Nov 12

Using the OODA Loop to Solve Complex Problems

From an early age, I have never liked the observation that something is complex. It usually meant that person is just resigning themselves to never understanding the problem. I couldn't stand this defeatist attitude and have spent most of my life trying to devise ways to tackle complex problems including the aptly-named “wicked problems.” Even though I may never find the solution to the P versus NP Problem, it has taught me a great deal about problem solving in general.

So, what do we mean when say a problem is complex? According to Dr. Melanie Mitchell, there are nine definitions for complex as used by complexity theorists. These definitions range from “complex as a matter of size” to “complex as a degree of hierarchy” to “complex as a measure of algorithmic information content” (pp. 96-111). I tend to think of complexity in terms of systems theory in which you have a number of discrete components with numerous feedback loops and many variables that are hidden within the system processes.

A good example of a complex system is the American economy. There are many discrete components in the forms of companies, consumers, banks, regulatory agencies, etc. all passing information to each other and reacting to that information. Attempts to model the American economy range from the simple macroeconomic diagrams in textbooks to detailed microeconomic equations that requires years of mathematical study to even understand. Yet these models, no matter how detailed, cannot fully describe and fully predict how the American economy operates.

If you accept my definition of complexity then you can see how the next concept describes why complex problems are hard to solve. We have difficulty in solving complex problems because our observation of the problem is hindered, we cannot fully understand the problem, our decision-making processes are flawed, or we cannot act appropriately in confronting the problem. If any of the difficulties I mentioned sound familiar it is because I am describing the four components of the “OODA Loop.”

The Observe-Orient-Decide-Act Loop (OODA) was created by Colonel John Boyd who was a fighter pilot and scholar in military strategy. This concept has been adopted both by the U.S. military and championed by such business experts as Tom Peters. As the diagram below demonstrates, a person, team, or an organization observes a situation along with other inputs. Based on the observations and several internal factors, the subject attempts to orient themselves or understand the unfolding situation. Based on that understanding, the subject then makes a decision and acts upon that decision. Throughout the OODA Loop, there are several feedback channels that make the entire process nonlinear.

Colonel Boyd explained that the use of the OODA Loop was to travel through the Loop faster than your opponent. You present confusing and ambiguous information to your opponent so that they have difficulty orienting themselves and thus are slower to decide and act. Essentially, you want to go through your own OODA Loop faster than your opponent does so that they start falling behind and then are paralyzed by their inability to analyze the situation. Time is the key factor in OODA Loops.

The OODA Loop is why I think complex problems are so difficult to solve. Consider the five components of the OODA Loop as it applies to your personal abilities or the abilities of your team/organization:

  • Observe: This is the beginning of the Loop and also feeds into another iteration of the Loop. If your observational abilities are hindered or you just cannot observe all parts of the unfolding situation then you are working with incomplete information. History is replete with examples where disasters occurred because of the lack of key information.
  • Orient: This is where you/the team/the organization takes in the new information and pairs it with your previous knowledge, cultural traditions, and other internal factors that influence how you process and analyze information. So, even if you are able to observe the entire unfolding situation, your internal abilities to process and analyze this information can prevent you from fully understanding what is happening.
  • Decide: This relates to your ability to generate hypothesis about the situation and possible responses. There is the common “paralysis by analysis” which hinders decision making because you are still trying to orient yourself to the situation. Or, even if the organization has a good understanding of the situation, decision processes may be so cumbersome that you cannot make a decision in time to act on the situation.
  • Act: You may not have the resources to act promptly and/or appropriately. Your understanding of the situation may have led to a flawed decision that forces an invalid response to the situation. You do not have the proper feedback mechanism built in your action to determine how your act affected the unfolding situation.
  • Feedback: As you go through the OODA Loop, you are constantly generating and receiving feedback from your current iteration and previous iterations. Without good feedback design, your own actions can contribute to the ambiguity of the situation. This is especially true of wicked problems where there is no consensus on the actual shape of the problem and your actions can drastically morph the problem into a completely new problem.


The good news here is that you can also use the OODA Loop to better your abilities to handle complex problems. Use the five components as a checklist for improving your (or your organization’s) processes in handling complex problems.

For example: how well do you observe? How good is your organization at collecting and disseminating information internally? Do your people have the necessary prior knowledge and analysis skills to properly orient themselves when new observations come in? How robust and quick is your team’s decision-making skills? What barriers can you remove so that you can act faster? What can you do to improve your feedback mechanisms?

Government is going to face more complex problems especially in a climate of reduced budgets and increasing responsibilities. All government employees at all levels need to sharpen their problem-solving skills so that we are more innovative and can better tackle the looming wicked problems that face the nation. Whether you accept my suggestion to use the OODA Loop or come up with your own problem solving method, the process of thinking about complex problems is a great way to sharpen your problem solving skills.

Mitchell, M. (2009). Complexity: A guided tour. New York: Oxford University Press.

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