What John Boyd Has to Teach Us About Creative Thinking

the-ooda-loopWhen it comes to the world of litigation, leadership, and decision-making ability, there are few individuals more influential than John Boyd. Born in Erie, PA, he graduated from Iowa Tech with a degree in economics. He then enlisted into the US Army, where his career as a strategist and theorist began to take off. He developed what was known as the “OODA loop.” In addition to his work with the USAF Weapons School, where he devised tactical manuals, he was renowned as one of the world’s leading military strategists. A common nickname for him was “Forty Second Boyd” because of his remarkable ability to defeat an opposing pilot in air combat maneuvering in less than forty seconds, even when Boyd’s starting position was disadvantaged.

However, despite his military prowess, John Boyd’s work has real implications for people in the business and marketing world today. We can learn from his OODA loop, which is a four-point decision-making process. OODA is an acronym for the four stages of this simple, yet powerful, loop. The four stages are: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. You observe by collecting information from a wide range of sources—as many as possible. Make sure that this information is accurate, unbiased, and representative of all possible angles of the decision you are attempting to make. This step feeds forward into the next.

Orient yourself by carefully and thoroughly evaluating all of the information that has been presented to you during the observation stage. Use it to update and evaluate your present situation. Be aware that your reality is fluid, and be willing to change it if new information and facts contradict a perspective that you currently hold. This orientation prepares you for the third step, which is to decide on a course of action. Determine what you are going to do based on the information presented and analyzed. The course you take should, obviously, reflect the most beneficial outcome for you and your team. After deciding, the fourth stage is to act on your decision. Follow through on what you have decided. This OODA loop is simplistic, yet brilliant in its simplicity. It reduces a complex, overwhelming process into four logical steps. It has been implemented in businesses throughout the world.

Decision-making isn’t the only thing that John Boyd can teach us. In addition to this logical, factual side, the OODA loop can also be implemented in creative thought projects and other endeavors requiring creative thinking and/or problem solving. In this article, we will discuss five ways that John Boyd and his OODA loop can be utilized in your day-to-day creative thought processes. Observation, orientation, decision, and action should become a part of you and your team’s daily mantra.

  • OODA can teach us that reality is complex, but not so complex that you should allow it to become muddled or overwhelming.

Your local and global environments interact with one another constantly. The first OODA step, observation, can help you gather all information about every facet of the reality you are experiencing. This information will assist you in making more all-encompassing decisions pertaining to your creative process. Understanding the way the global and local environment interconnect and thread through one another will allow you to broaden the possible audiences you can reach.

To bring this down to the concrete level, here is an example: Let’s say that you are working on creative ways to market your brand. You’ve seen another, direct competitor’s brand’s advertising, and you believe that your product is better than theirs, even though this brand is much larger and better-known than yours. The question is: how do you market in a way that will draw attention away from this monolith and onto you? The first step of the OODA loop would advise you to gather all the information you can about your competitor, including their weaknesses. One such weakness may be their inability to reach niche markets, or certain ethnic, racial, or religious groups. Once you have analyzed who your opposition is leaving out, you can expand your creative process to include ways to appeal to those untapped markets, drawing a larger audience for yourself than if you were to simply go head-to-head with your competition and attempt to take their current core audience away from them.

  • John Boyd’s OODA can provide us with the steps to think differently from competition.

The reason Boyd was successful as a military strategist—why he was called “Forty Second Boyd”—was because his tactical maneuvers were unlike anything taught in the military school (until he began writing their manuals for them). John Boyd used the second step, analysis, to determine the rut his opposition had fallen into. There was always a tactic or a pattern that they had tried too often, and signified that they had grown stagnant and predictable in their thinking. Business and marketing involve competition and consumer loyalty. Analyzing information that you gather on your opposition will allow you to see what they are missing or what they have ignored. Your creative thinking process can then be directed at exploiting your competition’s weak spots and taking initiative where they don’t.

  • Strong decision-making abilities progress creative thinking by preventing stagnancy.

The best ideas are worth nothing if they are left to gather dust. While careful planning is always imperative, there comes a time when a decision must be made in order to move to the next step in the creative process. If you do not decide to either reject or implement this idea and then act on the decision you have made, you cannot build your business. For example, if you are testing a marketing hypothesis and are ready to expose it to consumers, don’t wait until someone else does it first—or better. Make the decision and act on it; that way, once you have your result, you can go from there and develop an idea that either builds on the previous one or replaces it.

  • You may find that there is a disconnection between a creative idea and the conventional way to carry it out.

Creative ideas are “creative” because they are unique and have not been tried before. This novelty can make them harder to implement through traditional channels. Internet marketing is a good example of this. As technology progresses, the way in which businesses communicate with their clientele does as well. Companies looking to expand their advertisements have had to move from print, television, and radio, and attract followings on social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and more. These companies had creative ideas that wouldn’t be as spectacular had they not thought to branch out and diversify the way they broadcasted their ads to the public.

  • Finally, the OODA loop’s simplicity can take overwhelming projects and make them more concrete.

The OODA loop has four steps. That’s all it needs to be effective. Sometimes, companies and entrepreneurs will get so caught up in complex blueprints that they have devised, which contain dozens of intricate steps to work their way through the creative process, that they end up getting mired in the details. While this meticulousness is understandable, it can become overwhelming. The simplistic nature of the OODA loop eschews difficult, multi-step plans and theories and broadens your ability to think creatively because you are not constrained by making sure you follow all 200+ steps to the letter. It frees up your thinking to become idea-oriented, not restrictively laborious.

John Boyd was a brilliant military strategist, and although he mainly operated in the mathematical and tactical sectors, that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from his work. The OODA loop consists of four concrete, strong pillars of decision-making that will free up space for creative thinking and allow businesses to explore the market and audience for their product or service.