Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (The OODA Loop)

The OODA Loop is a decision-making framework originally developed for the military to make agility a competitive advantage. The focus on fast, localized decisions in rapidly changing environments aligns well with construction projects and businesses.

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The OODA Loop, which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, is a conceptual decision-making tool developed by military strategist Colonel John Boyd. Originally designed for combat operations, its utility extends to various fields, including business management, sports, and emergency response. The OODA Loop provides a systematic process to effectively handle uncertainties and rapidly changing situations.

 

The Four Stages of the OODA Loop (Summary)

Observe: The first stage involves gathering information from the environment. This includes noticing the current situation and collecting data through all senses and available sources. In the context of construction management, observation means understanding the project status, recognizing the workforce's mood, checking equipment condition, and being aware of external factors like weather or market changes. The quality and speed of observations can significantly impact the effectiveness of the entire loop. Think about how an experienced Superintendent sees a construction project clearly in all five dimensions (3D + Schedule and Cost) even when looking at preliminary schematic drawings. 

Orient: This stage is the crux of the loop where analysis and synthesis occur. Orientation involves filtering the observed data through cultural traditions, previous experiences, new information, and genetic heritage. It's about making sense of the gathered data by placing it within a meaningful context based on personal and organizational backgrounds. For construction managers, orientation might mean interpreting data against the backdrop of safety standards, regulatory requirements, and past project learnings to form a comprehensive understanding of what the observed data implies.

Decide: Decision making is influenced by the orientation phase. Here, one selects a course of action among various alternatives. Decisions should align with strategic objectives and take into account the insights gained from orientation. In a construction setting, deciding could involve choosing to adjust manpower, reorder materials, or modify safety protocols in response to observed and oriented information. This stage is critical as it sets the actions in motion based on the best available understanding and strategy.

Act: The final stage translates decisions into physical actions. Actions are implemented to change or maintain the status quo. This is where plans are executed, and theories are tested in the real world. For construction managers, acting might mean deploying resources, starting a new phase of construction, or enacting a contingency plan. This stage is directly observable and feeds back into the loop, providing new data to be observed, which starts the cycle anew.


 

Feedback and Feed Forward

Central to the OODA Loop's effectiveness are the concepts of feedback and feed forward. Feedback involves using the results of actions to refine or change subsequent observations, orientations, and decisions. It helps in continuously updating and correcting the loop based on what has been effective or ineffective. Feed forward, on the other hand, is the process of using current data to anticipate future states and prepare accordingly, enhancing the responsiveness and agility of decision making.

The OODA Loop's power lies in its flexibility and adaptability. It is not merely a repetitive cycle but a dynamic framework that evolves with each pass through the loop. Effective use of the OODA Loop enables individuals and organizations to outpace and outmaneuver competitors by making faster, more informed decisions. In the construction industry, applying the OODA Loop can lead to superior project management, enhanced safety, and improved profitability by continuously adapting to changing conditions and effectively managing resources. The framework encourages a mindset of ongoing learning and adaptation, which is crucial in today’s fast-paced and complex environments.


Similar to the Continuous Improvement Process of Plan, Do, Check, and Adjust (PDCA) but expanding the model out more to quickly adjust in a rapidly changing environment. It is important to make that distinction as to which framework to use in which situation as well as what level of experience the person needs to use each framework given the situation. Remember that hierarchies are enabling and should never be stifling. 

The next sections will go deeper into each element of the OODA Loop framework with some examples as applicable. 


 

Explicit and Implicit Guidance & Control Within the OODA Loop

Understanding the distinction between explicit and implicit elements within the OODA Loop is essential for construction executives to effectively guide their teams and control project outcomes.

Explicit: Clearly defined rules, procedures, and directives that are formally communicated and documented.

Implicit: Unwritten rules, intuitions, and habits that influence behavior and decision making without formal expression.

Implicit is far broader in scope and should add context but not be in conflict with what is explicitly defined. 

 

Explicit guidance and control involves direct, clear instructions and protocols that are outlined and communicated within an organization. In the context of construction management, this includes safety regulations, operational procedures, quality standards, and project timelines. These guidelines are typically documented and are intended to ensure consistency and compliance across projects and teams.

  • Ensures uniformity and compliance: Clear guidelines help maintain standards across various teams and projects.
  • Facilitates training and onboarding: New team members can quickly learn what is expected through documented procedures.


Implicit guidance and control refer to the underlying norms, practices, and intuitions that are understood and followed within the organization but are not formally documented. This includes decision making influenced by past experiences, cultural norms within the company, or individual managerial styles. For instance, a project manager might prioritize certain types of issues based on previous project outcomes, even if not explicitly instructed to do so.

  • Allows flexibility and adaptability: Managers can adapt to unique situations where formal rules might not apply.
  • Shapes organizational culture: Implicit rules heavily influence the culture and ethos of the workplace.

 

The balance between explicit and implicit guidance and control can significantly impact the efficiency and effectiveness of project management in construction. Explicit guidance ensures that all team members are on the same page and adhere to necessary standards, which is crucial for safety and regulatory compliance. Conversely, implicit guidance allows for flexibility and personalized judgment that can be critical in dynamic and complex environments like construction sites.

For construction managers, understanding and leveraging both forms of guidance and control can lead to a more nuanced approach to managing projects. This dual approach supports adherence to necessary standards while allowing room for managerial discretion and adaptability. As organizational consultant Peter Senge notes, "People don't resist change. They resist being changed!" This highlights the importance of managing both explicit and implicit factors to guide team behaviors effectively and facilitate change within the organization.

By strategically integrating both explicit and implicit guidance and control, construction managers can enhance project execution, ensuring that operations are both standardized and adaptable to on-the-ground realities.


 

Observation Stage Within the OODA Loop

The Observation stage is the initial part of the OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) and includes:

Implicit Guidance & Control: Described above, your past experiences and training guide how you observe and what catches your attention. In the construction context, this involves the preconceived notions and instinctive responses shaped by previous project experiences. A seasoned manager might notice potential safety hazards or quality issues more quickly due to their ingrained habits and knowledge.

Unfolding Circumstances: Observations about the current situation or project status, including unexpected changes or issues (See 5D Situational Awareness). This relates to the real-time developments on a construction site. For example, the sudden unavailability of a critical subcontractor or a delay in materials delivery requires immediate attention and reassessment of the day’s priorities.

Outside Information: Data from external sources, such as market trends, technological updates, or regulatory changes. Staying informed about external factors is crucial. This could involve understanding how new environmental regulations affect your project timeline or how a spike in raw material costs could impact your budget. See market related benchmarks for more information.

Unfolding Interaction with the Environment: How your actions and decisions interact with the environment, affecting your next observations. Every action taken on a construction site interacts with a variety of environmental factors. For instance, starting excavation without considering recent heavy rains might lead to site flooding, illustrating the importance of environmental interaction in planning and execution.

Understanding the Observation stage in the OODA Loop can be enhanced by applying insights from various disciplines. For instance, the psychological concept of 'confirmation bias' — the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses — is relevant here. As Henry Ford famously said,

"If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got."

This highlights the need for adaptive observation strategies that account for new and evolving circumstances.

By applying the OODA Loop effectively, particularly the Observation stage, managers in the construction industry can enhance their responsiveness and adaptability, leading to improved decision-making and project outcomes.


 

Orientation Stage Within the OODA Loop

The Orient stage is the second phase in the OODA Loop, focusing on the internal process of making sense of observations. This is critical for construction managers as it influences decision making under various conditions. This orientation is broken down into five interrelated parts with weight of importance determined by the situation. 

  1. Cultural Traditions: The shared beliefs and practices within your company that influence decision-making processes. In the construction industry, this might include the standard approaches to safety, client interaction, or project management that are ingrained in your company’s culture. These traditions can guide how information is processed and prioritized.
  2. Analysis & Synthesis: Breaking down information into manageable parts and combining them to form a comprehensive view. This involves taking detailed observations from the site, such as progress reports or incident logs, and integrating them to assess project status or to forecast potential issues. For example, synthesizing weather reports with crew schedules to optimize workflow without risking delays.
  3. Previous Experience: Personal and collective past encounters that shape your understanding and expectations. Your past projects provide a reservoir of knowledge that influences how you interpret new data. A project manager who has experienced a structural failure due to material faults may be more vigilant in quality control in future projects. Remember that good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgement. Part of scaling a construction business is limiting the number of lessons that have to be re-learned by each person. How do you share lessons learned across your team?
  4. New Information: Fresh data or insights that might alter or enhance your current perspective. 
    Staying updated with the latest construction techniques, materials, and technologies is crucial. This can change how you orient your strategy. For example, learning about a new, more efficient building method could shift your project’s timeline and resource allocation. What is your personal learning habit? How do you help others on your team learn?
  5. Genetic Heritage: Innate predispositions and traits that influence how you perceive and react to situations. While less tangible, genetic factors can affect traits like risk tolerance and stress management. In a high-pressure environment like a construction site, understanding your inherent responses can help in managing decisions under stress. Is your first response to stress fight, flight, or freeze?

 

The Orient stage can benefit from understanding cognitive biases and logical fallacies such as the 'anchoring effect,' where an individual relies too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the "anchor") when making decisions. This is why introducing varied perspectives and continuous learning into the decision-making process is crucial. As philosopher Daniel J. Boorstin noted,

"The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge."

This underscores the importance of challenging one’s assumptions and integrating new information effectively.

By adeptly handling the Orient stage, construction managers can significantly enhance their ability to lead projects successfully, ensuring decisions are well-grounded and encompass all necessary perspectives.


 

Decision Stage Within the OODA Loop

The Decision stage is a critical point in the OODA Loop where you select a course of action based on the insights gained in the Observation and Orientation stages. This is vital for leaders in the construction industry who must make timely and effective decisions.

Implicit Guidance & Control: Discussed above in more detail. The subconscious filters and biases that steer the decision-making process. In the construction management context, Implicit Guidance & Control refers to the internalized rules, procedures, and biases that unconsciously guide decisions. For instance, a manager might favor certain subcontractors based on past experiences or company policy, influencing choices about whom to hire for a project. These guidelines, while sometimes helpful, need to be critically assessed to ensure they do not lead to repetitive or outdated choices.

Decision as Hypothesis: Treating each decision as a testable prediction to be validated in the Act stage. Labeling a decision as a hypothesis emphasizes that every decision is based on the current understanding of the situation, which is inherently incomplete or potentially incorrect. This approach allows for flexibility and learning. For example, deciding to implement a new software tool for project management is based on the hypothesis that it will increase efficiency. This needs to be tested and validated through monitoring and analysis in the Act stage.

The concept of the "Decision as Hypothesis" aligns with the scientific method, which is rooted in making conjectures and testing them. It encourages a mindset of experimentation and learning, which is essential in fast-paced and complex environments like construction sites. As physicist Niels Bohr said,

"Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future."

This highlights the inherent uncertainty in decision making and the importance of being open to adjustments based on outcomes.

Understanding that decisions are hypotheses helps managers remain adaptable and responsive to new information or feedback from the field. It supports a continuous improvement cycle, where each decision is an opportunity to learn and refine strategies. This approach can lead to more thoughtful and effective management, driving projects toward successful completion with fewer surprises.

By effectively navigating the Decision stage of the OODA Loop, construction managers can ensure that their actions are informed, deliberate, and adaptable to changing conditions, ultimately leading to more successful project outcomes.


 

Action Stage Within the OODA Loop

"Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare." - Japanese Proverb

The Action stage is the culmination of the OODA Loop, where decisions are implemented, and their effectiveness is evaluated. This stage is critical for construction managers who need to see their project plans materialize efficiently and effectively. This is where the owners and top executives of a construction business start to see their strategic decisions at all levels materialize.

Implicit Guidance & Control: Discussed in more detail above. The subconscious influences that affect how decisions are executed in practice. In the realm of construction management, Implicit Guidance & Control reflects the underlying assumptions, habits, and protocols that shape the implementation of decisions on-site. For example, the way a project manager directs a team or the method chosen to communicate crucial information might be heavily influenced by ingrained practices. While these can streamline actions, they also need regular review to ensure they remain effective and relevant to current project demands.

Action as a Test: Viewing each action as a method to verify the accuracy of the decisions made. Considering each action as a test allows for a feedback mechanism that evaluates the success of decisions. For instance, choosing a new method for scheduling deliveries is tested when implemented. The outcomes—whether positive, negative, or neutral—provide direct feedback on the decision’s validity and effectiveness. This testing phase is crucial for confirming hypotheses and learning from real-world applications, enabling adjustments and refinements.

Relation to Unfolding Interaction with the Environment: How actions interact dynamically with the project environment and affect subsequent stages of the OODA Loop. Actions taken during a construction project do not exist in isolation; they continuously interact with and are influenced by the surrounding environment. This can include changes in weather, unexpected delays, or varying team dynamics. Each action thus has a ripple effect, impacting the project and necessitating new observations and orientations. For example, how well a new safety protocol is adhered to during its initial rollout can immediately influence workplace safety and compliance levels, requiring quick adjustments based on observed results.

 

The philosophy behind treating Action as a Test is akin to the principles of iterative development found in agile project management. It underscores the importance of adaptability and learning, as articulated by John Dewey:

"We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience." 

This approach is essential in construction management, where conditions are often unpredictable, and the stakes are high.

By effectively managing the Action stage of the OODA Loop, construction managers can ensure that their decisions are not only strategic but also practically sound and adaptable to real-world conditions. This approach helps in building a responsive and flexible management style, crucial for achieving high performance and meeting project objectives efficiently.


 

Feedback and Feed Forward Within the OODA Loop

Feedback in the OODA Loop refers to the process of using the outcomes from the Action stage to influence and modify future Observations and Orientations. This is critical in construction management for assessing the effectiveness of strategies and actions. For example, after implementing a new workflow or technology on-site, feedback might come in the form of increased productivity metrics or feedback from the workforce. This data helps managers assess whether the changes are beneficial or if adjustments are needed.

  • Improves accuracy of perceptions: Feedback helps correct any discrepancies between what was expected and what actually occurred.
  • Enhances decision making: By continually integrating feedback, managers can make more informed decisions that are based on up-to-date and validated information.


Feed forward, unlike feedback, bypasses the loop to influence future stages directly. It involves using information from any stage of the OODA Loop to preemptively adjust strategies and actions before waiting for the loop to complete. In construction, this might involve using initial data about a delay in material delivery to immediately revise schedules and inform teams, rather than waiting for the issue to disrupt the workflow.

  • Increases responsiveness: By anticipating problems and adjusting in advance, managers can prevent issues rather than just reacting to them.
  • Enhances planning and preparation: Feed forward enables more dynamic and flexible planning, as information is used proactively to shape upcoming decisions and actions. 

Integrating feedback and feed forward effectively can significantly enhance project management in the construction industry. It aligns with principles from systems thinking, where understanding the interconnections and dynamics within project systems improves overall performance. As noted by management expert Peter Drucker,

"The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said."

This highlights the value of implicit knowledge gained through feedback and the proactive use of information in feed forward.

By harnessing both feedback and feed forward within the OODA Loop, construction managers can create a responsive and adaptive management approach. This ensures that projects are not only executed according to plan but are also continuously optimized in real-time to meet changing conditions and challenges.


 

Learning More

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Book + Interview with the Author)

Chris Hodge integrates the principles of OODA Loop, lean, and business when advising contractors from succession and governance structures through to building their project teams and integrating technology

"All relationships begin with a simple conversation." 

 

 

 



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