Category Archives: Problem Solving

The OODA Loop: Your “Lasso of Truth” for Enhanced Decision Making

What makes Wonder Woman such a fierce warrior? We can chalk it up to her royal lineage or her upbringing as the princess of the Amazons, but it really comes down to her mission-driven, strategic mindset. She is able to break down a problem, formulate a new plan, and flawless execute. Famed military strategist John Boyd believes we can do the same.

In the 1960s, Boyd developed a strategic tool called the OODA Loop—Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. This four-step decision-making process provides a systematic method for addressing uncertainty with a strategy for winning direct competitions. It does so by helping us categorize and organize the ways we think about our environment. And those who make it through all four stages the quickest, wins.

Wonder Woman is a fighter, better than most, but it’s what she fights for that is important. It’s her vision of a future of peace and acceptance that makes her the right ambassador for everyone.—Gal Gadot

Leaders are surrounded with ambiguity. When circumstances change, too often we fail to shift our outlook, instead continuing to see the world as it was. Then, when our old outlook doesn’t work, we keep trying to force it to work. To overcome this ineffective cycle, we need to adapt our outlook so we can deal with the actual reality. That is where the OODA Loop comes in.

The OODA Loop illustrates a process to help us learn, develop, and thrive in an ever-shifting environment. Let’s break down each step.

Observe

The first step in the OODA Loop is to observe. This involves absorbing new information about our environment, maintaining a strong sense of situational awareness, and remaining open to change. Intellectual curiosity is the key.

From an Amazonian warrior’s standpoint, observing is remaining in a state of relaxed alert where while there’s no specific threat, you are taking in your surroundings in both a relaxed and alert manner. For the rest of us, observation requires us to be diligently aware of internal and external opportunities and threats. To do so, we need to keep track of revenue, expenses, and profit but also industry trends, company culture, and the overall business environment.

It is not necessarily the one with more information who will come out victorious, it is the one with better judgment, the one who is better at discerning patterns.—Frans P.B. Osinga, Science, Strategy, and War

Orient

The second step is considered to be the focal point of the OODA Loop. Orientation shapes the ways we interact with, observe, react to, and behave towards our environment. Just as Wonder Woman cannot approach every adversary with the same tactical strategies, we cannot approach every situation as if they are constant. Effective orientation involves a process called destructive deduction where we shatter old paradigms so as to put them back together in a way that is more closely aligned to our current reality, i.e. creative induction.

To improve your orientation:

Start shattering and rebuilding your paradigms. The more you do it, the better you’ll be.

Never stop orienting. Deductive destruction and creative induction is not a one-time event; it is a continual process of updating outdated mindsets to fit the changing environment.

Validate new paradigms before enacting them. Utilize past experiences to determine what has worked in similar situations, study best practices, and brainstorm with the team. Then you are ready for the next two steps in the OODA Loop.

Decide

Once we’ve observed, deductively destroyed, and creatively induced, it is time to decide on the course of action. This involves moving forward with our best hypothesis about the paradigm we feel will be most beneficial. To avoid this step is to remain unfocused and aimless. To tackle it, we are indicating that we are ready for the next step.

Act

Action is how we learn whether our hypothesis is correct. If it is, Wonder Woman wins the battle and we overcome our obstacle; if it is not, we start the OODA Loop again using our newly observed knowledge.

Whether you are an Amazonian princess or a mild-mannered supervisor, we must have a clear, applicable process to cut through uncertainty so we can make quick decisions in an organized manner. The OODA Loop (or Lasso of Truth for you Wonder Woman fans) makes this typically implicit practice explicit through an easy to follow method. It’s a wonder you haven’t used it yet.

The One Way to Constructively Defuse an Argument

Constructive conflict is a healthy part of any organization. Deprived of it, we end up with a lack of innovation, status quos are not challenged, necessary questions are avoided, and there is a lethal amount of consensus. The key is how we address this conflict.

One way to face conflict is fast and furious. Like the multi-sequel movie franchise, we can follow Dom Toretto’s philosophy:

I live my life a quarter-mile at a time. Nothing else matters; not the mortgage; not the store; not my team and their bullshit. For those ten seconds or less, I’m free.

When we lead through a “quarter-mile at a time” mindset, we are likely to engage in such practical strategies as seeking compromise, utilizing empathy, avoiding blame, apologizing, and forgiving past actions. However, while these techniques can be effective, they do not work when we are in the midst of a heated argument where we feel emotionally invested. So how can we improve our ability to resolve our interpersonal conflicts?

According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, you are more likely to resolve conflict through superior reasoning strategies when you consider the situation in the long run. By distancing yourself from your current feelings, you are better equipped to unravel negative events and find resolution. Otherwise, according to another study, you are prone to ruminating, recounting, and re-experiencing the negative event indefinitely.

Still not convinced you are better off with a marathon (versus sprint) mentality? A study in Psychological Review found that imagining the future is a natural outlet to thinking more abstractly about an interpersonal conflict. Once we are able to transcend the present moment and put the negative events in context, we are less focused on recounting it and more focused on thinking about the bigger picture. And with enhanced adaptive reasoning strategies, the research reported that participants had a greater influx of positive emotions and insight.

To resolve conflicts, we need to think beyond a “quarter-mile at a time.” How will it pan out tomorrow, next week, and next year? It may not be as harrowing as a fast and furious solution, but the measure of successful leadership is not reliant on how quickly you reach the finish line.

Ozzy Osbourne on Overconfidence and the Power of “I Don’t Know”

ozzy osbourneThere’s a classic track off Ozzy Osbourne’s debut solo album Blizzard of Ozz called “I Don’t Know.” In this song, Ozzy sings of people looking to him for answers, “asking me who to follow,” “what’s the future of mankind,” and “looking to find the truth.” His simple response: “Don’t ask me, I don’t know.” You may see this as a copout from the self-proclaimed Prince of Darkness, but admitting you don’t know may lead to the most strategic decision you can make.

In a wide-spread international study of managers, consultants, academics, and students, Mark Chussil created a tournament to record how decision-makers solve a competitive-strategy problem. The contest is based on three fictitious industries that each have three competitors. The industries starts out identical (cost structure, product line, performance, etc.) and the participants are tasked with devising the most successful three-year strategy. A computer then analyzes the simulations and compares them with the other participants.

If this tournament sounds easy, consider that the number of possible outcomes in each industry is 3,201,872,665,419. In an attempt to discover successful decision making traits, Chussil has found many interesting results ranging from market adaptability to goal selection to the ability to predict outcomes. One finding I’d like to focus on is what I’m calling the Ozzy Effect, i.e. the willingness to say, “I Don’t Know.”

In Chussil’s research, he analyzed participants’ speed and processing abilities before they finalized a decision. He then split them up into three groups: 1) the I-already-knows whose confidence led towards snap judgments, 2) the Now-I-knows who felt confident after deliberating, and 3) the I-don’t-knows who made a thoughtful decision but did not feel overly assured.

Mark Chussil Strat Decision

Of the three styles, the best-performing tournament strategy was overwhelmingly the I-don’t-knows. These individuals were able to avoid the traps associated with overconfidence, including a willingness to explore all options, test multiple theories, and keep an open mind. They also took more time to make a decision and continued to search for solutions (versus trying to bolster the decision that was already made).

Before you make your next big decision, consider the Ozzy Effect. Start with an I-don’t-know mindset so you can attack the problem with a clear perspective and avoid the assumptions associated with thinking you already know. You can then communicate the new cultural expectation, differentiate the good decision-makers from the bad, and promote those on your team who display these Ozzy-fied characteristics.

Weekender: Charlie Gillingham on the Essence of Creativity

Charlie GillinghamWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a simplified algorithm of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why simplified? Because it’s the weekend!

When searching for innovative ideas, how much time do you waste in the pursuit of divine inspiration? If you are eating up valuable time (or reading this in an attempt to spark inventiveness, i.e. procrastinate), consider the wise words of Charlie Gillingham.

Charlie Gillingham is the keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist for the rock band, the Counting Crows. He also studied artificial intelligence (AI) at University of California, Berkeley and worked as a software engineer in the field of AI before becoming a full-time musician. In a recent interview, Gillingham was asked about the prospects of AI being used in composing.

People would like to believe that there’s a magical essence that makes a human being a human being and makes it different than all other things on earth. The truth is much, much more complicated. People point to creativity as something that’s somehow magical, somehow metaphysical, you know, comes from some other plane. But the essence of creativity is making choices, making guesses. These are things that machines are so good at… Anyway, people tend to think creativity’s some kind of a high bar, but it’s actually not. It’s one of many high bars.

I hope Gillingham’s comment does not minimize your romantic vision of an artist. When I read it, I was comforted with the idea that creativity is making choices. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities, or worse, the blank page. By simplifying our understanding of creativity, we can demystify the process, usurp the frustration of writer’s block, and break down the problem into alternative solutions.

So go make some choices.

Too Many Television Choices? How Leaders Can Avoid Faulty Decision Making (and a Jam-Packed DVR)

Tvs bannerI’ve really enjoyed this summer. Unlike the rest of the year, summer is the one time when I don’t feel pressure to keep my television viewing current. My DVR is not on the brink of overflow and I can leisurely catch up on programs I’ve missed without worrying that someone will spoil it. But fall is coming and with it is a whole lotta of new TV.

My issues are of my own doing. I don’t have to watch all of my shows; there is just so much good television. I both can’t keep up and I really, really want to. Therefore, to ease up on this unnecessary, leisure-time pressure, I’ve decided to remove some shows from my viewing rotation. Making this resolution is easy; keeping it is not.

There is simply too much television… [The audience] is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of shows.—John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks

How do I decide what shows to abandon? I have two that are wrapping up this year, so I can’t miss their conclusion. Three are frequently referenced at work, so I can’t cut myself out of the break room chatter. Others make me think, are reserved for family time, or are simply too good to ignore. And let’s not forget about the promising new shows coming out.

With so many shows to pick from, I don’t want to choose the wrong ones. This quandary is not uncommon. Numerous studies have concluded that we often make a bad decision when presented with too many options.

In a recent experiment, acclaimed neuroscientist Paul Glimcher asked participants to choose one candy bar amongst those offered, including their favorite, a Snickers. If offered a Snickers, an Almond Joy, and a Milky Way, the Snickers was always chosen. However, when participants were offered twenty candy bars, including Snickers, they frequently picked a candy bar other than the Snickers. This may not seem unusual except that when Glimcher removed all the choices except the selected candy and the Snickers, a significant number of participants were unsure why they chose a candy bar other than their favorite.

Malcolm Gladwell’s classic Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking discussed an overcrowded hospital Emergency Room in Chicago that had too many patients, not enough doctors, cramped space, an inadequate number of beds, and scarce resources. Finding that over thirty patients a day came in complaining of having a heart attack, the hospital conducted a study. They found that…

…extra information is more than useless. It’s harmful. It confuses the issues. What screws up doctors when they are trying to predict heart attacks is that they take too much information into account.

And in a 2004 study, Columbia Business School’s Sheena Iyengar concluded that extensive choices in retirement funds hinder purchasing decisions and decrease subsequent satisfaction with the purchased plan. Using data from 800,000 employees, Iyengar and her team found 75% participation when offered two 401k plans, but it dropped to 70% when eleven plans were offered and 61% when there were 59 plans. Then, once the employees with more options chose their plan, many opted out or chose lower-return plans.

Consumers are saying that greater choice does not always lead to a better experience.—Jonathan Hurd, Altman Vilandrie & Company Director

Thankfully, there are ways we can sift through the options to improve our decision making. Consider the following:

What’s the problem? Before getting lost in the infinite number of solutions, spend more time defining the problem. You can then concentrate on a clearer, more distinct objective.

Narrow it down. Since decision making is hampered by feeling overwhelmed from an excessive number of options, begin by removing the undesirable choices. This will minimize distractions and allow you to focus on the best decision.

Rank it. Once you have a list of the best possible solutions, make a pro/con list. Order them by favorability consult with your team, and carefully analyze the data.

Do your due diligence. Time pressures are a sure path to faulty decision making. A sense of urgency is necessary, but allow yourself time to weigh your options before committing.

Don’t let an overwhelming number of options harm your decision making. Remain vigilant of the impact this can have on you and your team. Like my clean DVR cue, maintain a clean approach to how you organize your thoughts. With a little discipline, it can be as easy as pressing delete.