ITMPI InsightsProject Management

Control Your Project Using the OODA Loop

Have you heard of a tool called the OODA loop? While the tool itself was created based on military fighter pilot observations and is now often used to train law enforcement, it has applications for use in business and personal life as well. Here we will discuss the applications of the OODA loop in business, and more specifically, in managing projects.

First of all, OODA stands for this:

  1. Observe
  2. Orient
  3. Decide
  4. Act

The concept of the OODA loop was first created by US Air Force Col. John Boyd during the Korean War. We all naturally follow this loop. If you are in a confrontation, you want to interrupt, or get inside, somebody else’s loop so that, instead of following, you now lead and can react faster than they can. At that point, they are chasing you on your OODA loop terms. This technique is often taught to police officers and law enforcement. For example, if someone were to break into your house, they know what they intend to do and so their OODA loop is ahead of yours. What you want to do is somehow disrupt their loop or get inside it so that now you are the one in the lead. While this loop works well with quick reactions, it also works with longer-term decisions that need to be made. Let’s explore this.

In business, this can be used to manage projects, staff, or operations. Let’s take the example of a project that is already in process. Once a plan is in place, the project manager will monitor the progress made on the project to make sure it’s on track. That is the first stage of OODA—observe. The second stage, orient, has to do with watching the work as it progresses, listening to what is going on, analyzing the reports that are pulled, talking to stakeholders, etc. In pulling information and data from as many sources and vantage points as practical, you can determine if the project is on track and progressing as planned.

There will be variances from plan; you need to decide if they are normal or an indication of trouble. Based on this, you move to step three, which is to decide what course of action, if any, is needed. Maybe you need to add more resources to a particular piece of work to keep it on time. Maybe you need to look at options to cut cost in order to stay on budget. That’s your decision here. The next step is to act. You follow through on that decision, and then repeat the cycle to observe the impact of your decision and whether to take additional actions. By nature, this cycle repeats constantly throughout the project.

This technique can be very useful in noticing and rescuing a troubled project earlier rather than later. What we want to do is interrupt what is going on in the project and improve it.

This cyclical process may sound very familiar to experienced project managers. This is similar to the PDCA (plan-do-check-act) cycle made famous by W. Edwards Deming. The cyclical nature of these cycles is built into project management and should be done constantly to effectively and proactively manage your projects. The Six Sigma version of PDCA is called DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control). Kaizen, also called continuous improvement or “for the better,” follows this concept too. With kaizen, small improvements and corrections are constantly being made to keep a project on track or to improve existing processes.

The reason I like the OODA loop concept is because, at least for me, it adds an extra dimension to the PDCA cycle. This dimension is the thought of interrupting and getting inside the loop on the bad things that are happening on your project or within your teams. It enhances the ability to adapt more quickly by remembering that you have to interrupt the current flow of work or status quo in order to put things back on track. To do what is best, you may have to shake up your team in some way to get them out of their current rhythm or comfort area. It is also adaptive in that, on projects, the plan you go back to when you have completed a cycle may be different from the plan before the cycle was completed. This is fine, as long as the proper change control processes and sign-offs are followed.

While the PDCA cycle is obviously cyclical in nature, I have observed that it tends to be viewed more methodically, slowly, and with a longer-term attitude. That is not always true, of course, but that is how it often comes across to me in practice. The PDCA cycle is not always long-term and the OODA loop is not always short-term and quick, but when thinking of these concepts, it helps for me personally to keep them both in mind in order to properly manage my teams and initiatives both quickly and methodically.

Think about the OODA loop and how it may apply to your processes, operations, teams, or projects. How can you use this new perspective to better manage those?


Vicki Wrona will be presenting a free webinar with ITMPI on October 31! Sign up here: Surviving the Chaos of Change

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