Need Performance Improvement? Get in the OODA Loop!

When it comes to performance improvement, it’s important to know that being wrong is ok – in fact, doing so may be a sign of effectiveness. When we were in college, we conducted experiments with a certain hypothesis or theory and drove testing to the point of confirmation – either right or wrong. We tried to control variables, eliminate bias, and conducted blind studies perhaps. When it comes to performance improvement, however, the most important thing is first realizing that your first theory or plan isn’t working and then adapting your plan or process. A good warfighting planner knows that the enemy gets a vote. So too does Mother Nature and any number of uncontrollable factors. The late and brilliant COL(Ret) John Boyd gave us the framework of Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (aka “The OODA loop).

When followed, it serves as a continuous learning continuum. Like the modern battlefield, performance improvement in the workplace is done in real settings where attitudes, culture, customer interactions, industry environment, and politics (just to name a few) are all at play. (Executives reading this may want to give their training professionals a break when human behavior changes aren’t quick enough.) Look at what has happened to the Veteran’s Administration lately. Their world is in considerable turmoil and addressing performance improvement measures at this time is likely to be a challenge. Notice in the OODA model illustration there is a nested loop within it. COL Boyd taught us this represents the “enemy’s” loop and as training planners we want to get inside the enemy’s decision cycle to outsmart them. However, let’s consider this the decision cycle of our team or employees. How might they react or are reacting to the internal or external environment around them? This analysis is the first step in using the model as training designers/planners and talent developers: Observe – what is currently going on in our external environment or what does the data tell us? Orient – what is our current thinking, behavior, and attitudes? Decide – with a new performance target in mind, what is the plan? Act – execute the plan with continuous feedback loops to each point of the OODA loop. With the OODA model in mind, you abandon your original hypothesis if expected performance or changes aren’t occurring. (Don’t stick to a planned course of action just because you sold your bosses on your first hypothesis) There’s wisdom in knowing when to adjust (the enemy gets a vote, remember). Return to the model and consider whether your data collection (Observe), mental models (Orient), plan (Decide), or execution (Act) were flawed or simply not performing up to standard. Your system of improvement can break down at any one of these points.

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