Tactical Thinking

The OODA Loop Is The Best Decision-Making Tactic You're Not Using

Want to make more informed decisions? Think like a fighter pilot.

Originally Published: 
Fatherly; Getty Images

A parent’s job boils down to making decisions. A lot of decisions. Big. Small. Medium-sized. What should we have for dinner? Is this the right daycare? Where should we live? What skills should we prioritize? A survey showed that parents make 1,750 tough choices in their baby’s first year, from choosing a name to locking in the right pediatrician.

That’s the gig. But certain choices aren’t that clear and basic decision-making strategies aren’t always that helpful. Make a list of pros and cons? Doesn’t seem to work. Go with your gut? Don’t always trust it. Here’s another approach: Learn to think like a fighter pilot and adopt the OODA Loop framework for decision making.

The loop was created by United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd in the 1970s to help fighter pilots filter facts and make better decisions. An acronym, OODA stands for: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Broken down, it looks like this:

  • Observe: Take in data and information about what you’re about to do
  • Orient: Check that the information squares with what the environment is actually presenting
  • Decide: Choose what you’re going to do
  • Act: Move forward

While helpful in the air, the OODA Loop is as applicable to everyday situations because it’s more of a mindset than a set prescription. “It allows you to break down the process and be intentional,” says Douglas R. Lindsay, a leadership consultant, behavioral scientist, and retired United States Air Force lieutenant colonel.

The OODA Loop also forces you to learn and review what you’ve done. Once new information is received, you must cycle through the loop again. It’s not a static process because there’s never only one choice to make.

“Most things you get a redo,” says Kim “KC” Campbell, executive coach, retired USAF fighter pilot, and author of Flying in the Face of Fear. In other words, even if it feels like you “failed,” rarely is anything that final.

But you have to take advantage of that opportunity. It’s easy to miss elements in the loop, and no one will necessarily stop you. Using the OODA Loop correctly requires slowing down, accepting the imperfect, and knowing where your blind spots are.

Letting The Loop Do Its Thing

The system is called the OODA Loop for a reason. It’s not do this, then that, done. It’s a continuous process, with the intent of making better, faster, more informed decisions, so your “opponent” has to react to your pace.

It’s called “getting in their loop,” explains Scott Campell, executive coach, retired USAF fighter pilot, and Kim’s husband.

But there are places that can trip people up. One common one is the orienting part. People will take in their information, then rush the decision. Assumptions, biases, and personal history come into play. You think, I’ve seen this situation before, and so your choice becomes cut and paste.

The reality is that you might have seen something like this situation before, and that experience can help, but you can’t rule out something being different. It might be the same car ride home with the same quiet kid, but today, it might be that a fire alarm made them miss their favorite class. Or it’s the soccer team that you just beat, but their star play might be back and your team is too cocky.

The remedy can be as simple as asking, “What could be different right now?” It could involve conferring with someone who might have an insight. In a plane, Scott Campbell trains pilots to literally “touch the clock” that’s in the cockpit. It’s all with the same goal: to pause — even a second is long enough — and not zero in on the flashing light but scan the entire landscape. As Campell says, there might be an engine failure, but you need to realize that the plane is still flying.

“Let the impulse spin around in a holding pattern for a couple of seconds before you execute,” he says.

Making Your Move

The other problem spot in the OODA Loop is acting, or more precisely not acting. People wait, hesitate, pause indefinitely because of fear or anxiety. What can help is setting a specific goal of, I’m going to ask one question per meeting. You might also want to tell someone what you’re looking to do. That outside pressure is essential since you can’t purely think your way into the change.

“Deciding is cognitive,” Lindsay says. “Acting is behavioral.”

With your “forcing function” in place, you’ll focus more on the opportunities to act and start taking them. Getting the question, “So what happened?” on the back end from your mentor or friend also doesn’t hurt.

The hesitancy to act can also stem from the deciding phase – remember it’s a loop – and takes the form of endlessly gathering information, because you believe if you just asked more people or waited a little longer, the answer will become obvious. The problem? There will never be all the information. It goes for parents. It goes for fighter pilots. Realizing imperfection is the best you’ll get can nudge you over the hump.

“An 80 percent solution now is better than a 95 percent solution too late and the 100 percent solution that doesn’t exist,” says Scott Campbell.

And if it’s wrong? You can correct it. “There will be a next time,” Lindsay says, which could be in five seconds. Learning and adjusting is embedded in the loop, but Scott Campbell tweaks the words to: Observe. Predict. Maneuver. Assess. He especially likes this switch because it places assessment front and center. Once you act, you have to go back and review how that decision went, so the next time, you can make a more informed choice.

Getting A Second Opinion

The OODA loop will be compromised by your shortcomings. You don’t see certain details in a situation because of your history. You may lack success and have low confidence. This could make you not pay attention, because What’s the use?, and so you’re already out of the game.

“People get stopped at the start,” Lindsay says.

The challenge is it’s hard to know your blind spots, which is why second opinions are so crucial. It could be coworkers or friends who will look at the same situation, the same set of data, and bring a different perspective and experience. You’re still the one to make the call but the assessment becomes more robust.

Your spouse should also offer feedback. That person knows that you react too quickly or equivocate too much. They can be a sounding board or the kick in the butt to get as complete a picture as possible; take some action; and then go over what worked, what should never be done again, and what could be improved.

“They can encourage you and push you,” Kim Campbell says. “They can be that honest broker and provide that feedback when you need it.”

In other words? The OODA Loop works best with a wingman. How fitting.

This article was originally published on