Decision-Making Lessons Directors Can Learn From Fighter Pilots

A decision cycle regime developed for fighter pilots may offer board members insights into making sound decisions quickly.

fighter pilotsBoard members rarely need the split-second decision making of fighter pilots, yet, like fighter pilots, board members must juggle multiple interdependent choices and processes with high-stakes outcomes. Board-level events arrive fast, furiously, and unpredictably. Time is always of the essence. A decision cycle regime developed for fighter pilots may offer board members insights into making sound decisions quickly.

The decision cycle is called the OODA loop, which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.  The mental model was developed by U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd (1927-1997), a celebrated fighter pilot and Pentagon strategist, whose theories have been highly influential in the military, business, sports, and litigation.

Boyd’s most well-known contribution to the science of decision-making is the OODA loop, the process by which an individual or an organization reacts to an event. Boyd’s main takeaway is that the key to victory is to be able to create situations wherein one can make appropriate decisions more quickly than one’s opponent. Boyd developed the OODA loop by observing air combat between U.S. Air Force F-86 Sabre fighter planes against Russian MiG-15s during the Korean War.

“the OODA Loop can serve as the centerpiece of the board decision-making process.”

The events that make up the loop can be described as a sequence, but Boyd experienced the four parts as an iterative loop, repeated quickly until the conflict is terminated. Here are the four steps that constitute the OODA Loop.

  1. Observe. The first step in the OODA Loop is to acquire a comprehensive picture of the situation with as much accuracy as possible. Board members know how blind they often feel when considering a decision. Usually, that blindness stems from having not too little information, but from too much. A fighter pilot must filter out extraneous noise while focusing on the most actionable and reliable information. That means considering not only the variables affecting the pilot, but also the variables impacting the opponent. In the same way, board members do well to observe not only the information likely to influence their own board and organization, but that which bears on competitors, partners, and other stakeholders.


  1. Orient. The second step is the analysis and synthesis of data to form a prevailing mental model or perspective. Many boards skip this step because the situation is considered “obvious.” But fighter pilots know from experience that skipping the orient step is risky because the main benefit of pausing here is to identify the barriers that interfere with the other parts of the process. Every individual confronting a decision faces barriers of information. Without an awareness of those barriers, the consequent choices will be unreliable. In other words, orienting is all about connecting with context supported by reality. It works to minimize seeing events through filters of stereotypes, assumptions, or confirmation bias. Including this step, rather than jumping straight to making a decision, gives fighters and edge over the competition.


  1. Decide. Ultimately, every fighter pilot, like every board member, must make a decision and live (or die) with consequences. Having gathered information and oriented itself, a board considers all the options generated by the first two steps, generates a decision tree, and then makes the best decision it can. Whenever possible, Boyd encouraged decision-makers to test their decisions to spot any flaws or limitations and then make adjustments, observing and orientating in the service of better decisions. Boyd warned against first-conclusion bias, the common preference to assume that our first ideas are the best ones.


  1. Act. The first three steps are all precursors in support of rationally acting faster than one’s opponents. Now is the time to act. Feedback quickly reveals the quality of the decision. Was the information accurate? Was the context correct? Were the best possible mental models applied? Did the decision-makers get distracted by biases? Did the opponents act as anticipated? Was execution compromised? Whatever the outcome of the action, the decision-makers quickly recycle back to the first element of the OODA Loop to iterate the process.

Whether the decision involves reorganizing, launching a new product, or making an acquisition, the OODA Loop can serve as the centerpiece of the board decision-making process.

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