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The OODA Loop and Double-loop Learning

June 16th, 2008 · 2 Comments


Decision and Learning Cycles

There are a number of examples in the organizational learning field of frameworks that conjecture a cyclic agent behavioral process of decision, action, experiential feedback, and then adjustment followed by new action. Such frameworks are not new. Russell Ackoff and Kolb and Fry in the 1970s, Kolb in the 1980s, and Haeckel in the 1990s, offer similar four-phase frameworks which I will call Decision and Learning Cycles (DLCs). Another slightly different three-phase formulation of the DLC idea is Ralph Stacey’s (1996): “Choose, Act, Discover.” My own four-phase version of the DLC is called the Decision Execution Cycle (DEC). I’ll describe its phases in a later post.

It is motivated by a perceived gap between an agent’s goal state and the actual state of the world the agent is trying to manage. Since such gaps exist almost all the time that humans are awake, DLCs are going on all the time and some who have written about them view life itself as reducible to successive DLCs. This last is probably a bit overdrawn, since we are asleep part of the time, may be unconscious at other times, and, at still other times, may be engaged in activity for its own sake rather than to close some gap between what we want and the way world is. However, it’s certainly true that very much of life is about instrumental behavior activity whose purpose is to close such gaps.

John Boyd’s OODA Loop

One of the most influential versions of the DLC was developed by a near-legendary fighter pilot, instructor, and military strategist named Col. John Boyd who died in 1997 after contributing to military thinking mightily in the areas of strategy and tactics, and also to the design of Fighter Aircraft. Boyd’s version of the DLC has four phases: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, aligned in a loop most frequently referred to as the OODA loop. Most of Boyd’s work on strategy, tactics, and the OODA loop appears in briefings which Boyd gave and gradually refined over nearly 20 years.

The OODA loop begins to appear in his briefings in the late 1970s and at first is presented in the form of seemingly casual mentions emphasizing the importance of performing one’s own OODA loops more and more rapidly, and in any case more rapidly than one’s enemies perform their own. In addition, the importance of “getting inside” the OODA loops of one’s enemies, and particularly of distorting the “observe” and “orient” phases of their OODA loops, in order to influence their decisions and actions, is heavily emphasized. This notion is then tied to doctrines about “maneuver warfare,” rapidity of movement, and intelligence that became very influential in the design of the F-16 fighter, and in the strategies and tactics used by the United States in Desert Storm and in the opening, very successful, activities of the Iraq War. In addition, the OODA loop became identified by Boyd as the C2 or “Command and Control” loop, and attempts to undermine the OODA loops of enemies are seen by him as attempts to win battles and wars by undermining the opponent’s C2.

The conception of OODA which most people came away with from Boyd’s briefings during the late 1970s and the 1980s was one of a fairly simple DLC involving successive phases. The meaning of Observe, Decide, and Act seemed pretty plain, and if the Orient phase was a little more complex than others, its function of relating observation to thinking and cognitive processing was not understood as impacting heavily on the simple pattern of Observe-Orient-Decide-Act with a feedback loop connecting Act and Observe. However, Boyd’s views on OODA were never that simple as is hinted at in his 1976 paper on “Destruction and Creation,” an epistemological statement reflecting the depth of his thinking that remained important to the development of his views until he died in 1997. And as Boyd introduced more and more of the presentation components of his “Discourse on Winning and Losing,” now often known as “the Green Book,” it became clear that Boyd’s OODA construct incorporates many rich perspectives from Epistemology, Physics, General Systems Theory, Cybernetics, Information Theory, Darwinian Theory, Complex Adaptive Systems Theory, Cognitive Science.

The definitive work developing this richer perspective on Boyd and the OODA loop will be found in Frans Osinga’s Ph.D. thesis (2005) and subsequent book, both entitled Science, Strategy, and War (2006). Osinga dissects Boyd’s briefings and his “Destruction and Creation” paper and meticulously relates Boyd’s statements in the briefings and paper to books that Boyd’s archives indicate that he read. He lets Boyd’s words speak for themselves, but nevertheless shows that perspective is gained on what Boyd meant by relating his words to the voluminous literature Boyd read, but did not explicitly cite.

In his last briefing, completed in June of 1995, called “The Essence of Winning and Losing,” Boyd summarizes his views in 5 slides. The briefing contains the only graphic of the OODA loop ever presented by Boyd. It begins with several “key statements” (P. 2):

1. “Without our genetic heritage, cultural traditions, and previous experiences, we do not possess an implicit repertoire of psychological skills shaped by environments and changes that have been previously experienced.”

2. “Without analysis and synthesis, across a variety of domains or across a variety of competing/independent channels of information, we cannot evolve new repertoires to deal with unfamiliar phenomena or unforeseen change.”

3. “Without a many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection (across these many different domains or channels of information), we cannot even do analysis and synthesis.”

4. “Without OODA loops we can neither sense, hence observe, thereby collect a variety of information for the above processes, nor decide as well as implement actions in accord with those processes.” And, “put another way”:

5. “Without OODA Loops embracing all the above and without the ability to get inside other OODA loops (or other environments), we will find it impossible to comprehend, shape, adapt to, and in turn be shaped by an unfolding, evolving reality that is uncertain, ever-changing, unpredictable.”



(Adapted from John Boyd, “The Essence of Winning and Losing,”(Rev. 1996)

The next slide is Boyd’s OODA Graphic given just above and then Boyd ends his presentation with the statement (p. 5):

6. “The key statements of this presentation, the OODA Loop Sketch and related insights represent an evolving, open-ended, far from equilibrium process of self-organization, emergence and natural selection.”

The graphic and the key statements indicate that there is much more to the OODA loop than the simple Observe-Orient-Decide-Act with a feedback loop connecting Act and Observe. In the simple version, Observation refers to the task of sensing the world both external and internal to oneself and of feeding the results of sensing on to the task of Orientation. Orientation refers to the task of fitting the observations to our predispositions and expectations about the world in order to arrive at an interpretation of the situation one is facing. It involves various kinds of filtering and processing about which more will be said in a moment, and also formulating decision alternatives. Deciding is the process of reviewing alternative actions and selecting an alternative. Boyd views the decision as a hypothesis. And Acting is the process of implementing one’s alternative. Boyd views implementing as testing a hypothesis. The results of Acting are available for Observation, and the loop starts again.

In Boyd’s later specification of the loop in the above figure, he presents a much richer notion of the OODA process, and one that draws much more on his work in his “Destruction and Creation” paper and his later briefing on “The Conceptual Spiral.” First, in this specification, the heart of OODA is Orientation. It provides guidance and implicit control to the rest of OODA, including Observing, Deciding, and Acting. Thus, Orientation is the focus or harmonizing agent in the OODA loop. It:

“shapes the way we interact with the environment-hence orientation shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act. . . Orientation shapes the character of present observation-orientation-decision-action loops-while these present loops shape the character of future orientation. (From Boyd, 1987, “Organic Design and Control,” p. 16)

Second, also:

“. . . orientation is an interactive process of many-sided implicit cross-referencing projections, empathies, correlations, and rejections that is shaped by and shapes the interplay of genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences, and unfolding circumstances.” (p. 12)


“Orientation, seen as a result, represents images, views, or impressions of the world shaped by genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experiences, and unfolding circumstances.” (p. 13)

Fourth, and what are the “images, views, or impressions of the world,” resulting from orientation? That’s not made entirely clear by Boyd, but, Osinga (2005, p. 236) thinks that these words are “synonyms for mental modules, schemata, memes, and tacit knowledge.” And, in my view they are also suggestive of other closely related ideas such as paradigms, conceptual frameworks, conscious knowledge, knowledge predispositions, beliefs, values, etc. So orientations, and changes in orientation over time are the chief source of our patterns of mental knowledge and of the changes in those patterns.

Fifth, in “The Conceptual Spiral” and in “Destruction and Creation,” Boyd, also gives considerable attention to the idea of mismatches between our expectations, theories, and beliefs; and our experiences of the world; and to the processes we use to get rid of such mismatches and to adapt our understanding of the world. His notion of “orientation” can’t be fully understood without reviewing his basic notions from these papers and relating them to orientation.

Beginning with how orientation changes, Boyd thought of the world as exhibiting both uncertainty and novelty. And he thought that humans both encounter novelty and also create it to overcome uncertainty. To understand novel patterns we have to break them down into features that make up such patterns, Different people can break things down in different ways, so different features and parts can always be found. Whatever the differences, such breakdowns are processes of reduction, and Boyd called them analyses.

Analyses themselves are patterns, and can be further broken down into more elemental parts. These parts can then be used in different ways to create new patterns. New patterns are created by finding common features among the parts that connect them conceptually. This process Boyd called synthesis. If we test the results of this process we get “an analytical/synthetic feedback loop for comprehending, shaping and adapting” to the world.

When we arrive at a novel synthesis that reduces uncertainty, we proceed to apply it in our OODA loops and refine the knowledge and mental models (the patterns) we have created. However, Boyd had drawn from his study of Heisenberg, Godel, and the Second Law of Thermodyamics, the idea that the more we refine our mental models, the more likely we are to find new uncertainty. That is, the very success of a new synthesis, eventually leads to the discovery of new mismatches, new gaps in our framework, and new uncertainties, that, once again, we resolve by employing the analytical/synthetic feedback loop. Thus, the driving force behind our generating new ideas, systems, and processes, I.e. new knowledge, mental models, and patterns, is the appearance of mismatches, and these, in turn, inevitably arise from the new ideas themselves, as over time, we refine them and attempt to increase the accuracy and precision of new analyses based on them.

In the OODA loop, Observation is guided by the results of previous Orientations. That is, by already existing knowledge. So what we observe is influenced by that knowledge. But, in addition, once the results of Observation are passed on to Orientation, then, its various components interact to guide us in recognizing mismatches, and to influence the analyses and syntheses we will perform in changing patterns of Orientation. Boyd’s ideas about analysis and synthesis explain how it is possible for Orientation to develop decision alternatives that can be provided to the Decision phase for selection. They also indicate that Orientation produces new ideas, beliefs, mental models, etc. that did not exist before.

The OODA Loop and Double-Loop Learning

Osinga (2005, p. 271), views the OODA loop and specifically Orientation as a double-loop learning process, and Hall in his article “Biological Nature of Knowledge in the Learning Organization” (Vol. 12, April, 2005, p. 182), views it as consistent with Popper’s tetradic evolutionary theory of knowledge and associates Boyd’s “destruction” and “analysis” with Popper’s “criticism,” and Boyd’s “creation” and “synthesis” with Popper’s “tentative theories or solutions.” Hall might have gone even further and associated Boyd’s “mismatches” with Popper’s “problems,” which, in the mental or psychological sphere, according to Popper, are experiences contrary to our expectations, a view very similar to Boyd’s.

However, I don’t think a simple association of double-loop (or creative) learning with OODA and Orientation works. The reason is that there are different types of OODA loops and that a distinction between routine and creative OODA loops is one that Boyd might have, but never really arrived at explicitly. Routine OODA loops are those triggered by Observations and Orientations that show a) a gap between the state of the world we want to see and the state of the world that exists, b) the presence of a pattern in our Orientation repertoire that we believe will be effective in helping us to close the gap, and c) no mismatch between the state of the world and the expectations we have had. When we decide to act on that pattern and then implement it, we have completed a routine OODA loop and are in position to enter the next one. In executing the loop we have learned about specific conditions surrounding our decision and have experienced and so learned about our decisions and actions; but we have not made any new general knowledge, or changed any rules guiding our behavior. Routine OODA loops of this type are therefore instances of single-loop learning, not double-loop learning.

Now, sometimes, when we decide to act in the way indicated by the pattern given by our Orientation, and we then act in accordance with our decision and observe the result, we find (1) a mismatch between our expectations and reality, and (2) an absence of any pattern in our current knowledge that promises to close the gap between the state of the world we’d like to see and the way things actually are. It is in this sort of situation that we will seek to go through Boyd’s analytical/synthetic loop, and to engage in double-loop learning to create one or more novel patterns that can remove the mismatch between expectations and perceived reality. Even then however, we can’t engage in a single creative OODA Loop constituting double-loop learning. For double-loop learning requires multiple OODA Loops, motivated primarily by the need to solve a problem (remove a mismatch), and only secondarily by the instrumental behavior gap that motivated its discovery.

On the basis of his study of Boyd’s notes and bibliographies, papers and briefings, Osinga (2005) indicates that Boyd read and was influenced by Popper, among many others, including Kuhn and Polanyi. In particular, Boyd seems to have incorporated Popper’s ideas about the importance of conjectures and refutations in science and also the general outlook he expressed on evolutionary epistemology in “Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge,” a paper written in 1961 and included in Popper’s Objective Knowledge (1972). However, there’s no indication in Boyd’s work that he knew of Popper’s tetradic schema, or of its relevance to his own formulations about how new knowledge is made. By incorporating the analytical/synthetic loop in Orientation, and by equating Decision with hypothesis and Act with test, Boyd is saying that problem solving is performed within a single OODA loop. But, from the viewpoint of Popper’s tetradic schema it is not.

In the tetradic schema the following sequence applies P(1) -> TS -> EE -> P(2), where the Ps are problems, TS is a tentative solution, and EE is error elimination. The schema can be generalized easily so that multiple TSs can be formulated following the problem phase. But the important thing about the tetradic schema is that it is not one OODA Loop.

Problems are mismatches alright, but once you’ve recognized a problem, there’s more work to be done. Specifically, the nature of the problem may not be clear from the mismatch, and one may have to clearly formulate the problem in order to solve it. Clear problem formulations, in turn, may involve alternative problem formulations and selections among them, which, of course, require decisions, I.e. OODA loops.

Further, when tentative solutions are formulated, this may very well involve alternative formulations, and again decisions and OODA Loops, since, as a practical matter, not all alternatives can be carried forward into EE, and therefore there is a need to create a fair comparison set of tentative solutions. Finally, the EE phase also involves selection among alternatives and therefore decisions. But does it involve OODA Loops?

The answer is that it can, since while the EE phase may end with the selection of a tentative solution to a problem, the problem solver may not be the decision maker whose routine decision making produced unexpected results, and who needed to have the problem solved. Thus, an EE phase OODA loop may well end with a decision to accept a hypothesis and an act of communication of the solution to the decision maker who originally recognized the problem. After that communication, the newly developed knowledge is returned to the OODA Loop of the first decision maker who then has to decide to accept and act upon it. So, in this process there are two rounds of hypothesis and testing. The first round is part of the TS and EE phases in Popper’s problem solving process, the second round is part of the operational OODA loop of the decision maker who generated the original problem.

This picture raises an important distinction that is missing in Boyd’s account. While it is true that every decision can be considered a hypothesis and every act or sequence of acts implementing the decision a test, these “hypotheses” and “tests” arise out of practical activities and learning loops of all kinds, including routine activity and learning, and are found in all living systems. They are as characteristic of single-loop learning and routine as they are of double-loop learning and creative work. All living systems learn using this sort of “hypothesis and test,” including humans.

However, the hypotheses and tests that are more characteristic of creative work in humans and that are most common in science and other very focused double-loop learning activities, are not ones that arise out of routine action. Instead, they are part of a learning process that requires multiple OODA loops and that generates hypotheses and tests prior to trying out surviving hypotheses in the practical, instrumental situations in which the problems being addressed arose in the first place. Let’s call this last double-loop learning process the Problem Life Cycle (PLC) because it is focused on the birth and death of problems followed by the birth of new problems. The PLC allows us to compare alternatives and to kill our worst ideas before they kill us. That is, it allows us to proceed not just by trial and error as do other living creatures, but by trial and elimination of error before we have to pay the price for our errors.

So, in the end, I don’t think the OODA Loop in itself provides a model for double-loop learning, or a clarification of this idea. Rather, it provides an account of routine activity, or at most of PLCs that employ first-pattern-match to both recognize a problem and develop a solution that is accepted as one’s decision and then tested directly in action (instrumental behavior). In other terms, it provides an account of naturalistic decision making, but not of rational decision making which embodies double-loop learning. Boyd himself, had more than a glimmer of this, and that is why he developed the Orientation phase of OODA so that it included the analytical/synthetic loop. However, I think that once one moves to the analytical/synthetic loop, in a very real sense one has moved out of the original simple OODA Loop and into a PLC that has an autonomous dynamic involving multiple OODAs as I described earlier. I don’t think John Boyd saw this point himself, but, instead thought he could incorporate more complex forms of learning into OODA by adding conceptual richness to the Orientation phase.

In future posts, I’ll continue my analysis of OODA by relating it to my own DEC and KLC frameworks and I’ll also spend some time talking about the relationship of OODA, the DEC, and the KLC to Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPD).

Tags: Complexity · Epistemology/Ontology/Value Theory · Knowledge Making

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