John Boyd’s Strategy Applied to Business and War

John Boyd is arguably one of the most important strategists of the 20th century, yet he remains relatively unknown outside military circles. And this is a shame; many of Boyd’s ideas and theories on strategy are not just applicable to the military but can also be applied much more broadly.

This holds true especially in business, since there are many parallels between military strategy and business strategy. Sure, nobody is being killed as a result of business strategy (or at least that should not the main aim!), but both:

  • Are based on conflict
  • Have multiple competitors, powers, or ‘armies’
  • Achieve success through internal readiness (organization, morale, focus, manpower, financial means, supply lines, et cetera)
  • Experience a fog of war; no one can see what the other party is doing or thinking
  • Aim to reach a goal or conquer an objective. This could be a strategic geographical position, or a position in the market place or in the customers’ hearts. 

This is why – with some adaption – Boyd’s military strategy can also be translated into a business context. Chet Richards has started to do exactly that in Certain to Win (see notes on the book here), but beyond that there is not much else. In this article the main principles from Boyd’s strategy are described and applied both to warfare and business.

Who was John Boyd?

But first: who was John Boyd? If you’ve ever heard of him it is most likely due to the decision making framework he developed, the OODA loop (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act). Although the OODA loop is usually oversimplified (and so not really properly understood), it can provide insight into winning conflicts, learning, and dealing with uncertainty. Rather than seeing it as a simple four-step process it’s important to understand there is an entire philosophy behind the loop which forms part of Boyd’s overall strategic theory discussed below.

Coming back to Boyd himself. He started his military career as a fighter pilot and was dubbed “forty-second Boyd” since he could defeat any opponent in forty seconds or less. The tactics that he developed for dog-fighting eventually became adopted by the military through a manifesto called Aerial Attack Study.

Besides aerial tactics, Boyd also thought more broadly about aerial combat. Eventually he became one of the creators of the Energy-Maneuverability Theory in which he, based on his experience as a fighter pilot and his time as an instructor, modeled an aircraft’s performance in air-to-air combat. This theory allowed for a direct comparison between the fighting capabilities of different aircraft and could predict which one was most likely to win a dogfight. Subsequently this also played a large role in the development of the F-15 and F-16.

Picture of John Boyd in a flight suit during the Korean war.
John Boyd in the Korean War

However it was only after his official retirement from the Air Force that Boyd started working on an overarching theory of military strategy. This he did by studying not just military history, but also philosophy, science, psychology, and others fields. While he never wrote a book or paper on the conclusions of this study, he did repeatedly present them in a number of briefings. 1

The result of this study was not just the development of the OODA loop, but also a more general theory on maneuver warfare that he called ‘Patterns of Conflict’.

At the time when he was giving these briefings most militaries still believed that the army with the biggest firepower wins, and that the way to do that was through frontal attacks. Attrition warfare, as this was called, was the way to win battles. However, Vietnam made it very clear that a new doctrine was needed.

What Boyd presented – his views on maneuver warfare – was based on a synthesis of thousands of years of history. This was exactly what was needed for a new military doctrine. Just one example of the success of his thinking, is the fact that he is credited with the devastating Gulf War strategy:

“Everything successful about the Gulf War is a direct reflection of Boyd’s ‘Patterns of Conflict’ – multiple thrusts and deception operations that created ambiguity and caused the enemy to surrender by the thousands. America (and the coalition forces) won without resorting to a prolonged ground war. America not only picked when and where it would fight, but also when and where it would not fight. Coalition forces operated at a much higher tempo than the enemy. The resulting crises happened so fast that opposing forces could not keep pace with them. The one hundred hour ground war blitz against Iraq is a splendid example of maneuver warfare, a first rate instance of cheng/ch’i, the conventional and the unconventional, all done so quickly the enemy was disorientated and collapsed from within.” 2

Boyd’s insights on maneuver warfare

Maneuver warfare is based on speed, disruption, surprise, disorientation, and the incapacitation of the enemy’s decision-making capabilities.

This is completely different than the opposite of maneuver warfare, attrition warfare. Here the focus is on wearing down (or “grinding down”) the enemy by head-first assaults – which generally means that attrition wars are won by the party with the most resources and manpower. It also implies that the army has a rigid organizational structure, little flexibility, and doesn’t leave a lot of room for creative tactics on the ground. It’s all about mass movements directed from high up in the organization.

Examples of attrition war include World War I, with the endless network of trenches and frontal assaults, but also the later Napoleonic wars, and more recently the Syrian Civil War.

Picture of trench networks in World War I, between Loos and Hulluch July 1917.
Aerial view of the different trench lines in Artois during WWI.

Historically speaking, maneuver warfare was often used by smaller, more cohesive, flexible groups with loose organizational structures. These groups avoided frontal assaults and rigid plans, and instead used strength against weakness wherever they encountered it.

Examples include Sun Tzu’s vision of the ideal commander who wins while avoiding battle, Sherman’s devastating march through Georgia in the American Civil War, and Lawrence of Arabia striking somewhere and withdrawing into the desert. It’s also the German Blitzkrieg strategy, overwhelming the Dutch, Belgian and French armies in just a few weeks. Finally, it includes as well the practitioners of guerrilla warfare, who avoid strong points and strike unexpectedly.

In short, you could say that maneuver warfare is strategically about the use of movement, surprise and deception and exploiting weakness, and tactically it’s about cutting off strong points, having decentralized command, and using the freedom to be creative and flexible on the ground.

General principles

The key point of maneuver warfare and Boyd’s strategy is to disrupt the enemy’s decision making capabilities and render the enemies’ forces useless. There are a few general principles that lead to that:

Disorientation

This is what you want the enemy’s forces to feel and experience. If you can disorientate an enemy by appearing where you should not be, by doing things that should not be possible, or by moving faster than expected it will lead to confusion, eventually to chaos and panic, and hopefully to the breakdown of cohesion and morale.

Crunch time

Those who can (re)orient themselves faster to the environment, who can quickly process new information, will have a lower chance to become disoriented. So by speeding up, by attacking in places unforeseen, or within a time frame that was not considered possible, you increase the chances of disorienting the enemy. The key here is to crunch time – meaning to speed up your own decision-making, while hindering the enemy’s ability to do so. You could also call this “time-based competition”.

Strength against weakness

In contrast to attrition warfare thinking, maneuver warfare stresses that strength should not be used against strength, but rather against weakness. The goals are disruption and speed, and so it’s much better to simply bypass strong points and render them useless in the process. Not only does this avoid attrition-style battles, it also sows confusion and disorder in the enemies’ lines. As Sherman, a master of maneuver-style warfare, put it: “The way to success is strategically along the way of least expectation and tactically along the line of least resistance.” 

Surprise and initiative

Disorientation, crunching time, and using strength against weakness should result in surprise. And surprise means that what is happening currently was unforeseen and not planned for. This is why keeping the initiative and exploiting opportunities are critical. Even a single opening properly used can have a devastating impact. So taking and keeping the initiative is key to the overall success of the operation, and a leader should be on constant lookout to generate surprise. If initiative and surprise are not created, then it allows the enemy to ‘catch up’ and take back the initiative. Obviously this is not desirable – in (maneuver) warfare it’s much better to act than to react.

Deception and ambiguity

If your intentions are unclear, or there is an uncertainty about your exact goals or objectives, then it becomes much more difficult for someone to counter it or make plans to stop it. This means that the other party can either 1) underestimate your intentions, resulting in an under-reaction, or 2) overestimate our intentions and capabilities, resulting in an overreaction. Both are good since they provide opportunities to exploit the misinterpretation and allows you to keep the initiative. Creating deception and ambiguity in all actions and initiatives are an important part of this strategy.

Fluidity

In an attrition-style war there is a very linear path that moves from objective A to objective B to objective C in a predictable manner. But in maneuver warfare this does not work since the point is to be quick, and to keep the initiative and surprise. This is why it’s important to remain fluid; fluidity doesn’t just mean avoiding strong points, but it also means being able to switch from one objective to another. Of course there needs to be an overarching goal you want to achieve, but there are usually multiple ways to get there. If one door closes then there are still plenty of others that will get you where you want to go.

What to achieve internally

In order to actually bring these principles to fruition there needs to be a proper organizational structure and culture, and a way of handling things. So from an organizational point of view what is needed internally is:

Schwerpunkt

A concept from the German Blitzkrieg. Schwerpunkt is the focal point of strategy (the “center of gravity”) – the thing that everyone knows is the overall objective of the operation. It should not only provide focus, but also direction, especially in the case where there is no formal leadership on the ground. Schwerpunkt is the understanding of the commander’s intent that helps everyone, from officers to soldiers, to make decisions and choices that support this focal point. Especially in situations where there is no formal leadership, or when decisions need to be taken fast by people in the field.

Decentralized leadership and trust

A Blitzkrieg strategy is not just successful because of speed, equally important is a high operational tempo. This tempo is what allows an organization to speed up time and to keep the initiative. Schwerpunkt is of course an important concept, but it does not work in isolation or in situations where every decision is micromanaged or pulled upwards. Decentralized leadership means that subordinates, at all levels, not only know the overall mission and the commander’s intent but are also able (and encouraged!) to make decisions that support this.

The glue that holds this approach together is trust; trust from the subordinate in the commander’s overall strategy, and trust from the commander in their subordinates to get the overall task (i.e. intent) done.

Flexibility

Related to decentralized leadership and trust is flexibility. In traditional attrition warfare there was a clear and rigid organizational structure. Things were planned in detail, decisions were made at HQ, and the people on the ground were supposed to just execute. Of course this makes things slow and predictable; rigidity cannot go hand in hand with innovation and initiative. Instead flexibility is required, not just when it comes to decision making structures, but also when it comes to responsibilities and execution (in order to avoid the “not my job” syndrome).

Cohesion and harmony

None of the above can work unless the internal organization and internal culture operate in cohesion and in harmony. Simply said, cohesion and harmony mean that everyone works towards the same goals, feels committed to those goals and to overall direction, and wants the organization to succeed. If things are not harmonious (e.g. part of the organization is not committed, or the leadership and subordinates are not aligned) then a maneuver warfare strategy will be hard, if not impossible to execute.

Morale

The invisible bond that everyone in an organization shares. It’s the common belief in the team and its objectives, and in the strategy and overall intent. Morale is especially important during difficult moments when it can really make or break a situation. It’s also hard to create but easy to destroy – and in fact, you could say that one of the objectives of maneuver warfare is to destroy the enemies’ morale.

Results in the enemy

Practicing a maneuver-style warfare is hard to counter. A quick glance at the successes of guerrilla and Blitzkrieg campaigns throughout history confirms that. But how can you tell if the strategy is working? Well, one way to do that is to observe the enemy and see if you notice the following:

Disorientation: starts to happen when time or events are moving faster than the ability to observe, interpret and react to them. It leads to a lack of initiative since it’s unclear what the enemy’s goals and intents are.

Confusion: a continuation of disorientation. If no direction or actions are taken, then the entire organization will be in limbo. Everyone understands that things are moving out there, and that decisions need to be taken. But in a state of disorientation and confusion this can be hard to do. If you cannot interpret external events and circumstances, how can you determine what the right course of action is?

Stress: confusion leads to stress – not just for the decision makers, but also for subordinates who (of course) notice this state of limbo as well. Stress is clearly not conducive to proper decision making, and will only worsen the situation.

Panic: if confusion and stress are not stopped in time then it can lead to panic. Panic is characterized by a loss of confidence in the internal organization and in the ability to win. It is usually accompanied by an overall sense of depression and defeatism.

Disunity: this is another consequence of the overall confusion and panic. As described above, cohesion and an overall harmonious approach are critical. Without it, it’s every man for himself – save your own skin and forget about the organization. There are very few people who willingly fight to the end for a dying cause.

Loss of morale: another obvious casualty will be the moral bond that holds everything together. People lose interest and the willingness to fight for the organization, and stop believing in the things that it stands for. The loss of morale is a clear sign of impending doom, and should be countered immediately, if still possible.

Surrender: the end result of being outmaneuvered, outpaced, disoriented, confused, and losing the internal cohesion, morale and will to fight. Surrender or destruction is all that is left.

Boyd’s definition of strategy

Strategy in the context of maneuver warfare should aim to support the above principles. Boyd actually has a very interesting definition of what strategy is and what it should do:

“Strategy is a mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.” 3

So what does this mean? Let’s break it down:

“[M]ental tapestry of changing intentions”. Strategy is not static, and planning is not strategy. Focusing on a single objective or goal is risky since we cannot control all the inputs that lead to the output that we desire. This is why strategy should always consist of multiple options that can be chosen depending on how the external circumstances and internal intentions evolve. Think of it like a tree: there are different branches that represent different paths; if one branch gets cut down there are still others you can follow. A plan that simply says ‘first we do this, and then that’ is unrealistic and cannot be considered a strategy at all. Intentions and specific actions will change, so strategy needs to be flexible in order to accommodate that.

“[F]or harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose”. Key here is aligning the focus and aim of the company in a single direction. This is the concept of Schwerpunkt: the focus that all members of an organization should have towards an intention that we want to achieve. Strategy can be made at the top of the company, but it needs to be executed by everyone in the organization. This is why harmonizing the internal focus and efforts are key in the execution of a strategy.

“[I]n an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests”. Strategy is never made in isolation and needs to evolve over time. Remember that a plan is not necessarily a strategy. Things happen, external circumstances change, competition comes and goes, politics and laws might interfere or harm your plans. There will always be things that cannot be controlled for and that will sabotage your aims. This is why those alternatives paths, or branches, are essential; they allow you to keep moving forward regardless of the circumstances.

To summarize, a Boydian strategy, or a maneuver warfare strategy, aims to destroy an enemy’s decision making capabilities and overall cohesion by disorientation, disruption, surprise, and ambiguity. It’s not about destroying the actual organization or army, but about rendering it useless. In this context strategy is used as an overall vision of the future, as a sort of intention of what we want to achieve, that helps us to align our internal organization and efforts. But flexibility is needed: circumstances change, things happen – alternative plans should be there, and we should be willing to pivot.

In business many of the same concepts still apply, but some modifications are needed.

Boyd’s strategy applied to business

There are clear differences between applying a Boydian strategy to war and to business, but many elements remain the same. As mentioned in the introduction, war and business are both based on conflict; both have competitors (other powers, or other companies); for both internal readiness is key to success (organization, morale, supplies, et cetera); both experience the fog of war; and for both there are objectives to be achieved.

But whereas in war the key is to outmaneuver an enemy’s forces and to incapacitate their decision making, in business it’s all about wining over the consumer. That should be the main aim.

Destroying the competition in war is done by rendering the enemies’ forces useless, but in business you could say that we render their operations useless. There are a few ways this could be done, for example by destroying the base of their support; often this is revenue from a specific customer segment, which can be won over. Or, alternatively, by moving the playing field so far ahead that their key capabilities are not applicable anymore. Think innovation, e.g. moving from analog to digital photography and the end of Kodak.

Below again a look at the key concepts of Boyd’s strategic thinking, but this time approached from a business angle.

Focus & Schwerpunkt

In business, the focus is not on ‘attacking’ the competitor directly. The goal of any business is to sell products or services, and the way to do that is to win over the customer – to convince them to spend money (or time) with you. Clearly that should be the main focus of every business towards which all activities need to be directed.

The Schwerpunkt, or the focal point of strategy, also needs to be aligned to this. Everyone in the organization needs to understand that winning over the customer is the focal point and the ‘intent’ of the commander (i.e. CEO). Now this may sound obvious, but in reality, how many companies can truly say that the customer really is the most important thing in their organization? Sure, everyone pays lip service to the fact that the customer should be king. But let’s be honest, how many companies are actually customer-oriented?

Most, or at least many, are too busy with their internal processes and day-to-day trivialities. As a result the customer is often forgotten. Applying Boyd’s strategy to business means actually putting the customer first, which is a lot more difficult than it sounds. And in each industry ‘winning over the customer’ is different; so the Schwerpunkt needs to reflect that.

Taking the initiative

In many ways the best way to put the customer first and leave the competition in the dust is to take the initiative and to speed up time. In business this is often done by continually improving products or services, adding new features, striving to find ways to reach customer satisfaction, or even satisfying needs that the customer is not aware off.

Taking the initiative works because most companies are complacent and satisfied with the status quo. If the revenue is there and profit margins are healthy and there is not that much competitive pressure – why would you want to take the initiative?

The risk, of course, is that if you don’t do it, someone else will. If there is a party that is willing and able to surprise consumers and outpace the competition they will start to take over a larger share of the pie. And if that party is able to win over customers, and at the same time also keeps surprising them and doing things the competition is not doing, then this well send shock waves throughout the market.

One example of this is the US car market in the 1970s and 1980s where traditional American brands were lacking innovation and coasting on their past successes. Unfortunately for them, when oil prices increased significantly, consumer preferences started to shift towards more fuel efficient cars. Japanese and Korean car brands, who had a name for being fuel efficient, were the big winners.

Now, you could expect that when oil prices went back down, customers would return back to their old car brands, right? Unfortunately for brands like GM that is not what happened – the Japanese and Korean car brands won over customers by being fuel efficient, but kept surprising them with new (unexpected) ‘initiatives’ like durability, drive-ability, and car features. Those brands clearly outpaced the competition and the results were clear; GM’s market share, for example, declined from around 50% to around 30%. 4

Taking the initiative, and surprising customers is best combined with crunching time. If you can add these features or surprises and also do it at a fast speed, then it will be hard, if not impossible, for competitors to catch up.

Planning & Strategy

In order to actually do this, and win over the consumer, it’s essential that there is a vision for the future. This is not just some nice sentence you see on all corporate websites, but it should be the best thinking on how the market will evolve and how customer needs will change over time. And in that context: how do we want to position the company? What capabilities do we have or need, and how will we develop or buy those?

This view of future, and our position in it, is in essence what we want to achieve with our strategy. It’s the overarching objective that guides the raison d’etre of the company. Note that over time this vision of the future, and thus the strategy, might change. That’s normal and we should be ready to adjust our view of the future and our strategy when the circumstances change.

One thing to watch out for is equating strategy to planning. They are not the same; a plan is not a strategy, and a strategy is not plan.

A plan tells you how to get from A to B, it’s an intention to achieve something practical. A strategy is much broader: it’s this view of the future you want to achieve and contains multiple plans with multiple branches that tell you how you are going to achieve that future. It’s not static, but dynamic.

When one road, or one branch of the strategy closes, you can shift or pivot to an alternative plan. And, in the worst case, you can even adjust your strategy to a new view of the future.

To look at it from a different angle: the future is uncertain and it’s a point in time we never reach. That is why an overall strategy needs to be continually readjusted. You look at the environment, you create multiple options and plans. As events unfold you will exercise some of these options and plans, but others will have become invalid or need to be readjusted.

Going through this process creating a vision of the future, drafting a strategy, developing multiple plans within that strategy, et cetera, allows you to position the company in such a way that initiatives can be taken, and – hopefully – customer expectations can be met and exceeded.

Structure

The benefits of a flexible organizational structure in war are clear, but in business it’s still a tricky element to get right. In all hierarchies, especially within big organizations, there exists a tendency to continually reinforce control. Signs of this include continually expanding layers of hierarchy, long and slow validation processes, and a habit of ‘pulling upstairs’ even the most mundane decisions.

But this focus on hierarchy, management layers, and internal processes cannot coexist with a true focus on the customer and operating nimbly and quickly. It also makes it very hard to be innovative and to take the initiative – something that is essential to beat the competition and win over the customer.

What is needed is a flexible structure that embodies the Schwerpunkt concept. Everyone should understand the goals of the organization, and decision-making and leadership should be as decentralized as possible. As long as the overall intent of the commander (i.e. CEO) is being honored, the exact execution doesn’t matter that much. As general Patton, a master of maneuver warfare, once remarked: “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”

Another great construct to keep in mind is Jeff Bezos’s distinction between type 1 and type 2 decision making. Type 1 decisions are very hard to reverse, they’re one way doors – these types of decisions should obviously be made at a senior management level. But the vast majority of decisions are type 2 decisions; these decisions are characterized by the fact that they’re easily reversible – essentially a two-way door.

So in the context of organizational structure this means that, regardless of how the structure is implemented, the goal should be to keep type 2 decision making as low in the organization as possible. This allows people to experiment, to take the initiative, to be flexible and it speeds up organizational processes significantly.

Culture & Morale

Both of these elements are closely linked together and are difficult to get right and sustain over a long period of time. There’s no single organizational culture or one-size-fits-all approach that will work in every context. Start-ups have a very different culture than, for example, lean production, but both embody elements from Boyd’s strategy.

However, what every culture needs to create is a sense of internal cohesion, harmony and trust between all its members. From the customer-facing workers (i.e. boots on the ground), to NCOs (i.e. middle management), up to a general command level (i.e. C-suite). If this cohesion and mutual commitment does not exist then it will create internal friction, which work against the achievement of the goals.

Although often overlooked in business, creating and keeping up morale is of importance as well. Morale in an organization manifests itself in motivation, the willingness to go above and beyond, to fight for the team or to reach an objective. It’s the belief in the cause, in the Schwerpunkt, and the vision of the future.

Morale and culture are both elements that cannot be created in pure isolation – consider them to be more of a consequence of the rest of Boydian elements of strategy and as a general sign of health of the organization.

Companies using Boyd’s strategy

So what type of organizations use some of Boyd’s elements of strategy? Meaning: they have a clear overall purpose, objective or strategy (Schwerpunkt), they create internal cohesion, they take the initiative, and speed time up for others? And, as a result of all that, win over the customer in the end?

Startups are an obvious category that tick most of these boxes – they’re relatively small, cohesive, able to operate and pivot quickly, and are thus crunching time for others. In a way you could say that startups, by necessity, need to employ a maneuver warfare strategy; they’re like the guerrilla forces of the business world. If they’re not flexible, quick, willing to pivot, and hit competitors where it hurts, they simply won’t succeed. Directly competing with bigger companies (in an attrition warfare style) won’t work because it requires resources startups don’t have.

Agile teams, or self-organizing teams, tick some of these boxes – by nature they should be very cohesive, flexible, and are focused on the consumer. The question still remains if they can also develop the strategy or vision necessary in order to take the initiative, but in terms of structure, culture and flexibility they sure represent a good case.

Some production systems, like the one Toyota made famous, also apply a few of these concepts. They’re cohesive, they often employ some form of decentralized leadership (e.g. ‘stop the line’ approach), and the customer is at the heart of the operation. At the same time they are usually embedded within a large organization, and so the company as a whole might not exhibit the same qualities.

Project-based teams, or a matrix or modular organizational structure is yet another example. These usually consists of small teams as well, with a lot of knowledge who focus on solving specific customer-related problems. They should be cohesive, empowered, nimble, and able to operate quickly.

Good vs. perfect

Overall though, it’s important to keep in mind that while many different organizations can show these Boydian elements of strategy, it’s not necessarily the end goal. Boyd’s strategy and thinking can offer a lot of value and it can certainly help to help structure an organization and win over the customer. So implementing even part of this thinking is better than not implementing anything all. Perfect is the enemy of good after all.

On the other hand, this doesn’t call for complacency neither. All types of organizations can benefit from a maneuver warfare approach, and none more than the classical antithesis of this: very large organizations stuck in an attrition warfare mode. For those type of firms it’s especially difficult to implement this strategy because many times they are complacent and focused on status quo and doing things moderately well. Not too innovative, not too competitive, not too focused on the customer or the future – just coasting on past successes and trying to milk it out.

That does not mean it’s not possible; the Japanese and Korean car brand example above is just one among many. It just means that its much harder, and that the internal culture and way of doing things if often not conducive to implementing a Boydian strategy.

A case can also be made that for those large firms that the implementation of a separate project-based team, or modular teams, or a form of intrapreneurship, can already offer some benefits in terms of innovation, initiative, and customer focus. This won’t extend to the full organization of course, but it’s a start, and much better than nothing at all.

In the end the point is not so much to ask which companies conform exactly to a maneuver warfare approach, or which implement Boyd’s strategy or not, but how they can use more of these elements in their current operations. Obviously this is not easy, but it’s clear that it can provide massive benefits for those who are able to pull it off.

What hinders or destroys Boyd’s strategy in business?

There are many pitfalls that can undermine or destroy the application of Boyd’s strategy in business. There are things that can go wrong in strategic planning, in setting a Schwerpunkt or customer focus, in building an organizational structure, et cetera – but a commonality in all of those are people. And what is critical when it comes to people in maneuver warfare approaches, is internal cohesion, trust in the direction and leaders, and an overall harmonious feeling.

The only way a group of people can operate at the highest level is by having this sense of mission, by trusting your colleagues to deliver the best, and by having a fair and equal culture. And there are many things—especially prevalent in business—that can undermine this. So without going too much into the other elements, let’s look at cohesion; what destroys cohesion in organizations?

Let’s start with micromanagement and over-control. In business, especially in those firms that are part of the status quo or not performing as they should, there is a tendency to pull the control ‘back upstairs’.  Every little decision needs to go through multiple layers of management and the final call will be made by senior management. This is turning every ‘type 2’ decision into a ‘type 1’ decision. It not only erodes trust, and kills the concept of Schwerpunkt, but also makes people dependent, complacent and stifles innovation. Micromanaging is similar: on lower levels in the organization people should have the ability to make decisions on their own, and constant supervision of minor things erodes this sense of mission and cohesion.

Perks are another example. Dedicated parking lots for management, a special canteen for senior management, or otherwise unequal treatment of workers – it splits the organization in two, while it’s supposed to be a cohesive unit. It creates an us vs. them culture. If we move back to maneuver warfare, you can see that the best commanders, and those most appreciated by their soldiers, were often those that shared hardships and that behaved like equals (e.g. Rommel, Sherman, Lawrence of Arabia, Caesar all embodied some of these elements).

Inconsistency is another element as well. If we treat one person with one set of rules, and another with another, then we harm the trust and culture of the organization. But it is not just how we treat others that matters, also of importance is what we communicate. If we are in a dire situation, financially, competitively, or otherwise, and we keep pretending and saying that everything is fine, we undermine cohesion as well. People are not stupid – things will get noticed, especially lower in the organization where it’s fairly obvious that there are fewer customers to talk to, fewer boxes to be packed, or fewer invoices to be send. 

Finally, although this is not an exhaustive list, there’s the embargo of information. You can be sure that rumors will spread and that nothing will stay secret for very long. And rumors, especially if they seems realistic, will start to undermine the trust in the organization. It would be better to let the truth come out and work with the full organization to solve the issues at hand.

Conclusion

The strategy and thinking that John Boyd developed over the years is now rightfully recognized and used in the military, and already applied in past wars. But beyond that it’s also clear that Boyd’s strategy can be applied much more broadly, and that many people can learn from his thinking.

Of course none of his strategy or thinking is completely new or revolutionary – Boyd was a synthesizer who went through thousands or years of history and science to and condensed it into an approach. But that doesn’t make it any less valuable; rather, it makes it more valuable. It’s not a new doctrine after all, but it’s something that has withstood the test of time.

So in war, the focus should be on speed, disruption, and ambiguity, with the end goal of incapacitation the enemy’s decision-making capabilities and outmaneuvering them.

In business, the focus should be on taking the initiative, speeding up time, and attacking the competition indirectly by winning over the consumer.

In both war and business, this is done by having a very clear focus and Schwerpunkt, by organizing flexibly with decentralized leadership, trust, and by making sure that there is an overall sense of cohesiveness; everyone should understand the objectives, and everyone should trust in the leadership and in the ability of the organization to get things done. All of this supports doing things quickly and nimbly – the only way to move ahead is to make sure you keep the initiative and you keep the surprise.

Further reading

The slides from Boyd’s briefings can be found online, although they can be a bit tricky to digest without the context. If you want to learn more on Boyd or his thinking Robert Coram’s biography of Boyd is highly recommended (Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War). Certain to Win by Chet Richards is also interesting since it looks at the application of Boyd’s strategy to business. Finally, if you want to delve into the background of Boyd’s ideas then Science, Strategy & War by Frans Osinga is probably the most detailed & comprehensive analysis of that.


Photo: Senior Airman Matthew Bruch

Footnotes
  1. Technically he did write a short paper called Destruction and Creation but that was never published.[]
  2. Quote from Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.[]
  3. John Boyd, ‘The Strategic Game of ? and ?’[]
  4. Example from Chet Richard’s Certain to Win.[]

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