Design Thinking and the OODA Loop Sketch

Design Thinking is associated with innovation. The OODA Loop sketch encapsulates ideas associated with the essence of winning and losing. There are similarities in these two approaches and several significant differences.

Design Thinking

According to Wikipedia, Design Thinking is a “formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues, with the intent of an improved future result.” Some illustrations of a process model for Design Thinking include six process phases.

A simplified process model for design thinking

A simplified process model for Design Thinking with iterative linkages between phases

Detailed process model for design thinking (Thoring & Müller, 2011)

A detailed process model for Design Thinking (based on Thoring & Müller, 2011)

The process phases are:

  • Understanding: Typically characterized by communication with other stakeholders and research. The goal is to collect existing information and become an expert.
  • Observe: Typically characterized by designers conducting interviews and observing people with a problem. The goal is to gather insight about the needs of users.
  • Point of View: Typically characterized by storytelling, clustering insights, and synthesis. The goal is to shape the perspective of each team member.
  • Ideation: Typically characterized by brainstorming, clustering ideas, and prioritizing. The goal is to generate ideas for possible solutions and then select one idea for more development.
  • Prototyping: Typically characterized by creating models, role playing, developing videos and graphics, and creating prototypes.
  • Test: Typically characterized by observing individuals interacting with prototypes. The goal is to gather feedback from users and stakeholders about the concept and the prototype.

The exclusive OR gateway (illustrated as an ‘X’ in a diamond shape) is a decision point for releasing/shipping the product to the market.

To some, a Design Thinking approach suggests that individuals can improve their potential for innovation by embracing a perspective consistent with that of the role of a designer. Alternatively, individuals without formal design training can embrace a design thinking approach as a complement to techniques associated with a master of business administration approach to management.

When employed for new product development, Design Thinking is an approach to innovation, not a guarantee. The product may be an innovation or a relatively worthless result. The market decides.

Proponents of Design Thinking include the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (D-school) at Stanford University, Roger Martin at the University of Toronto, and Tim Brown of Ideo.

OODA Loop Sketch

The OODA Loop Sketch was presented in “The Essence of Winning and Losing” briefing to the public in June of 1995 by John Boyd, a retired US Air Force Colonel. His sketch encapsulated ideas that he had developed since his time as a US Air Force fighter pilot in the late-1950s.

OODA Loop sketch

OODA Loop sketch that includes feedback, feed forward, and implicit guidance & control. Based on a 1995 sketch by John Boyd.

One OODA Cycle, which includes concurrent observation, orientation, decision, action, and unfolding interaction with environment, can occur in a moment. The duration of the OOCA cycle can be represented by the width of one group of OODA components. An OODA Loop approach involves multiple OODA cycles that enable a win.

A representation of a series of air-to-air combat maneuvers

A simplified, illustrated version of a series of air-to-combat maneuvers with corresponding OODA loops during a competitive encounter between fighter pilots (represented by BLUE and RED) plus several gunsight images. This illustration includes a representation of “getting inside an OODA loop” and the win.

Often, an OODA Loop approach is associated with warriors involved in combat. Concepts that can be employed to shape a competitive win include:

  • Discerning tactical dispositions
  • Detecting mismatches
  • Generating mismatches in time, tempo, or rhythm
  • Generating mismatches in ability
  • Novelty
  • Cheng/Ch’i
  • Shih and the node
  • Manipulating friction
  • Generating confusion for the adversary while promoting harmony within your network

Concepts, such as harmony, initiative, adaptability, Schwerpunkt, and cycle time, associated with the OODA Loop sketch can be employed by individuals or groups during projects.

Similarities of the Design Thinking Process Model and the OODA Loop Sketch

The Understand item of the Design Thinking process model is similar to the Unfolding Circumstances and Outside Information items of the OODA Loop sketch.

The Design Thinking process model and the OODA Loop sketch include Observation components.

The Point of View component with its storytelling and synthesis items in the Design Thinking process model is similar to the Orientation component with its prior experience, cultural traditions, and analyses & synthesis items of the OODA Loop sketch.

The Ideation and Prototype items of the Design Thinking process model are similar to the Decision and Action items of the OODA Loop sketch.

The Test component of the Design Thinking process model is similar to the Interaction with Environment item of the OODA Loop sketch.

The phrase Design Thinking and the pre-cursors to the OODA Loop Sketch were developed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

Contrasting the Design Thinking Process Model and the OODA Loop Sketch

Perhaps the most significant difference of these approaches involves perspective. A Design Thinking approach has biases for certain orientations and tools. It tends to be prescriptive.

An OODA Loop approach embraces wider perspectives and requisite variety.

Another difference involves durations. The process model of Design Thinking suggests that the time between “understanding” and “test” is in the range of hours to years. A Design Thinking approach could develop as one sequential progression from understand to test. When there is negative feedback, focus may be re-established on a particular item (such as ideate) and the sequence is resumed from that item.

One OODA cycle can occur in a moment. The goal of a series of OODA cycles is to enable a win.

Building and Employing Snowmobiles

Prior to presenting his OODA Loop sketch in 1995, Boyd summarized his insights about winners and losers in statements about snowmobiles.

A loser is someone — individual or group — who cannot build snowmobiles when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change; Whereas,

A winner is someone — individual or group — who can build snowmobiles, and employ them in an appropriate fashion, when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change.” (Boyd, Revelation, 1987)

The concept of a snowmobile was used as a placeholder for something valuable. Boyd’s distinction that winners “build snowmobiles, and employ them” acknowledges that winners go beyond synthesizing options. They design, engineer, assemble, and test their products. They are persistent in evaluating the interaction of people with their products.

The phrase ‘appropriate fashion‘ includes characteristics such as the product’s features and the product’s reliability. It includes communication about the product. It refers to the user’s experience.

The word ‘can‘ emphasizes factors such as timing (such as the availability of snow to test a snowmobile), technology readiness, and the current alternatives offered by competitors.

The phrase ‘when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change‘ acknowledges the need to improve qualities such as agility and adaptability.

A winner is not required to be the inventor of a product or technology. A winner is not required to be the first-to-market a product.

The interplay of building, employing, and evaluating produces innovation. Boyd concluded that a “continuing whirl of reorientation, mismatches, analyses/synthesis and the novelty” is a “conceptual spiral for… innovation.” (Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, 1992)

Innovation and Winning

Individuals that embrace a Design Thinking approach tend to pursue innovation efforts from a specific perspective and to promote a specific process. Individuals that embrace concepts encapsulated in Boyd’s OODA Loop sketch strive to win with a “variety of possibilities as well as the rapidity to implement and shift among them” (Boyd, Patterns of Conflict, #176)

In Boyd’s revelation, the capability to build and employ snowmobiles in an appropriate fashion when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change was used to recognize innovation. Therefore, individuals within a network that have this capability are innovators. Boyd’s revelation can be re-written as: An innovator is a winner — individual or network — who can build new products, and employ them in an appropriate fashion, when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change.

Additional Information

1. This post included extracts from my book “Developing Winners: Assimilating the Insights Encapsulated in Boyd’s OODA Loop 2. A humorous presentation, entitled “How to Lie with Design Thinking” by Dan Saffer quips that a Design Thinking approach relies too much on “the fun parts of design” and rearranging small pieces of paper with glue on one side. 2. Virgil D. White “received a patent (in 1917) for an attachment designed to convert a Model T into a ‘Snowmobile,’ a name coined and copyrighted by White” in 1913.

2. In 1917, Virgil D. White received a patent for “an attachment designed to convert a Model T into a ‘Snowmobile,’ a name coined and copyrighted by White” in 1913.