Hopefully all of our contemporary warriors know what an OODA Loop is. Just in case: OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It is the human decision making cycle first documented by fighter pilot John Boyd. Long time readers know that I have reviewed each step and all of the inputs / implications affecting each, as well as examining the hidden “O” (the “Oh, Sh*t!). Just recently I received an email asking me to expand on how we can perform. After Action Reviews (AARs) on our OODA Loops (repetitive cycles of the process) to see if we can identify where we went wrong, or where we did exactly the right thing. Such intimate examination of our own decision making process under stress is critical if we’re to improve our performance in such situations. Internationally recognized trainer, LtCol Dave Grossman, says that 75% of all combat learning occurs after the training events during the After Action Review. If that’s true then we are clearly doing ourselves a disservice by NOT performing AARs on our own decision making process.
Before we get into the AAR process let’s make sure we’re all on the same page in understanding Boyd’s Decision Making Cycle also commonly referred to as “OODA Loops”. The OODA – observe, orient, decide, act – is constantly repeated as every action we perform changes our environment initiating a new cycle. This on-going looping of decision making is foundational. As we briefly go through each step in the cycle and then discuss repetitive cycles I’ll explain more about what I mean by “foundational”.
A long time ago, when I was about ten years old, my father, my uncle and I were laying a brick patio in my parents’ back yard. It had been previously done by a commercial company that my father had hired but every time it rained we’d end up with serious puddles. It wasn’t anywhere near level. So, my father called upon my uncle – who was a brick mason from the “old world” (Italy) and together we all did it again. We tore the whole thing up, set up new retaining walls and spent a lot of time measuring whether or not the sand base was level. When my uncle laid the very first brick my father said to me, “Just remember: life is like laying these bricks. If the first one is off then every one after that is off.” That was foundational theory in practice.
So, let’s look at the OODA Loop, with the support of the graphic below, and understand how each step has to be performed correctly or the follow-on steps are going to be less than efficient.
OBSERVE: This is the first and most important step. Most of us who work in a uniform are all too aware of the fact that we must remain alert at all times. Why is that? It’s really quite simple. Think about every successful attack plan you’ve ever formulated and the large majority of them involve using the advantage of surprise. If YOU are the one being surprised then your time to react appropriately is severely reduced. This compressed time frame forces you to cycle through your OODA Loops that much faster – often with the result that they aren’t efficient in the outcome; you make inappropriate decisions leading to unsuccessful actions. So we remain ALERT and we OBSERVE our surroundings.
Based on the information we have taken in through all five of our senses (as applicable) we ORIENT ourselves within that environment. How we orient ourselves can usually be identified by answering one simple question: How does all of this apply to ME? Remember this and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. As selfish as it sounds the following statement is 100% true for everyone: Everything you observe in the world gets oriented as it applies only to YOU. YOU are the center of your universe. That’s just how reality is. Here’s the challenge though: If your observations were inaccurate or incomplete then you are orienting yourself only partially or, at best, inaccurately to your surroundings and the unfolding situation. Your observation must be as accurate and complete as you can make it. It’s just like shooting a weapon: small mistakes at the back end makes for large mistakes 100 yards away and even larger mistakes 1000 yards away. Minor mistakes during the observation phase can potentially make huge problems when you reach the action phase. This is another example of foundational theory in practice.
Having observed your surroundings and oriented yourself within them you need to DECIDE what you’re going to do. An example is when you’re driving and you’ve reached a stop sign. You’ve stopped and looked in every important direction, observing other traffic. You’ve oriented yourself to what you observe and now you need to decide: are you waiting? or are you proceeding? That is a very basic example but one that is easily understood. The kicker here is that if you observed incompletely therefore orienting yourself inappropriately, chances are good that your decision won’t be the correct one. For instance, if you don’t look carefully around that bush on the corner and you don’t see the car coming up the road (incomplete observation) then your orientation is going to be a feeling of safety to proceed, leading you to a decision to proceed. That’s a bad decision in the given example.
Once you’ve made a decision based on your observation and orientation then you ACT on that decision. In the example given above you take your foot off the break, step on the gas and start to move through the intersection. This is an example of acting on a bad decision based on orienting yourself to information gained through poor observation. See how they all depend on each other? If the OBSERVATION phase isn’t as correct and thorough as possible then everything following it will be, at best, inefficient; at worst it can be plain dangerous or disasterous. The good news is that even as we ACT we are restarting another OODA Loop so as our vehicle inches up and we see that car coming we accellerate through another loop: we observe a car coming, orient ourselves to it as presenting a dangerous circumstance if we proceed, decide to stop as fast as we can and then act by jamming on the breaks. As soon as we have we start another loop and so on.
Now let’s apply all of that to conflict situations and training.
There are many ways to train for increasing your performance in conflict situations but, in general, the closest thing you’re going to get to the “real deal” is some type of force-on-force training using paintball, simunitions or airsoft munitions. The use of these training tools, due to the threat of a pain penalty when you make mistakes, can stimulate your sympathetic nervous system thereby helping you learn lessons at a subconscious level. That’s actually a good thing. The other good thing – but something that is challenging during the AAR period – is that the compressed time frames that exist in conflict situations (this applies to force-on-force scenarios) inspire you to make decisions subconsciously as well. Since the decision is SUBconscious you never are consciously aware of it and therefore can’t articulate it after the fact. Nor can you usually articulate WHY you did it. That you performed an action is not arguable. Good trainers have it on video and can point at it and say, “See? You did that. No denying it.” You performed an action. Why? That’s the answer you need to give, most especially if the action was incorrect. That usually means that the first three parts of the OODA Loop leading to the action were incorrect at some point. THAT is the mistake that needs to be identified and corrected or the action will never change.
So, the next time you have enjoyed a day of force-on-force training, pick the scenario that you were least happy with in the end. What I mean is to pick the one that ended in the way you didn’t like… weren’t satisfied with… took too many hits on… etc. Just pick the one you’d like to most improve. Then sit back, get out a piece of paper and two other resources:
- A print out of the OODA Loop as shown above, and
- A print out of your agency’s Use of Force diagram / graphic, etc.
You need those two items to refer to as you ask yourself the following questions about each step in the OODA process:
- What did I see upon entering the scenario?
- What did I hear upon entering the scenario?
- What did I feel upon entering the scenario? (this is tactile touch; not emotion)
- What did I smell upon entering the scenario?
- What did I taste upon entering the scenario?
Yes, I know. The last two about smell and taste aren’t often asked or even discussed. However, I hold them to be quite important. Some smells are clear signs of potentially dangerous situations and we can readily identify them if we pay attention. Some examples of such smells are natural gas, cordite (you smell it at the range all the time), gasoline, etc. Some smells are so strong that you “taste” them. As you inhale the aroma and it passes down the back of your throat if it is strong enough you can taste it. Anyone who has ever encountered a five-day old corpse inside a closed hot apartment knows exactly what I’m talking about.
After asking yourself those five questions, and writing down your answers, ask this for each one you had any response for: Did what I saw, heard, felt, smelled or tasted cause me any concern? In other words, did any of the sensory input you received make you feel threatened or as if you needed to be more on guard?
How you answer that question determines how you ORIENTED yourself to what you observed. But examine your orientation and decide whether the level of cautiousness you exercised from that point forward was sufficient, insufficient or proper.
Based on your ORIENTATION you made some DECISION. If you’re not sure what decision you made because things happened so fast, there are two ways to find out. The first one is better for the learning process so let’s examine it first. Pull out those two reference papers: Boyd’s (expanded) OODA Loop and your Use of Force graphic. With those two references re-examine the sensory input you have listed. A few things should happen:
- You should remember and start writing down MORE sensory data that you hadn’t recalled but are now clearly remembering thanks to the memory prompts you’ll experience in the reference materails, and
- You’ll see where your orientation placed you within your Use of Force guidelines.
- You may see why certain bits of sensory data affected you in particular ways as you examine, on the expanded OODA Loop, the various inputs that are personal to YOU and would affect how each piece of sensory data aftected you differently from others on the scene. It’s important that you be able to articulate that. It’s called LIFE EXPERIENCE and it affects how all of us interpret the data we get in.
After you’ve done that you should have even more detail in your OBSERVE and ORIENT steps written down AND you should be able to clearly see where you came to a decision and what that decision was. Be careful: It’s easy to identify a decision you made which STARTED a course of action and then simply stop your analysis to assume that the entire course of action was your decision. It wasn’t. The first step – your FIRST action – was what you decided to do. It’s also the second way to identify the decision if the above process didn’t work. Whatever decision you made was displayed in your ACTION.
Based on the information you have detailed and written down in your OBSERVE and ORIENT steps you should be able to determine whether or not that first decision and action was appropriate. If not then the DECISION was inappropriate. Figure out why. THAT is where you need to learn. If it WAS appropriate then you restarted a new loop and need to repeat this process until you find out where you went wrong.
Ultimately your goal in this process is threefold:
- You want to identify where your decision making process went wrong, or
- You want to identify where your decision mkaing process could have been improved, or
- You want to learn how to 110% articulate and justify your decision after a Use of Force
THIS is where that 75% of learning occurs. As you went through various force-on-force scenarios you learned. You saw, heard, felt, smelled and tasted certain things while your sympathetic nervous system was activated. That “data cache” was fed into your subconscious mind and, as you’ve gone through the analyzing process described above, you will have seen how you CAN prompt some of those memories out and into your conscious mind. By actually doing this you should clearly see the value of this process in the event you get in a real shooting or use of force situation that you need to articulate. You will also see what you should go through BEFORE you sit down and give ANYONE a statement. It will take you awhile to sort it all out in your own head, much less be able to fully articulate it to whomever is asking.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them on our Forum Board or send me an email.
Did you find this information helpful? If you did, consider donating.