John Boyd’s Ideas and Spirit Thrive in Boston

John Boyd's OODA Loop Diagram

A small but devoted group of professionals from across numerous fields gathered in Boston recently to discuss their work and how it has been inspired by the ideas and theories of Col. John Boyd.

Called “Boyd and Beyond – Boston,” the one-day event featured three main presentations.  Gatherings like this attract a diverse crowd, drawn together by their appreciation of Col. Boyd’s work, and topics discussed in these presentations vary widely, but they all share a few common themes. One is how the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop—the decision cycle as envisioned by John Boyd—can be leveraged to gain an advantage in any competitive situation. Another is an appreciation for simplicity in product design.

Perhaps most importantly is a general appreciation of Col. Boyd’s notion of broad learning. He was a true master of interdisciplinary studies. His paper “Destruction and Creation” describes the learning process of taking pieces of information from seemingly divergent disciplines and combining them into entirely new ideas and bodies of knowledge. This concept is manifested in a tangible form when people from diverse backgrounds come together in Col. Boyd’s name to discuss their work and collaborate in order to develop new ideas. Similar events have brought together everyone from robotic specialists to shark biologists to union bosses.

Author Dan Ward presented on “The Simplicity Cycle,” based on his new book of the same title. Ward recently retired from the Air Force after spending twenty years working in acquisitions. He observed during his time that there is a natural tendency for design teams to increase the complexity of their creations, often for no reason other than that people equate complexity with a quality product. He cited the example of high-end cameras with 100 function modes when most people only use two. The designers added lots of extra features, and complexity, because it looks like they put more work into the product and they can then charge a higher price. Consumers then shell out the extra money for the camera with extra bells and whistles thinking they have a superior product when really they wasted money for features they will never use.

He says the best designs are those that achieve a perfect balance of simplicity and “goodness.” Ward defines goodness as “a general term that represents the measure of merit and desirable attributes of a particular object or design.” He is quick to point out that “Simplicity is not the point. Goodness is,” a concept often advocated by Col. Boyd.

Ward was followed by Marshall Wallace, a consultant for humanitarian organizations. His presentation, “The Interplay of Serendipity and Zemblanity,” dealt with influencing a person’s orientation (the second “O” in OODA) to increase the chances of experiencing happy accidents. Wallace makes the point that the orientation aspect of an individual’s OODA Loop is the only one that can be shaped in advance. The better an individual prepares himself through study and experience, the more open their orientation will be at the critical moment. People with a broader range of knowledge to draw from have a better ability to quickly comprehend and adapt to a situation than those less prepared.  

Wallace has been using the theories of Col. Boyd to further his work with the Do No Harm Project, teaching humanitarian organizations to evaluate their projects carefully to ensure they are not inadvertently contributing to problems through unintended consequences.

The final formal presentation came from the event’s organizer, Critt Jarvis. A strategist with Brevity Consulting in Boston, Jarvis introduced Landscape, a trend analysis software program originally designed for NGOs to understand the effectiveness of their projects by tracking improvements and degradations to the situation on the ground. Jarvis and his team have been surprised to see others find uses for their product. Stephen Morris, a building engineer from New York City, immediately understood the potential for this program to help track the needs and desires of his building’s tenant organizations. Jarvis said he wanted to put together this event to foster the exchange of ideas that happens whenever people who have embraced Col. Boyd’s work come together. “I always learn a lot from the feedback I receive from the other participants,” he said.

This event was a smaller version of the larger annual event that takes place in Quantico, Virginia, each October. It was live-streamed on Periscope so others who could not travel to Boston could participate.

Photo of Dan Grazier

By: Dan Grazier, Jack Shanahan Military Fellow

Dan Grazier is the Jack Shanahan Military Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight

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