Enemies in the Mind

Ours was a competitive family.  I had an older sister by four years, and an older brother by three years – which naturally meant that theirs was a coalition force against the newcomer. Everything was a race, a contest of strength or of endurance. My own secret weapon in the face of so much strength and speed was tenacity.  I could hold on!

In business-think, the relationship we have with our competitors is primary. Consider the Positioning Statement, a staple of basic marketing:

  • who you are
  • what business you’re in
  • for whom (what people do you serve)
  • what’s needed by the market you serve
  • against whom do you compete
  • what’s different about your business
  • what unique benefit is derived from your product or services?

It must be simple if you own a grocery store, and you know that your customers can choose between you or the grocer down the street – or if you sell cola, and heh, it’s you, Pepsi, and RC. There would be no doubt about it, you have competitors, and the exercise of thinking through your differentiation would be somewhat simple.

For over 10 years I owned and operated a web development company. In almost every case, our clients or potential clients had a variety of options to choose from – and none were the same as the next client.  In other words, ours was not a closed system. Our clients were often in New York City or New Jersey, or even somewhere else in the country altogether. Our favorite line, something that we had borrowed from some sales book, was that our biggest competitor was the status quo.

Sometimes we really were going up against another firm. Sometimes it was the internal IT team, and yes, sometimes, it was for the customer to simply leave things as they were.  So what we had was not a particular company that we could pin up on the wall and subject to dart-throwing as much as we had patterns of competition.

In the online marketing business, it is pretty much the same. When I think of competitors, I think of firms that are so much larger than DragonSearch. It’s fun to think of ourselves going up against Razorfish, Edelman Group, Ogilvy, or Wieden + Kennedy. We look to those companies for new approaches, both in execution and communication. But the reality is that I don’t think anyone in one of those firms is worrying.

This also means that people in different online marketing firms can be friends, and learn from one another. It’s would probably require a stretch of the imagination to consider someone from Pepsi’s marketing team having  lunch with someone from Coca-Cola’s marketing team, after all, these great companies are in direct competition. But when the pool is so large, with so many different firms swimming around, the same danger doesn’t exist. We can have lunch.

In that spirit, I received a wonderful book recommendation from Rhea Drysdale of Outspoken Media, “John Boyd, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War” by Robert Coram. For me, there were two significant aspects to the biography: the story of an irascible Air Force officer – a character type that I had the pleasure of being with many times in my life, and the concept that Boyd developed, “OODA”. Rhea, herself, wrote a terrific blog post about OODA Loops and SEO that is one of the most thoughtful SEO blog posts I’ve read in a while.

“OODA” is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. This is pretty similar to other processes, such as webWAVE’s Discover, Design, Implement, Launch, or the Rational planning model which includes realizing a problem, establishing and evaluating planning criteria, creating alternatives, implementing alternatives, and monitoring progress of the alternatives. I’m sensing a lot of underlying thinking that I want to pursue with Boyd’s model, but so far, the ideas seem obvious, and not earth-shaking as applied to online marketing.  Perhaps there is something I’m not getting, yet.

Chet Richards, a Boyd “acolyte” (the word used in the biography) has gone on to author a book of his own, “Certain to Win”, and a website chock full of thoughtful articles. In one passage, Richards discusses OODA as applied to business:

In business, the idea is not so much to confuse competitors, although that is always satisfying, but to get customers to buy whatever it is that you’re selling.  Competitors are hostile and sometimes agile features of the environment, but “defeating” them is not the main idea.  It turns out, though, that OODA loops can shape customer desires just like they shape opponents  in war.  Companies that operate “inside their competitors’ and customers’ OODA loops” typically turn customers into fanatical loyalists

This line of thought is interesting.  What if my competition isn’t another online marketing company or status quo in particular, but whatever opposition the potential client has to hiring us? If that is indeed our opponent, then that opponent is terribly adept at shape-shifting, like a black-clad enemy in the jungles of Viet Nam.  I’ve wondered before if the application of martial philosophy to marketing was misplaced, but perhaps there is something to this line.

Boyd wrote, “in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries”. That would suggest that if our opponent is a mental construct, then we must be faster and more agile than that construct!  We must be prepared, as we’re entering into being considered, to move quickly, and overpower the… well, mental construct that might be developed in opposition to our being chosen.

We often go into situations where we’re being considered with a pitch, often in response to an RFP, or perhaps the potential client is searching for an online marketing service provider.  OODA suggests to me that we should develop our approach for any particular client in more depth, and be prepared to go in and quickly, within the OODA of our opposition (again, whatever opposition the potential client has to hiring us) outmaneuver that opposition.

Confronting opposition is a component of sales philosophy from way back.  OODA might suggest that we not confront opposition head-on, but preempt it with faster and a more comprehensive communication.

I’m not sure, here. This whole line of thought could use some more thought. Is it too simplistic, or is there something to this? This is probably in the spirit of Colonel Boyd, himself. According to his biographer, Boyd didn’t like to publish his work, as he was constantly reworking and rethinking. I’d love to hear your ideas and feedback.

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6 comments on “Enemies in the Mind

Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu


For me a lot of Boyd’s OODA loop ideas become more clear when I think about where they came from. The “getting inside your opponent’s loop” came from his experiences of being a fighter pilot, as you know. When tracking a fighter jet for a kill (or even being tracked – Boyd was known for a spectacular reversal) you are constantly responding to evasions, feints and time pressures. The “loop” is the ability to read and react to the scenario, both faster and more coherently. When you get “inside” another’s loop, you begin dictating their reactions. They can never quite catch up to your own actions, awareness literally breaks down, and then the kill is executed in simplified style.Thinking about the real world origins of his theories, at least for me, allows me to see the sense of it.

Ric, I completely agree that something about the OODA loop seems way too simplistic, or least sounds not as revolutionary as some like to paint it. But there are some very subtle differences that are really eye-opening. Part of it is the role that is given to technology and organization themselves. It is not just the ideas we hold about others (enemies, etc) or strategy, but also the real world ways through which we perceive them, the circuits of time and decision making that retard and condition our ability to interact – whether they be the instrumentation, canopy or turning radius of a fighter jet, or the data gathering and in-person conferences of a business. This is what is original in Boyd I think. He sees no absolute divisions between the human, technology and social organization. The loops between an organism/organization and its environment have very specific and concrete structures. To make a quick leap into a small example: it is precisely for this reason that something like SEO has incredible affinity with OODA. SEO data and website change feedback are perceptive loops between a site and its audience, or between a site and Google bots. Therefore a website and it’s SEO apparatus become the organs of perception for a business.

There is a lot that can be talked about here, I’ll just skip ahead to the main idea I had when reading your thoughts on martial metaphors in business. What happens when you get inside someone’s OODA loop (whether it be an enemy on the battlefield, or a customer resisting purchase, or a potential client), if you take the OODA loop to its conclusion, is a dissolve ultimately of pure notions of opposition. When you are inside someone’s OODA’s loop they are in a way in “agreement’ with you, they are an extension of you, an expression of you. Their actions are causally explained by your actions (in the ideal sense). The reason why an opponent whose loop has been invaded loses is because they lose the cognitive ability to oppose. This is quite similar to agreement itself.

I prefer to think of OODA loop invasion as tempo-setting (Boyd emphasizes tempo a lot, something that others think has been overstated). Aspects of confusion or disorientation work to unhinge an opponent’s tempo (sense of feedback), but this correspondingly is followed by the introduction of your own tempo. Once you are on the same tempo, and this tempo has been dictated by you, defeat or lasting agreement stand as forks in the road. What is subtle is that there are of course gradations of this to every degree. When we find agreement with someone, it is not because we have been faced with complete disorientation. But, when we purchase something, or decide to hire someone, we do experience a consonance, a resonance between then or it, and our own orientation with the world.

I think this aspect of agreement production has been often over-looked by those who love Boyd, probably because so many of the contexts of his theory are about the defeat of an enemy. But if you look at the philosophical sources of his approach what one sees is that theories of agreement and lack of direct conflict actually condition everything he is saying. I think you really bring this out in your thoughts about customers or clients being OODA loop bound.

I wish I could say more because your post raises terrific questions and points to great answers. The best for now. Thanks for the great post.


    Ric Dragon

    Interestingly, I picked up a few used books down the street today, and one, “Adventures in Merchandising” by Lionel Moses (1951) has a chapter on sales objectivity: “The question for a salesman to ask himself – BEFORE he makes a call – is not, ‘how good is my proposition for this customer?’ The right question is, ‘if I were this customer, what would make me want to place an order for this merchandise today?’ – or ‘what would make me want to give special support to this promotion?’ The idea of being in sympathy with the customer has probably been around since before Wanamaker.

    “A dissolve ultimately of pure notions of opposition. When you are inside someone’s OODA’s loop they are in a way in ‘agreement’ with you,”. Boyd would often gloat about “hosing” an enemy, especially if that enemy was a Pentagon general. He wanted to SMASH the enemy. Which IS the martial concept, yes?
    Your idea of “tempo” might be even cooler (like ‘neat-o’ cool) than OODA! A vision of tai-chi comes to the eyes.
    Sometimes, process thinking can seem terribly obvious. If a process-map of a typical process is made, there are those ridiculously small steps that are in actuality taken in a blink of an eye. “Am I hungry, YES/NO? – IF YES, Make Dinner”. But these mappings can still be valuable in THINKING about the larger process. But really, I’m still looking for the thinking in OODA that’s going to blow my mind.
    Cisco’s John Chambers used to talk about Web2.0 as a move from “command and control” to enabling collaboration and teamwork (I’ve got a strong feeling that Chambers is a fan of Boyd’s – just Google “OODA + Cisco”) – and in that sense, there certainly is an alignment between Social and OODA. Is it possible that it’s nothing more than, “respond quickly”?
    Kevin; always appreciate your thoughtful commentary. Hope we’re able to enjoy some commensality sometime!

      Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

      Ric, thanks for the good thoughts.

      Boyd was credited with bringing to the military a huge change in how units were to be deployed (or at least Boyd influence was). Units were to be autonomous, self-directly, highly informed (tech) entities. It lead to progress, but the inclusion of technology “top site” also eventually gave higher ups the ability to then re-orchestrate these units in Top Down command and control, slowing the revolution, turning units into pawns again. This struggle with Top Down thinking I read about in a book you might like: The Scientific Way of Warfare by Antoine Bousquet. I blogged about it some in a past life here: http://bit.ly/i2SN1U

      I completely agree that I am seeing a potential in Boyd’s philosophical ground work something he did not expand on. This comes from my background in Spinoza. Boyd was very interesting in the moment of disintegration for the enemy. The entire means of effective engagement was about not using raw, unfocused power, but rather pin-pointing nodes of connection, centers of distribution, and disabling them. His OODA loop theory is just a cognitive theory variation on this. He examined the entire timeline of warfare hunting for examples of enemy dis-coordination, and it is not too far from the kung-fu movie stereotype of “tai chi” master to quickly touches all your nerve points and disables you. Indeed Boyd brought a strong “Smash!” energy, but it is was not brute smashing. it was the effortless disintegration of the enemy, where they could not even respond.

      But if you follow this through, of course there is a deep connection between such a capacity and the capacities that help us find agreement. As the Tai Chi master or the Daoist master would let us know. This is very undeveloped in Boyd theorizing. But the fork in the road is there every time we get inside someone’s OODA loop. We can steer it towards agreement, or destruction.

      In the business of persuasion – and the Ancient Greeks saw the goddess of Persuasion as a powerful, invasive goddess – when we are selling things to people, or getting everyone on the same page in a project, it is the less destructive fork that we want to pursue once we get inside another’s loop. That is how trust is built.

      I DO think – and here is another twist in the Boyd saga – that “respond quickly” is another oversimplification of what Boyd is saying. Part of that is because Boyd often oversimplified and left no comprehensive text of his thinking. And part of it is that the rate of looping IS extremely important in the origins of his OODA concept. In Jet fights how fast and coherently you process what is happening can be the factor that will produce victory. But OODA is much more than that.

      Look at his large graph of the loop: http://bit.ly/lAnPs1 and see the pentagram of factors that make up someone’s “Orient”. If there is a misalignment in any of those (either you are blind to your own, or those of your opponent), it can not matter how fast you are going through your loops, you will be heading towards error unless it is dealt with. If you don’t understand a Japanese businessman’s attitude towards personal gifts, trying to get inside his OODA loop can result in disaster. Being able to speed through your own loop you would see that something is wrong and that you have to reassess something, compensate for something, but until you understand your own biases, and that of your “opponent” that speed only delays a bad end.

      It is – and I’m sure you see this – a kind of “processor speed” but one in which the software can adapt and rewrite itself, and also in the long run also replace it’s own hardware with more sensitive and adaptable means of perception.

      Thanks for the opportunity to discuss these very interesting issues. I honestly don’t see them as just pipe-smoking discussions in the abstract. They are, as John Boyd would tell us, the most practical and result producing things you can pay attention to.

      Very interested in your thoughts.


    Ric Dragon

    I was giving this some thought.

    I’ve got a funny feeling that a lot of business thinkers have glommed onto the idea of “OODA” because it’s a quick and easy concept, but that he real value in Boyd’s work, at least as it might pertain to marketing, lies not in that, but in the whole kit-and-caboodle. The OODA loop is valuable in that it reminds us that in creating a larger campaign, we benefit from keeping the work open, and not closed.

    So instead of a big marketing campaign, where you depend on the BIG CONCEPT, you play out a more agile campaign that can switch directions on any given day. In order to do that, you’d have to be keeping your eye on the big objective. Alignment of the team vis-à-vis big vision is also important in making that happen.

    Grokking continues…

      Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

      I completely agree on your general digestion of the OODA. It is the way that SEO and social media pulse taking creates much more sensitive micro campaigns, keyword strategies, many fine-meshed adjustments (and also experiments) that shows how divergent it is from the big Madison Avenue model of a campaign. Boyd’s OODA is all about that. Small units moving with great local awareness with a conception of larger objectives. This also is what I was trying to say in my own post on OODA http://bit.ly/iN5TKu but perhaps less effectively than you here. A business wants to be able to “read” the environment sensitively in all the important sectors so that it can react as an organism might. Previously, in past generations of marketing, this was much less possible. The Big Idea, the ultimate slogan or pitch man was what it was about. These still of course are great and can also take advantage of social media dissemination platforms, but now mid-Google and Social Media businesses can also *feel* where they are at. The contemporary new military analogy seems somewhat apt.

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