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Chet Richards and the Origin Story of The OODA Loop (Part 1 of 2)

In August of 2020, Matt Devost and Bob Gourley spoke with Chet Richards, who was a close associate of the late US Air Force Colonel John Boyd. He was there as the concept of the OODA Loop was being developed and constructed into the first graphics of the OODA Loop from sketches Boyd drew. Chet is the author of the widely read business book Certain to Win which was the first book to describe Boyd’s strategy in terms familiar to business leaders and show how the OODA Loop and associated Boyd concepts apply to today’s business problems. Chet has consulted with a number of aerospace and professional services companies and has lectured at the Air War College and the Army’s Command and General Staff College.

Colonel Boyd never wrote a business book himself, but he read and commented on every version of this book’s manuscript till his death in 1997.

In this conversation, Richards shares his early days interacting with Boyd during the formulation of his early briefs.  By the 1980s, Richards is formally collaborating with Boyd as he created the OODA Loop.  Richards also shares personal anecdotes about Boyd that may not be available in the many books written about Boyd.

“…his use of [principles from theoretical mathematics and physics] …were they analogies? Or was he…trying to use these to describe the actual physical world that we inhabit?”

Richards:   I had finished my mathematics work in 1971. I had a deferred commission from Army ROTC. It turns out by that time; the Army basically didn’t want anybody. They were withdrawing very rapidly from Vietnam. And so, what they essentially told me was I know you were planning to spend a couple of years in the Army and then look for a job, but why don’t you just go ahead and look for a job? So, I did my three months of officer basic training and in the meantime, I was scrambling around trying to find a permanent position. It was in a period of a little bit of a recession within the aerospace business again – because of the defense budget shrinking down a little.  After much prospecting, I finally got one job offer.

It was in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in Washington at the Pentagon. And it was a thing called a Management Intern Program where you rotated around through several shops in OSD, the Office of the Secretary of Defense. And then at the end of that period, one of them or more, is supposed to make you an offer and you accepted it and that would’ve been your permanent position. I got one offer and the one offer I got was from the tactical air shop, at that time it was still called the Office of Systems Analysis,  in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. And the first program that I got handed I knew anything about was a thing called The Lightweight Fighter. I also had the F-15, but it was mature by then. And the same with the F-14, F-18 – all those programs were well along within the lightweight fighter program.

It was interesting because it was a technology demonstrator at the time, the Air Force kept saying over and repeatedly, no plans for production. Nope. We’re not going to produce it, forget it, all of that. However, the people that work in OSD were very interested in having a lightweight complement to the F-15. Well, and that would’ve been in mid-1972, about September of 1972. About a year later Tom Christie took over the shop, came up from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. And he had been a co-author with this guy named John Boyd on a thing called the Energy Maneuverability Studies, which were lots and lots of hairy looking diagrams showing where if you took, for example, an F-4 and a MiG-21 – which were the two leading-edge fighters of the day for the U.S. And the Soviet Union, respectively – and you overlay these energy maneuverability diagrams on top of each other, areas where the F-4 had an advantage would show up in blue.

And of course, the MiG was in red. And by areas, I mean, things like airspeed, altitude. So, if you are at 20,000 feet and you are doing a Mach 0.7 in that range, maybe a MiG-21 would have an advantage. And the guy who had come up with all this stuff was this guy named John Boyd. I said, well, this is interesting, you know, but at this point who cares?  These airplanes have already been either put into production or the services were definitely not going to put them in production. Well, it turned out John Boyd was already at the Pentagon at that time. And I got to meet him in 1973, just before he went off to command an Air Force base in Thailand.  Tom being his co-conspirator in all of this was very, very familiar with the lightweight fighter program, had done a lot of stuff to kind of help get it going.

John wanted a mathematician who was familiar with things, particularly with Gödel’s Theorem and all graduate-level mathematicians are familiar with it. And he also wanted a mathematician who would work for free because he did not have any money to pay for it. I said [I would work with him].

So, you know what he wrote about Gödel’s Theorem was right, but the way he was using it was, shall we say, very non-mathematical. And a lot of discussions have gone on about his use of Gödel’s Theorem, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  Were they analogies? Or was he somehow trying to use these principles from theoretical mathematics and physics to describe the actual physical world that we inhabit? The answer by the way is the second question.

“I came back to the Pentagon, and in 1980 John had been retired and he was hard at work on this thing he called ‘Patterns of Conflict’. And that was the first time I saw the OODA Loop.”

Richards: In other words, he really was applying them to the world that we live in, but he was doing it in a very, very clever way. Anyway, time marches on. He had completed about four years of work on “Patterns of Conflict.” It was up at about a hundred and probably twenty charts by the end. I even have an old copy of “Patterns” from that era. It eventually grew to 185 by 1986 when we finally stamped finished on it. It is important to point out, that the way he originally used the term “OODA Loop” was not by itself, but he used the phrase “operating inside the OODA loop.” And he used it that way for a long time. In fact, with the exception of one use in his discourse. a section called “A Strategic Game of ? and ?, he always used it as “operating inside the OODA Loop” and he never defined what he meant by operating inside the OODA Loop.

He did give some hints and we can talk about that a little bit later too, but he never actually said what to operate inside the OODA loop means and then offered a definition. He just took it as prima facie as self-self-evident. It is some kind of an axiom. “Operates inside the OODA loop” just sort of meant you were somehow inside the other guy’s head. And in fact, one of the ways he has described it:   think about it as if the other guy has a fiscal headquarters and you are a fly on the wall to all the stuff that they are doing inside their headquarters.  Then you could run around the other end and figure out things to do about it before he actually was able to carry them out.

So as luck would have it, the Secretary of Defense at that time [the 1970’s] was James Schlesinger who was kind of unique in that he wasn’t a politician. He had been around analysts and a very, very quantitatively oriented guy. And Tom Christie already knew him from other things. So basically Tom and Secretary Schlesinger worked this kind of deal to put some money in the budget to fund to elect to take a lightweight fighter into production. And, the Air Force screaming and yelling. John Boyd came back from Thailand and got heavily involved in all of this. And that’s where I began to work with him [John Boyd] a little bit.

I left the Pentagon shortly after that and went on to do other things. So this was in 1974, John retired in 1975 and started to work for Tom Christie as a consultant.  I was off doing other things. I went to California to work for Northrop, then I came back to the Pentagon, and in 1980 John had been retired and he was hard at work on this thing he called “Patterns of Conflict”. And that was the first time I saw the “OODA Loop.” I did a little bit of  editing for John or a little reviewing for John on his paper, “Destruction and Creation.”

“…once [the enemy] looks inward, then things like Gödel’s Theorem, The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and The Second Law of Thermodynamics begin to take over and entropy begins to build up and [the enemy] begins to worry much more about what is going on inside than outside.”

Richards:  Another way to think about operating inside the OODA Loops is like a cat playing with a mouse.  Wherever the mouse goes, the cat is there first. And so, what it does is eventually it the mouse crazy. And if you look at how he uses a fresh expression “operating inside the OODA Loop”, it is that is to work on the other guy’s ability to make decisions, but he never actually defined OODA Loop at this point. Anyway, that was 1980 or so I went off and I went to Saudi Arabia for Northrop and came back and did some consulting. Eventually, I ended up back in the Washington DC area in the early 1980s and got into this chain with John where he would call late at night and read you his – at that time they were view d-graphs they were manually typed, then they were converted by running them through a little machine and you made transparencies and you carry the stack. You may remember all this, or you may not – stack of transparencies with you.

You had your graphs projected and you sat there and you flip d-graphs or somebody would flip for you. So anytime he wanted to make a change – he didn’t type – somebody had to sit down and type his charts for him, run them through the d-graph machine again, and add them to the deck. The deck for “Patterns of Conflict” grew to about 185 charts over time. And many of them are quite detailed as I’m sure a lot of your viewers have seen. He finished on “Patterns of Conflict” in 1986, and then he did two little satellite briefings.

Think of “Patterns of Conflict” as being the Milky Way.  These would be two little satellite galaxies on the side, sort of like the allergenic clouds. The first one that came out was called “Organic Design for Command and Control.” And the other one was “A Strategic Game for ? and ?”   “A Strategic Game” is the one where he actually talks about the “OODA Loop” per se. The two briefings are kind of similar and to be honest with you, I frequently confuse what’s in them. “Organic Design” is all about orientation. “A Strategic Game” is basically about internal and external and how to operate essentially in the external world while forcing your opponent to look inward. Whereas, as he had pointed out in his first paper, once he looks inward, then things like Gödel’s Theorem, The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and The Second Law of Thermodynamics begin to take over and entropy begins to build up and he begins to worry much more about what is going on inside than outside.

“…if you do something and it does not work, do something different. If you try something and it does work, do something different as well…do something different means generate novelty.”

Richards: And anybody that has worked for a large corporation and has been around for a long time has definitely seen that process in action after a while:  conforming with the internal laws of regulation and even mores become much more important than what you actually accomplished out in the external world. So, those were finished in 1987 and then he sort of took a little break. And then in the early 1990s, he produced charts for a briefing that he later called “Conceptual Spiral.”  It is without a doubt the least read of his briefings, but in some ways, it is the most important because in some ways it goes all the way back to “Destruction and Creation” and looks at it from a different viewpoint.  But it is the first time where he really starts talking about things that became the OODA Loop.

And he actually defines two loops in there, the science loop and the technology, and he defines them as loops. There are actually interactive processes in the middle of them:  they have this analyses and synthesis stage. And he talks about going through this loop: hypothesis testing if you are in science or maybe testing versions of your product if you are in technology and then going back and doing your analysis and synthesis again. And going through the loop again, and it is through this looping process, he says that you of course produce your product, but he said more important than that, what you really produce is you change your orientation because you are interacting with the outside world and seeing what works and what does not in your mental models, which he had first described back in “Destruction and Creation” in 1976. Your mental models get tweaked so that they start to make more accurate predictions.

If you are in science, the predictions are your hypothesis about how the world is working. And of course, if you are in technology, your hypothesis is this version of the gadget is going to fix the problems I saw in the last version of the gadget. And then you try it and you learn from the results. And so, what you are able to do, he said, “all right, that’s fine. But how does that apply to strategy?” And the way it applies to strategy is he said, “this is the way you generate novelty.” Because he had said, back in the late 1980s, the real key to winning is the ability to generate novelty in a way that your opponent cannot handle. And there are conceptually two buckets it falls into: you can take the gadget you already have now – or you can take the skill set you already have now, and you can figure out new ways to use it.

So, for example, he has a diagram of patterns of conflict, where he shows impressions of the Blitzkrieg. On, on one side, it has one jagged arrow. On the other side, he has two jagged arrows. And he says what one of these German Blitzkrieg Generals has suggested to him. And here is the interesting thing. He said, “okay, if you do it like this, and it works the next time, do not do it the same way because you are alerting and you are also training your opponent too. And so, the two on the other side is supposed to represent the fact that the next time you do it, do something different. So, he said, if you do something and it does not work, do something different. If you try something and it does work, do something different, and do something different means generate novelty.

“The OODA Loop is really very clever because it takes those two processes: using what you already have and generating that kind of novelty – coming up with new ways – and puts them all together in the same diagram. So you can see them all working at the same time.”

Richards:  And “Conceptual Spiral” is essentially about how you generate novelty. And it covers both new ways to use what you already have, but also coming up with something that you did not have before. oddly enough, it does not include how you actually use it if you’ve – and I am sure we all have – if you think back at a time when a younger group of people tried something new and even though you may know the people very well if it is new enough, the first few times you use it, it is very chaotic. People are not exactly sure what you mean. Not exactly sure what their role in it is. Not exactly sure what doing it well means, all those kinds of things. And so, we know that there is a period of time when you have to essentially shake everything out.

And he had actually talked about that, both in “Patterns of Conflict” and in “Organic Design”, talk about the need of generating the new. He talked about a “common outlook” or “similar implicit orientation” or a phrase, “common mind, time-space scheme”. That is a nice one for you, is it not? It is all in how you take your novelty, and you actually then are able to use it out in the real world. And he said, what you need is you need to practice it enough so that most of the time people know what to do. And so all you need to do explicitly is tweak it a little bit, which you can often do by just showing up at the point where you could have the most influence and just being there or pointing things out or slapping people on the back as they do it – all kinds of things like that – to give them little signals that, yeah, this is, this is kind of what the right way to do it, or no, this is not exactly the right way to do it sort of thing, but it is just very very minor tweaks.

He put those two together. He took the loop from “Conceptual Spiral.” He took this idea that if you go through the loop enough your orientation changes. . You do it with people together enough, your common implicit orientation or your common outlook changes. So that most of the time, the control of your actions is done implicitly.  When you marry those two things together, the implicit feed from orientation to action and the learning loop from “Conceptual Spiral” and you metal those two together at Orientation, what you get is the “OODA Loop”, which you put in quotes. And it is really very, very, very clever because it takes those two processes: using what you already have and generating that kind of novelty, coming up with new ways, and puts them all together in the same diagram. So you can see them all working at the same time.

“Boyd said, ‘Make all the lines inside orientation solid.’ And of course, about a year after he did the last one, he died.  So that’s kind of how I got involved and that is the story of the birth of the OODA Loop.”

Richards:  So, you can see them all working at the same time.  That is my introductory to where the OODA Loop came from. And I got involved heavily in “Conceptual Spiral.” You know: “Write this down, write this down below. What do you think about this? Write this down right now. That is neat.  Write this now.”  Well, and that went on for hours. And then the very last thing he did in 1996, he started in 1995, was I got this envelope from him, and I don’t remember, it was just a piece of paper with a sketch on it but we always like to say it was a napkin from the bar at the Fort Myer Oak Club where every Wednesday evening they would sit down.  It was a note saying “Can you make a chart out of this for me?” 

And it was the beginnings of what became that OODA Loop sketch. And we spent a lot of time on it. For example, some of the lines have been dashed. Some of them have been solid. Some of them are bigger than others. He wanted to kind of show what goes on inside orientation. It was not so much inside orientation, but what shapes orientation? Why does my mental model work differently than yours? For example, it is a function of a bunch of things. Some of it may be genetic in the sense of, you know – our brains are different. Some of it is clearly the set of experiences that we have had so far. Some of it is what is going on right around us. Now, some of it is the analyses that we do in other words, how we are breaking these problems down.  

And then the synthesis, which is the prediction that your model is making going forward that is going to guide your actions. The idea here, being that your action is the action that your orientation is predicting is the one that you want to do – which he defined in “Patterns of Conflict” as generally being – in a conflict situation – the one that is least expected. And anything else that you think affects your ability to make mental models and assess the result that goes into that orientation block. And we had a lot of stuff back on which ones should be solid, which ones should be a double-headed arrow, single head air. Finally, he gives that, makes everything solid in a headed arrow, and leaves it at that state back then, the question was, for example, can you change your genetic makeup? 

And there had been this thing. Remember back in the Soviet Union in the Thirties, a [Soviet] scientist, [Trofim] Lysenko, who said, you can make “The New Soviet Man” by training. And after a while, it will get into their DNA. We did not know about DNA then, but it would get into their genes and – Wala! – A new Soviet man. Of course, Stalin loved that. It was widely discredited in the West. So, Boyd did not want to act like he was a “Lysenko-ist” by any means, on the other hand, ideas like neuroplasticity were beginning to come out – the idea that the brain can change itself because of what is going on in your surroundings. And then long after Boyd died [in 1997], the field of Epigenetics is – O.K.:  your DNA does not change, but the way the DNA is expressed certainly can change because of your experiences. 

And some of that can be inherited, oddly enough. So, Lysenko may not have been right, but the basic idea that some of the stuff that goes on around you today can in fact flow to your offspring, there may be more to that than was accepted in Boyd’s day. So because of all that, Boyd said, make all the lines inside orientation solid. And of course, about a year after he did the last one, he died.  So that’s kind of how I got involved and that is the story of the birth of the OODA Loop.  

“Every now and then he would come out and say ‘Well, Tiger that was a good one. You got inside my OODA Loop Tiger!’ It did not happen very often, but every time it was nice to get kudos from John.”

Devost: It is kind of a novelty question, but John Boyd is well-studied, multiple books have been written. Is there a nugget of truth about him or an insight about him that is not well-known out there in the public domain?

Richards: [Robert] Coram put so much into his book [Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War] there was hardly anything left. There has been some question about whether he exaggerated in that book. I can assure you, everything in that book was checked and double-checked and any time anyone avoided telling him something, he would try to find another one of Boyd’s people to verify it or correct it. So there is really very little about John Boyd that I can tell you that is not in the book. With one possible exception: he would call and I was not at home a lot on the weekends and I would not always be available. One of the kids would sometimes answer the phone and despite this big gruff fighter pilot, Anthony Quinn type, you know, exterior that he put out – a Tywin Lannister type exterior -he would talk with the kids: “Hey, how are you doing? How are you doing in school? How are you doing in math? Tell me about what math you are doing? What are you doing in math now? What are you studying in your science classes?”

He would sit and talk with them until either I became available or at some point “Well, ask your dad to give me a callback.” And so, my kids, in some sense, probably knew Boyd at least as well as I did. I thought that was kind of funny that he really got along very, very well with the kids, something that I would not have predicted ordinarily. So, I can pass that along to you. He could be very aggressive in debates, but he never took it personally.

As long as you could hold up your end of the argument. You know, he didn’t mind talking with you, and every now and then he’d come out and say “Well, Tiger: that was a good one. You got inside my OODA Loop Tiger!” It did not happen very often, but every time it was nice to get kudos from John. He was a unique kind of character for all the reasons that we have talked about. Just as well for the rest of the world that he did not make general because he would never have had the ability or the time to have done his other stuff if he had been wrapped up in the political environment that Air Force generals at the Pentagon live in. From that point, that was probably good. Although ’til the day he died it kind of irritated him. But it was for the best.

Watch or Listen to the Full Interviews:

OODAcast: Chet Richards on John Boyd and applying OODA principles to the business world

Related Resources:

Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business by Chet Richards

Chet’s Blog – Slightly East of New

Other recent OODAcast thematic posts 

Ellen McCarthy and Kathy and Randy Pherson on Intelligent Leadership and Critical Thinking

Richer and Becker on Domestic Terrorism, Cyber, China, Iran, Russia, and Decision-Making

Omand and Medina on Disinformation, Cognitive Bias, Cognitive Traps and Decision-making

Clapper and Ashley on Joint Ops/Intel Operations, Decision-making, the History and Future of Intelligence and Cyber Threats

OODAcast 9/11 Perspectives 

Decision-Making Inside the CIA Counterterrorism Center Before, During, and After 9/11

A CIA Officer and Delta Force Operator Share Perspectives on 9/11

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.