Strat­egy bogged down by reality?

Strat­egy bogged down by reality?

A per­sonal note. Ok seri­ously, one of my prob­lems is get­ting “looped” by the every­day grind.

Let’s step back a moment. What do I mean by looped?

I need to explain John Boyd, his OODA loop, and a lit­tle his­tor­i­cal context.

In brief, John Boyd was an Air Force Colonel, rep­utably one of the best fighter pilots ever, and a sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary the­o­rist of the 20th cen­tury. He’s known for being the pri­mary con­trib­u­tor to the F-15 and F-16 pro­grams; and he invented energy maneu­ver­abil­ity the­ory, which is the pri­mary rule of engi­neer­ing when design­ing a fighter plane.

One of Boyd’s most promi­nent ideas is the “deci­sion cycle” or “OODA Loop”. Which is a basic model of psy­chol­ogy, based on learn­ing the­ory, about how we inter­act with the world around us. All it pos­tu­lates is that human deci­sion mak­ing includes the fol­low­ing steps: Observe, Ori­ent, Decide, Act.


Observe. I see a ham­burger place down the street.
Ori­ent. I like ham­burg­ers, and I’m hun­gry.
Decide. I want to eat a ham­burger now.
Act. Pull over and order a hamburger.

It’s a sim­ple model of psy­chol­ogy that has been shown to accu­rately describe human behav­ior. It is most obvi­ous when observ­ing small chil­dren (because it often hap­pens slowly).

In most strat­egy lit­er­a­ture, in a con­flict one wishes to out­pace and dis­rupt or manip­u­late the opponent’s OODA loop. Be advised that the OODA loop is actu­ally very sim­ple psy­chol­ogy, but is often mis­in­ter­preted and mis­used, espe­cially in defense cir­cles where argu­ments of inter­pre­ta­tion abound. OODA loops are a good model for show­ing how ini­tia­tive works, both in para­met­ric and lit­eral con­texts. Speed­ing up your own deci­sion cycle is often known as tak­ing the ini­tia­tive, and is com­monly taught in Marine offi­cer school (as 60 or 30 sec­ond bat­tle plans).

Every day I observe things that need to be done, ori­ent to the daily grind, and totally lose sight of my schw­er­punkt (strategic objec­tive). The thing is — the daily grind is tac­ti­cally rel­e­vant to my schw­er­punkt, and much of it is needed to keep cus­tomers happy and busi­ness going. But I’m just con­stantly looped by tac­ti­cal (imme­di­ate) issues… So tac­ti­cal urgency loops my strategic pri­or­ity. I’m busy all day doing impor­tant things, but have problems get­ting around to the “value add” projects I’m work­ing on.

How do we pre­vent get­ting looped by tac­ti­cal urgency?

That’s my question.

In the inva­sion of Iraq in 2002, the coali­tion schw­er­punkt was to con­trol Bagh­dad within 72 hours. Why 72 hours? Sim­ple, that’s the time limit of how long a sol­dier can fight with­out sleep. A 72 hour sprint to Bagh­dad fol­lowed by rest and regroup­ing. The 72 hour sprint has such speed, so many things hap­pen so fast as to loop the defend­ers — i.e. you get inside their deci­sion cycle. You are mov­ing so fast they just can’t keep up with the changes.  In OODA terms you give them to many things to observe and ori­ent to, and they ide­ally go into deci­sion lock.  They get over­loaded by a quickly chang­ing envi­ron­ment and you can do what­ever you want.   The doc­trine of “Shock and Awe” is lit­er­ally based on OODA loop manipulation.

So what does the inva­sion of Iraq and OODA have to do with get­ting bogged down at the office?

See, Marines like to fight. They train for it every day. They are really good at it. In the inva­sion of Iraq in 2002, I’ve been told one of the strate­gic chal­lenges was the Marines got bogged down with fight­ing when they should have been rac­ing to Bagh­dad.  I have a sim­i­lar prob­lem with morn­ing emails.

When Army units hit resis­tance, they sim­ply avoided con­tact, called in an air strike, and kept focused on the strate­gic objec­tive — take Bagh­dad in 72 hours.

Mean­while the Marines did lots of fight­ing that slowed them down. With rather spec­tac­u­lar tac­ti­cal suc­cess, they won lots of unim­por­tant bat­tles that really slowed down the race to Bahg­dad. They had a ten­dency to get looped by tac­ti­cal urgency. Sim­ply put they got dis­tracted by com­bat and for­got their strate­gic objective.

The cliche’ goes some­thing like: I’m so busy fight­ing off alli­ga­tors I for­got that the rea­son I jumped in the swamp was to drain it.

The thing the Army did bet­ter than the Marines in 2002 was sim­ple. They picked their bat­tles and del­e­gated tac­ti­cal urgency while stay­ing focused on their strate­gic objec­tives.

HR calls that pri­or­ity man­age­ment. You can Google tech­niques. You can keep a priority/urgency matrix. You can have a sticky note, reminder, poster, what­ever to remind you of your strate­gic goals.

But you always have to ask your­self, is this the best end­ing for my story? Is the fire I’m fight­ing now going to pre­vent future fires? Is this the best use of my time, can it wait, should it be ignored or del­e­gated while I focus on larger priorities?

Sim­ply put you need to pri­or­i­tize your action items with your schw­er­punkt as the pri­mary value, or you’ll get “looped” by the daily grind, lose strate­gic ini­tia­tive and fall behind sched­ule… May even start los­ing the war because you are fight­ing the wrong battles.

The hard­est deci­sion lead­ers have to make, and fre­quently in busi­ness the com­mon mis­take — is pick­ing your bat­tles. And not polit­i­cally, but tac­ti­cally. Most man­agers and exec­u­tives get so caught up in tac­ti­cal and oper­a­tional prob­lem solv­ing and fire fight­ing that they get looped by cir­cum­stances and lose all if any strate­gic ori­en­ta­tion to their work.

How many meet­ings have felt like a waste of time? How much of your daily fire fight­ing at work actu­ally makes money or strate­gi­cally posi­tions your suc­cess? Or are you just putting out fires as fast as you can with no strate­gic objective?

Tar­get fix­a­tion or micro­man­age­ment? Is micro­man­age­ment just a form of tar­get fix­a­tion where you let tac­ti­cal urgency dic­tate your pri­or­i­ties? Are you doing everyone’s details for them with­out man­ag­ing the big picture?

Now we can argue lack of top down strate­gic focus another time. In what you do, every deci­sion you per­son­ally make, first have a schw­er­punkt (or schw­er­punkts) in mind. And ask your­self, is what you are doing just tac­ti­cal urgency to grat­ify your per­son­al­ity? Or are you accom­plish­ing a sig­nif­i­cant return on you invest­ment of time into achiev­ing strate­gi­cally goals?

Ask your­self, are you get­ting looped by tac­ti­cal urgency? Or are you stay­ing focused on the big pic­ture and mak­ing progress towards the bot­tom line?

That is a skill devel­oped by prac­tice. Most peo­ple are bad at it. Most peo­ple, regard­less of rank or expe­ri­ence sim­ply get dis­tracted. Make a habit of fram­ing every deci­sion in terms of strate­gic pri­or­ity. For most of us there is more work than time. You only get so many hours in the day. At the end of the month, do you want to say you put out 30 fires? Or that you cir­cum­vented the fires and achieved a strate­gic goal that makes the fires irrelevant?

The trick is to prac­tice strate­gic focus and aware­ness. Check your­self at every action, every deci­sion. Ask what is my schw­er­punkt? Does this help strate­gi­cally? Am I being looped? Am I loop­ing myself? Google Cog­ni­tive restruc­tur­ing if your seri­ous about devel­op­ing the skill, a trained psy­chol­o­gist will know that technique.

In tough times, crazy busy at work, I fre­quently find myself looped, bogged down by the daily grind, and have to remind myself to reori­ent to my schw­er­punkt and stay aligned with my pri­or­i­ties, because I don’t have the time to do every­thing, and my lim­ited time is pre­cious. I need to spend it accom­plish­ing goals, not fight­ing fires that keep burn­ing regardless.

Thanks for reading,

Ted S Galpin

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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8 Responses to Strat­egy bogged down by reality?

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