The OODA Loop

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by Mike Zwingman

by Mike Zwingman

For years (literally, years) I’ve been trying to articulate to you an approach to N that involves both serious planning and great flexibility.  It makes total sense in my brain, but I don’t know that I’ve been able to convey that clarity to you all.  It turns out though that there is a process that reflects exactly this though, and unsurprisingly to me, it comes from the Air Force.

More specifically, it comes from Top Gun.

As in the coolest movie ever, yes (I’m not sorry, millennials), but more accurately from the actual school that the movie is based on.

Air Force pilot John Boyd started the efforts that eventually founded the Air Warfighter school upon his return from Korea.  Experienced in piloting experience John Boyd redefined what could be done with planes, he rewrote the laws of physics and influencing the course of US military strategy and brought us planes like the F-16s, F-18s, and A-10 Warthogs.

An author and contributor to a number of military theories, one of Boyd’s key concepts is the OODA Loop, a decision making cycle that conceptualizes flexibility within a larger plan.  It is a process utilized in high performance situations from SWAT teams interventions to the New England Patriots play calling (kind of).

The OODA Loop conceptualizes four stages of decision making: Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action.  It is a cycle that allows one to take on targets as they present while maintaining focus on your overall objective.  For those of us in agriculture, it strikes me as a way to pursue continuous improvement and a way to nail the final details of a plan that is 80% complete.

I don’t have to tell you that the situation in your fields can change in a minute.  From hail storms to droughts to sudden shifts in the markets, what things look like one day can be very different from what they look like the next.  The OODA Loop allows us to honor those changes, to roll with them, or better yet, to roll them into our overall plans as if they were part of the plans from the beginning.  Put into action:

Observation is something that we do continuously throughout the year as we monitor rainfall and temperature, inspect root development, scout for insect and disease pressures.  Imagery is observation.  Models are observation.  The NESP is observation.  Any activity that brings us information about the situation is observation, whether we’re accessing big data or crumbing a clump of soil between our fingers.

Orientation puts that information into a context.  We test the info against our experience.  We consider how it fits into our plan and into our philosophies.  We think logistically, what can we do with the information?  What might be the ROI of this decision or that?  Does the price of corn validate this action or another?

Decision emerges from the previous two steps: given what you know what do you do?  This is where your trusted advisor, your FSA or ACS specialist, can play a vital role.  This is where you commit to the plan going forward.

Action then is how you pull it off.  Let’s say you’ve decided, for example, to apply some additional N.  Action is how you do it: perhaps by fertigation or y-drops or an application of dry urea, etc.  Action is the implementation of the plan, the execution.

And then?  You loop back through the OODA Loop.

The OODA Loop allows for adjustment and forward movement.  It makes for the fastest way to the best version of your plan and supplies to you a method of organization for clear decision making to impact your operation immediately.  Armed with it, you might actually find yourself agreeing that it can be quite beautiful when things don’t go as planned.  Which would be as good for your crops as your sanity.