Agile, Agility, O-O-D-A, Dog fighting … what am I mumbling about today?

On Wednesday evening I attended the session “The Essence of Agile”, delivered by  Steve Adolph, from the Agile Vancouver community. The session description was outlined as follows, whereby I copied the text in quotes and in italic from the Agile Vancouver site: “What does it really mean to be agile? If we follow a specific agile method are we agile? Or if we must write an SRS, or define an enterprise architecture, are we hopelessly un-agile? The sometimes near neurotic emphasis on light weight practices is diverting us away from the essence of agile, and often results in unsuccessful agile deployments. Rather, the essence of agile is how the interplay between practices and people lead to the emergence of an agile culture, and enable an organization not only to react to change in a timely manner, but also shape change. The software industry tends to be quite insular, and this talk steps outside the software field and takes it lessons from other agile organizations and industries. USAF Colonel John Boyd developed the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (the so called OODA loop) as time based model of rapid decision making which is the essence of agile. The core of this presentation is the influence of culture on decision making velocity and how effective software practices can bring about the cultural change needed to improve decision making velocity. We turn to the aviation industry for an example of how redesigned training programs resulted in a cultural change that improved their safety record. We demonstrate how agility helps an organization “win” with examples of successful agile companies using their cultures for competitive advantage in rapidly changing market places. Finally we bring this back to software development and how these lessons can be applied.

While everything made perfect sense during the session and Steve delivered a convincing and fun session, the true magnitude of what he said only sunk in much later in the evening as I emailed my oldest son, the aviation fanatic and pilot, to tell him about Colonel John Boyd and his 40 second bet. I also gave my wife, the teacher, a hard time complaining about how schools trained us to be solo experts … if you collaborated as a team during a test or assignment, you got a zero in my days … how universities trained us as solo experts … if you collaborated as a team on assignments you were blamed with plagiarism in my days … and how all of us ended up in information technology, working in teams and expected to work as a team, not solo experts. Perhaps it is an idea to introduce even more team work and collaboration in the schools and universities, aligning the base education with real life … but, that is beyond the scope of this blog post.

What I would like to mention today is (1) who is Colonel John Boyd, (2) what 40 second bet are we eluding to, (3) what the heck is O-O-D-A and (4) finally,m how dopes aviation and dog fighting relate to agile in information technology ecosystems?

Let the fun begin …

BoydWho is Colonel John Boyd?

According to Wiki and I quote: “Colonel John (Richard) Boyd (January 23, 1927–March 9, 1997) was a United States Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist of the late 20th century, whose theories have been highly influential in the military and in business.”

He not only shook the US Air force by claiming and proving that its mainstream aircraft were inferior, but he was probably the best fighter pilot of his time, using observation, orientation, decisiveness and action to surprise adversaries both in combat and at the fighter weapons school (predecessor to Top Gun, for those that have seen the movie).

What came as a shock to my son and I, was that the great F-4 (my personal favourite) and F-14 (my son’s favourite until he saw the Euro fighter Typhoon) were not agile enough and therefore no match to the enemy planes.

Plane1 PLane2 PLane3 plane5 … pictures made at the Museum of Flight, Seattle

It made me re-wind some memories of air shows in terms of the F-15, the F-16, the Saab Viggen (flying in the South-African skies these days) and especially the Sukhoi doing short take-offs, sheer vertical climbs and displaying astounding agility in the sky.

Note the words in bold, which we will re-encounter when looking at the O-O-D-A loop.

What 40 Second bet are we eluding to?

According to Steve, the speaker, and sources such as Wiki, Colonel John Boyd (alias "Forty Second Boyd") had a standing bet “as an instructor pilot that beginning from a position of disadvantage, he could defeat any opposing pilot in air combat manoeuvring in less than forty seconds”. Having watched acrobatics, aviation videos, Top Gun comes to mind, watching my son fly and understanding the skill, “agility” and sheer environmental stress involved, I cannot understand why he never lost the bet. Amazing and something that made me sit up last night and research his life story, his strategies and the O-O-D-A loop.

Have a look at the following link for more information:,

What the heck is O-O-D-A?

Based on the notes I made at the agile event, the O-O-D-A originated from Colonel Boyd’s strategy, which made him the best dog fighter and literally winning his 40-sec bet. In essence he said that whoever executes the O-O-D-A (observe-orient-decide-act) loop quicker than his adversary wins the battle, a tactic that was based on people, then ideas and then and only then technology (in the specified order). If you surprise your enemy you are winning, if the enemy surprises you, you are loosing … The O-O-D-A and theory around the essence of surprise required a major re-think of aircraft, introducing the light-weight, the nimbleness and in particular the agility seen in planes of today, compared to the era where swinging wings, raw power and speed were incorrectly seen as the winning formula.

image image

The diagram above is an electronic copy of the notes I made and should not be seen as the official O-O-D-A diagram. For the real stuff, you need to refer to Colonel Boyd’s official material and books.

How does this relate to the IT ecosystem?

Now let us come down from the skies and discuss why Colonel Boyd’s strategy and the O-O-D-A loop are relevant to IT, by zooming in on some of the terms I highlighted in bold in this blog, using my notes … again refer to Colonel Boyd’s official documents for the ‘real’ story:

  • Observe … we constantly need to observe unfolding circumstances, outside information and highlight any mismatch to our existing mental model. In Colonel Boyd’s world, it meant looking around for enemy planes.
  • Orient … we need to orient ourselves, based on the observations and our existing mental model, which is a process that is impacted by factors such as culture, genetic, expertise, analysis and synthesis abilities. Colonel Boyd had the ability to digest the observations and [re-]orientate himself quicker than anyone else, allowing him to decide, act and manoeuvre himself from a position of disadvantage to advantage within 40 seconds.
  • Decide … we need to make informed, not reckless, decisions.
  • Act … when we act, we act … after which we return to the next iteration of the O-O-D-A loop.
  • Surprise … being informed and willing to act on change or risk, ensures that we surprise everyone else, instead of being surprised. Ignoring risk or known problems will not make them go away!
  • Agility …  agility is about being nimble, light-weight and able to process the O-O-D-A loop quickly and effectively.

When thinking of Colonel Boyd in the world of aviation, I think of Derek Verster in the world of information technology. Derek was or rather is an exceptional project manager and all the projects I had the honour of working on with him, were meticulously planned, managed and tracked. We had complete visibility of risk and challenges, often surprising ourselves at not being surprised, but prepared, for the gremlins that emerged. Derek was constantly observing the projects and outside world, orienting himself and the team, ensuring that decisions were made pro-actively and then acting where necessary. An exceptional project manager, who created an amazing culture, allowed us to focus on the nuts and bolts and ensuring that we surprised, rather than being surprised. In essence, we had a wining formula that deserves further investigation at some point. Like Colonel Boyd, he frustrated management at the company I used to work for, probably because his ability to create the correct mental model quicker than everyone else and highlight the possible project surprises before they were even evident, was simply too much for management.

The core message, however, seems to be culture, collaboration and the supporting tools, i.e. people-ideas-technology. If we work together as a ‘happy’ team, if we collaborate and share ideas, concerns and risks, and if we use the right technology we have the potential of a wining formula.

So does TFS, VSTS bring any value to this game?

With Team Foundation Server we can not only implement the minimal agility practices such as continuous integration, concurrent automated testing and iterative development, but have the technology to support the O-O-D-A loop. We have visibility of the state of the nation through continuous analysis of team project artefacts and reporting, we can orientate ourselves through the numerous reporting, modelling and collaboration tools, we can collaborate and make decisions and we can act. While technology appears last in the list in terms of Colonel Burton, the technology is the piece that allows us to create and guide a team, based on culture, visibility, practices, etc. Looking at many of the new features arriving with 2010 we are further embracing the O-O-D-A loop without explicitly wanting to (I think).

I need to give this more thought … will order and read Colonel Boyd’s memoires as the next step.

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