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How to cope with panic and disorientation in your own company?

Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum and founder of Scrum Inc., is coming four times a year to Germany to give Scrum trainings for almost a week. I’m in the fortunate position to be his co-trainer for a little more than three years.

In his trainings Jeff recommends many books to read. So after each training week my book list gets longer. Since it’s vacation time I finally have some time to work off my book backlog.

“Certain To Win” by Chet Richards (/1/) and “Boyd, the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War” (/2/) are two of those books. They are about John Boyd, inventor of the OODA loop, who had tremendous influence on American military strategy. Since Jeff Sutherland is a former fighter pilot he absorbed this. The OODA loop is the underlying mindset of Scrum and the most important learning for all Scrum practitioners (/3/).

“Certain to win” compares Boyd’s findings to business strategy. I like the sharp OODA Loop description by Chet Richards:

“OODA Loop. A participant in a conflict, any conflict, may be thought of as engaging in four distinctive although not distinct activities: 
• He must observe the environment, which includes himself, his opponent, the physical, mental, and moral situation, and potential allies and opponents. 
• He must orient himself to decide what it all means. Boyd calls orientation a “many-sided, implicit cross-referencing” process involving the information observed, one’s genetic heritage, social environment, and prior experiences, and the results of analyses one conducts and synthesis that one forms 
• He must reach some type of decision. 
• He must attempt to carry out that decision. That is, he must act. 

Hence the OODA loop." (/4/) 

“You are simultaneously observing any mismatches between your conception of the world and the way the world really is, trying to reorient to a confusing and threatening situation, and attempting to come up with ideas to deal with it.” (/5/)

Seeing the OODA loop as a “simple one-dimensional cycle, where one observes what the enemy is doing, becomes oriented to the enemy action, makes a decision, and then takes an action” (/6/) is a tempting simplification and a misconception.

As Robert Coram states: “Understanding the OODA Loop is difficult. First, even though it is called a loop, it is not. […] Becoming oriented to a competitive situation means bringing to bear the cultural traditions, genetic heritage, new information, previous experiences, and analysis / synthesis process of the person doing the orienting—a complex integration that each person does differently. These human differences make the Loop unpredictable. […] The unpredictability is crucial to the success of the OODA Loop. (/7/) […] “The speed must come from a deep intuitive understanding of one’s relationship to the rapidly changing environment. […] It is this adaptability that gives the OODA Loop its awesome power. Understanding the OODA Loop enables a commander to compress time—that is, the time between observing a situation and taking an action. A commander can use this temporal discrepancy (a form of fast transient) to select the least-expected action rather than what is predicted to be the most-effective action.” (/8/)

So if a fighter pilot is able to get faster through the OODA loop than the opponent, and he manages to get inside the opponent's OODA loop, he can cause panic and disorientation in the opponent, who is likely to be shot down. (/9/)

What does that mean to business?

According to Chet Richards the business impact of a successful Boyd-style operation is “pulling the adversary apart, produce paralysis, and collapse his will to resist. […] By being more agile, you can fold your competitor in on himself. […] 

  • Your competitor’s new products are consistently late and lack your features or quality.
  • He starts blaming the customer, or insisting that his sales force “educate the customer.”
  • Personnel turnover is high.
  • He becomes even more “Theory X,” instituting rigid, explicit controls, frequently in the name of containing costs.
  • He launches witchhunts and other ever-intensifying internal searches for “the cause of the problem.” (/10/)

This struck me.

Does this mean that, if we’re concentrating more on the internal view of our company, if we encounter internal disorientation, panic and conflicts, which we typically address with more control etc., our competitor managed to get inside our OODA loop? If we react with more control and focus on internal stuff, we are likely to be shot out of business like a losing fighter pilot.

What might be a better way out of this situation? How should we react?
  1. First, we reframe the situation as a warning signal: Somebody has gotten inside our OODA loop.
  2. Second, we focus back on the Observation and Orientation parts, focusing on delighting our customers and getting feedback from them if it really is so. (/11/) In doing so we direct the attention away from the panic and internal conflicts.
  3. Third, we make this act a habit.


  • The next trainings with Jeff Sutherland in Germany will be announced here: https://www.scrum-events.de/certified-scrum-master-mit-jeff-sutherland.html. There are still seats available in September.
  • /1/ Richards, Chet. Certain to Win: the Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business. Xlibris Corporation, 2004, Kindle Edition
  • /2/ Coram, Robert. Boyd: the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, 2004.
  • /3/ http://wikispeed.org/2016/10/ooda-loop/: Joe Justice asking Jeff Sutherland, what is the most important learning for all Scrum practitioners and trainers is.
  • /4/ See /1/ Position 1095. Boyd did some publications, but shared his knowledge more in long briefings. That’s why I chose to use a description of the OODA Loop not from himself, but from Chet Richards. Here is the first mention of “observe-orient-decide-act” by John Boyd in his briefing slide: http://www.dnipogo.org/boyd/patterns_ppt.pdf (Page 128). A picture of the OODA loop is in later briefing slides on page three: http://pogoarchives.org/m/dni/john_boyd_compendium/essence_of_winning_losing.pdf
  • /5/ See /1/ Position 1146
  • /6/ See /2/ Page 334
  • /7/ See /2/ Page 334
  • /8/ See /2/ Page 335
  • /9/ “When Boyd first developed the idea, 'sensing' was used instead of 'observation'. But 'SODA Loops' didn’t pass the giggle test, as Boyd said” (from: Boyd, John R., edited and compiled by Hammond, Dr. Grant T., A Discourse on Winning and Losing, Air University Press, 2018, page 384)
  • /10/ See /1/ Position 1717
  • /11/ My favorite questions to shift the focus on the customers right now are: 
    1. What is the most important feedback we need from our customers? (Thanks to Nynke Bel, a fellow Scrum@Scale trainer.) 
    2. What difference does our product/service/company/team make in the lives of our customers? (Thanks to Spence, Roy M., It’s not what you sell, it’s what you stand for. Portfolio, 2009)
    3. What feedback do we gather to validate these assumptions? (That’s why the Scrum@Scale Trainer community put this in the Scrum@Scale guide as the first part in the feedback section ("validate our assumptions")


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