Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business by Chet Richards

  • Author: Chet Richards
  • Get the book: Amazon
  • Rating: 8/10.

High-level summary

As the title implies, this book talks about how John Boyd‘s ideas relate to business. John Boyd was a colonel in the air force and created multiple theories that revolutionized the US military.

One of those theories was the OODA loop ( observe-orient-decide-act ). It’s similar to the agile development methodologies in the sense that you’re iterating and trying to stay as close to reality as possible. You get feedback from the real world (observe), you adjust your worldview (orient), you decide what to do (decide) and then you act on it (act).

What separates John Boyd’s ideas from agile is that agile is focused more on the development and product aspect, while Boyd was more focused on the competition aspect of it. He wondered what competition does to your opponent, and what it took to win.

Chet Richards goes through Boyd’s OODA loop and gives examples of how companies have used it to win over the market.

Highlights

  • At the start of the attack on France, the Germans had no advantage in numbers and lagged in technology. Yet they won and won easily, and they did it through the application of strategy. Their strategy was so powerful that in one two-week period, it set aside 300 years of military history.”
  • Our view of the world, our “orientation,” as Boyd called it, depends heavily on things happening close in time to when we expect them to happen. Mismatches in time such as when things don’t appear to be happening in a continuous and predictable (even if very rapid) manner can be disorienting. Under stress, disoriented people become demoralized, frustrated, and panicked. Once in this condition, they can easily be defeated, regardless of the weapons that remain in their possession.
  • The essence of agility and of applying Boyd’s ideas to any form of competition is to keep ones orientation well matched to the real world during times of ambiguity confusion, and rapid change, when the natural tendency is to become disoriented.
  • Time, in particular how long it takes our side to reorient compared to how long it takes the opponent is Boyd’s primary device for accomplishing this [ Disorientation ], which is why the name “time-based competition’ also came to be applied to this approach to strategy.
  • If in your organization you have a small number of people making mistakes and performing poorly, it’s probably their fault. You should spend your time working with them, or transfer them to other jobs, or if neither of those options is feasible, remove them. If it’s much more than 10%, though, then it’s the system’s fault and you should put your effort into fixing the system and quit blaming or exhorting the people in it.
  • Boyd inferred that if you can do things before the other side reacts, you can greatly increase your chances of winning, and it doesn’t make much difference how big or how strong the other guy is. Asymmetric fast transients, in other words, appeared to do a much better job of explaining real world results than simple counts of weapons or assessments of technology.
  • Observe means much more than “see.” Absorb might be more descriptive if it did not have a passive undertone. “Go out and get all the information you can by whatever means possible is even closer. You can never be sure beforehand which stray idea will provide the key to unlock some fatal dilemma.
  • How well your orientation matches the real world is largely a function of how well you observe, since in Boyd’s conception, “observe” is the only input from the outside. Like the canopy on the Korean-era MiGs, anything that restricts the inflow of information or ideas can lead to mismatches (disorientations) between what you think is happening and what actually is and may also delay you from spotting (and so acting upon) these mismatches.
  • Since what you’re looking for is mismatches, a general rule is that bad news is the only kind that will do you any good. To thrive in any form of maneuver conflict, you must seek out and find data that doesn’t fit with your current worldview and you must do this while there is still time. Otherwise the world will change-or more likely your adversaries or competitors will change it for you — and you will find yourself disoriented and in the position of playing catch-up. You will have lost the initiative, which is dangerous in any conflict.
  • If something vital, such as life itself, is at stake, losing track of a deadly threat in the fog of ambiguity can quickly lead to confusion, panic, and terror (which was the idea behind those Alfred Hitchcock classics), which in turn will cause the decision making of the less agile party to break down.
  • These higher purposes are sometimes called “overarching goals” or “unifying vision”. Some businesses have this sense of purpose, above making enough profit to survive, or adding a few more million to the CEO’s compensation package. So Alfred Sloan’s famous description of General Motors mission as, “We don’t make cars, we make money”, worked fine – until his successors faced the Japanese, who made better cars, and, incidentally, lots of money.
  • Bruce Henderson related plans to strategies but defined strategy as the search and the plan as the result.
  • Like Henderson, I am going to draw a distinction between the two concepts, and consider a plan as something more specific than a strategy. A plan is an intention about how to get from where we are now to where we want to be in the future. It is an intention because although we may plan to accomplish certain things, whether we actually do, and whether they have the effects we want, depends on factors beyond our control: customers, competitors, Governments, and acts of God, to name a few. The term strategy will be used for higher-order devices for creating and managıng plans.
  • In fact, even attempting to create a step-by-step approach would contribute to rigidity and defeat the real purpose of strategy. Still, it seems reasonable that before we create a strategy for business, we should spend some time thinking about what purpose we want it to serve — a vision, in other words.
  • A Simple Example of Agility
    Go find the best chess player you can and offer to play for $1,000 under the following conditions: Your opponent moves first. You move twice for every move of his or hers. In fact, you can even offer to give up some pieces, to make it more fair. You will find that, unless you are playing somebody at the grandmaster level, you can give up practically everything and still win.
  • In a competitive situation, the less agile competitor will begin to act like a closed system and the fog of war, or the fog of business, for that matter, begins to grow within. And fog plus menace, as Boyd often noted, is a good formula for generating frustration and eventually, panic.
  • In fact, the period of greatest Japanese success was the following decade. During the 1980s, for example, General Motors’ US market share went from 52% to around 30%, with most of this lost to the Japanese. What happened? Ask anyone who bought a Honda, Toyota. or Datsun (as Nissan products were known until 1984) back then. They came expecting to get great gas mileage, which they did, but, surprise! The things ran like a Swiss watch, fit together like a Rolls Royce, and seemed to last forever. In the language of strategy, the Japanese engaged with the expected (cheng) — gas mileage — but won with the unexpected (chi): fit and finish, driveability, longevity.
  • A winner is someone (individual or group) that can build snowmobiles, and employ them in an appropriate fashion, when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change.

Note: Boyd frequently talked about “building snowmobiles” as a synonym for constructing a new worldview. You take unrelated objects (like a motorcycle, a bike, skis, a tank), reduce them to their base components ( a motor, skis, handlebars, tank treads) and construct something new with it (a snowmobile).

  • We may conclude with the claim that success in any competitive endeavor requires attention to both the expected and the unexpected. Engage with the cheng, close with the chi. One of the reasons that the socialist economic system failed was concentration on the expected cheng — which is the best you get from centralized planning. With a puritan disdain for the delightful chi.