? Watch others as well. What did they order? Do they appear to be enjoying themselves or are they upset? Watching people can give you good insight as to the environment.
A police officer shared this story with me several years ago. An individual stopped at a convenient story to buy some snacks. He was a retired Marine and had been on several combat deployments. As he entered the store he looked at the store clerk standing behind the counter. He noticed the shear look of terror on the clerk’s face. The Marine paused for a second, turned and left the store. His observations, information gathering told him something was up. He wasn’t sure what it was but it made him uncomfortable. So he left the environment.
A few minutes later a police officer entered the store. He too, glanced at the clerk. This time the clerk smiled. The police officer said hi and proceeded to pick out the items that he came for. His guard was down and the robbery suspect that was hiding behind the counter with the clerk, shot and killed the police officer.
Two people entering the same store, experienced totally different outcomes. Why? The Marine had developed exceptional observational skills. When he was deployed his life depended on it. But isn’t the same true for the police officer?
Here’s why. The Marine saw terror on the face of the clerk. The clerk feared for the Marine’s life as well as his own and it showed on his face. However, when the police officer looked at the clerk he saw a smile. Seeing the police officer gave the clerk hope that he could intervene. He felt a sense of relief. The police officer read the clerk as saying, “all is well.” That seemingly small detail cost the police officer his life. Developing good observation skills can save your life.
The second “O” is ORIENT. In this phase of the OODA LOOP you will quickly process the information that you have gathered in the Observe phase. Data collection is useless unless you are able to determine your relationship to it. In other words, I have an abundance of information but how does it relate to me. Maybe the information is benign and you determine all is well. Or you may decide that you are in immediate danger. Orientation is by far the most important phase of the OODA LOOP because it will guide your decision to act or not to act.
As a medic I must gather all the information possible for an injured victim. Once the information is obtained I must orient myself to the situation at hand. Orientation is nothing more than analyzing the information I have obtained. But, this analysis will guide my decision and ultimately my action. If I miss read the information my actions will inadvertently be wrong and detrimental to the victim.
Example: It’s morning and you are driving to work. A trip you have taken every weekday for years. The radio is on and you are listening to the news. Suddenly you notice a car approaching is straying across the center line into your lane. You have observed and gathered the information about your environment. You now orient yourself to your position within this rapidly changing environment. There is an imminent threat to you and the approaching driver. Your orientation is completed and you must now decide and then act. All of this is completed in seconds.
Police officers are frequently placed in bad light due to the actions they have taken. Because they must make life and death decisions, sometimes within milliseconds. Many departments are now training their officers in the OODA Loop concept, with the hopes of developing better and quicker decision making skills.
The third phase of the OODA LOOP is DECIDE. Now you have Observed and you have Oriented. This information is now compiled and you must make a decision. Remember the quality of your decision is based on quality of your observation and orientation. When you decide you are basing everything on the information that you have gathered and analyzed. Good or bad. In life and death situations it is important to make a decision and carry it out. Hesitation can be deadly. If you’re not completely satisfied with your information, sometimes you need to go with your gut. As you perfect the first two phases you will become more comfortable with the decide phase.
The last phase is ACT. Now that you have process the information and made a mental decision, it is time to act. Colonel Boyd eludes to the impression that the OODA LOOP is also a learning process. Your action is based on what you have learned in the other phases.
Once you act, you may find that your decision was wrong and you may have to implement plan B. Plan B is based on the continual flow of information you are receiving. They mean you will need to adapt and improvise in your actions.
The OODA Loop is a very useful tool in tactical situations as well as life decisions. Practice will help you make quality decisions and to act quickly on those decisions.