As you might have seen from elsewhere on this site, I’m a former military man, and one that took (some) time to study military theory. One particular bit of theory that I was recently re-introduced to was John Boyd’s model of competition/conflict, sometimes referred to as the “OODA loop.” The similarities between the OODA loop and the scientific research cycle were striking, so I decided to comment upon them.
A quick history of John Boyd: he was a fighter pilot in Korea and took the lessons that he learned dogfighting and generalized them into what he then called “energy-maneuverability theory”. Boyd gained a reputation as a maverick, but was valuable enough to be a special consultant of some kind at the Pentagon after he retired. While there, he further generalized his thoughts about conflict in general into a model of conflict, which he presented in numerous briefings but never got around to putting in print. Boyd’s ideas and influence were central to the procurement of the A-10, F-15, and F-16, among other things.
Boyd’s OODA loop, short for “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act,” is probably the most well-known element of his theory. Observations are all the external stimuli to the commander and staff–intelligence, friendly status reports, the terrain and weather. Orientation is the process of taking observations, as well as insights from experience, culture, doctrine, and many many more “internal” factors to understand the situation. In a way, this Orient phase tries to estimate all the things left unobserved, predict the opponent’s actions, and develop potential own actions to counter or pre-empt the opponent. The Decide and Act phases obviously select the course of action and implement it. The main paths in the loop go O-O-D-A and back to O again, but there are short circuits: sometimes observations are so plain and urgent, they cause a reflex Action. Sometimes after the Orient phase the commander knows he needs for information, so seeks observations to fill out the operating picture. The winner of the competition, assuming a relatively balanced(but not necessarily symmetric) set of capabilities, in Boyd’s view, was the competitor who executed the OODA loops the fastest with the correct orientation. The graphic below illustrates:
This sounds exactly like the process of scientific research: make an observation, develop a hypothesis, design an experiment to test the hypothesis, execute the experiment and gain new observations, refine the hypothesis, etc . . .
Now, the OODA loop is for competition . . . but research is more like coopertition–the idea that even though two scientists might be racing to a discovery, they can reach a far greater understanding and produce better results if they share information and ideas, check and correct one another. This is also the rationale for a company like Tesla to open-source its patents, or why Google open-sources one of its most popular products, Chrome/Chromium. When engineers and scientists share information, their research becomes mutually supporting–my observations and orientation can help you get a correct orientation, develop a great experiment, and vice versa.