Monthly Archives: March 2010

My last post argued that a linear approach of predict, plan, and proceed is a dangerous way to advance into an uncertain future. This approach locks into a plan prematurely without the benefit of information that emerges later. Linear planning also increases the risk of escalating commitment to a failed course of action, whereby leaders stick to their initial plan–despite mounting evidence that the plan is flawed–to avoid admitting to they were wrong.

A more robust approach bends the line into a loop by incorporating regular revision of assumptions and mid-course correction. Colonel John Boyd introduced the OODA loop to describe how combatants observe a situation, orient themselves, decide what to do, and act, before observing the changed situation and moving through the entire loop again. Viewing combat as a series of successive loops underscores the importance of reassessment and readjustment as circumstances change, and the cumulative benefits of many small wins in successive iterations.

Boyd’s OODA loop is a vivid example of an iterative loop to guide action under uncertainty, but it is far from the only example. Indeed iterative loops have emerged independently in diverse domains, including science, new product development, and venture capital, all endeavors where practioners must act in the face of uncertainty.

  • Experimental loop. The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, viewed the process of scientific inquiry as an

Throughout history, leaders have relied on a linear process of predicting how events will unfold, planning a sequence of actions far into the future, and proceeding to systematically implement their plan. A diverse range of leaders–including central planners managing the Soviet economy; army generals who plotted attacks on World War I trenches to the last bullet; and programmers scheduling a detailed plan for a multi-year software development project–have followed this methodical approach. The linear process of predict, plan, and proceed instills a sense of control over an uncertain future. This sense of control is illusory, however, and this confidence misguided for two reasons.

  • Premature lock in. A linear planning approach by necessity must exclude information that will only emerge in the future.  The implementation of a plan produces new information about the validity of the underlying assumptions, and the passage of time generates other data that bears on the initial plan. By locking into a plan at the onset of an initiative, leaders voluntarily exclude critical information that will emerge in the future. Software programming illustrates the disadvantages of following a linear plan into

Turbulent situations produce opportunities for victory, and agile competitors succeed by consistently identifying and exploiting opportunities more quickly and effectively than rivals. But how do they do so? If agility confers success, what confers agility? This was the question that US Air Force Colonel John Boyd tackled when he analyzed the surprising success of the American-made F-86 Sabre fighter against the MiG 15 in dogfights during the Korean War. Boyd discovered that the Sabre had two structural advantages–a bubble canopy and full hydraulics–that largely explained their success. Looking through the bubble canopy, pilots  could develop and maintain a fuller understanding of battle as it unfolded, and the plane’s full hydraulics allowed them to shift quickly from maneuver to maneuver to stay one step ahead of their adversaries.

If Boyd had ended his analysis here, he would have provided a compelling answer to a specific question. Instead Boyd generalized his findings by viewing the dogfights over the Korean peninsula as the distilled essence of a much more general phenomenon–competition to seize opportunities in any rapidly-changing, turbulent situation. Boyd’s breakthrough occurred when he conceptualized air battles as taking place in loops, where the pilots cycled through four steps–observe, orient, decide and act.

The cycle begins when a pilot observes the situation, including the hundreds of readings from the cockpit instruments and outside signals-the glint of sunlight from an upturned wing or an unexpected vibration. The bubble canopy expanded the Sabre pilots’ vista and allowed them to form a more expansive view of the unfolding situation. In the second step, the pilot oriented himself by forming

Entering the Korean War, experts predicted the Communist alliance supporting the North Koreans would dominate the skies. The alliance of Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean pilots flew the MiG 15, a plane considered superior on most dimensions to the F-86 Sabre flown by the United Nations forces. Not only did the Communist forces have better planes, they could deploy more of them, at least in the early stages of the war. They also enjoyed superior position. The Communists massed large formations of MiGs on the Chinese side of the border with Korea, where they waited to attack the UN fighters.  When the MiG pilots were losing, they could retreat to their base behind the Chinese border, which UN pilots were forbidden to cross.

Despite their disadvantages, the UN pilots won ten aerial battles for every one they lost during the Korean War. Prevailing military doctrine could not easily account for the Sabres’ unexpected success. Success, according to existing theory, came from either superior resources or better position. The UN forces enjoyed neither. The lopsided victory in dogfights over the Korean peninsula inspired more pride than understanding for decades, until Colonel John Boyd analyzed these battles while trying to design a new fighter plane.

Boyd discovered that early comparisons with the MiGs overlooked two structural attributes of the Sabre that

Many people have contributed to our understanding of agility, but few have contributed more than John Boyd. My last post described how U.S. fighter pilots dominated their adversaries during the Korean War despite inferior planes, fewer of them, and less secure bases. The secret of their success remained poorly understood until US Air Force Colonel John Boyd studied the Sabres several years later, while developing a next generation fighter plane.  Boyd, it turns out, was ideal for the job.  By the end he not only cracked the mystery of the Sabres’ success and designed the new plane, but also re-conceptualized combat in a way that highlighted how agility can trump superior resources or position.

John Boyd, then a Lieutenant, landed in Suwon South Korea in March 1953 hoping he would not arrive late for his second war. Nine years earlier, Boyd–then a high school senior–had enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces (the precursor to the Air Force), hoping to serve as a pilot in the Second World War. Upon completing high school, Boyd enlisted for active duty in April 1945, and was still in training when the war ended. Boyd served out the remainder of his military obligation as a swimming instructor.

Soldiers, scientists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, improvisational comedians, and athletes must all act–and act decisively–despite facing an impenetrable fog of the future. Over the past decade I have studied action under uncertainty in a variety of domains to glean insights that could prove useful to managers facing turbulent markets.  One of the most robust findings was the value of iterative loops when proceeding into an uncertain future. These iterative loops include distinct steps to make sense of an ambiguous situation, make choices, execute, and then revise in light of new information. Variations of the agility loop have emerged as useful tools to guide scientific experimentation, aerial combat, software development, and venture capital investments. My next several posts will discuss how loops can promote agility in turbulent domains, beginning with an unexpected military success that triggered a fundamental rethinking of military doctrine.

As the Korean War began, the situation looked bleak for the US pilots and their allies fighting under the United Nations flag. North Korea, along with the Soviet Union and Peoples Republic of China, could field more jets, and flew superior planes. The American-made F-86, nicknamed “the Sabre,” had entered active service only the preceding year and was unproven in combat. The Sabre’s swept back wings cut a fine profile, but at the time few experts considered it equal to its Soviet-produced counterpart, the Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) 15.

Firms do not pass through a life-cycle, but individual opportunities do. To thrive in turbulence, organizations must rapidly shift resources from stagnant businesses to the most promising opportunities for future growth, a capability I refer to as portfolio agility. Unfortunately, reallocation of resources is easier said than done.

Opportunities at different stages in the life-cycle vary in objectives, appropriate management style, performance metrics, and predictability. A venture in the start-up stage should focus on milestones that validate customer demand and technical feasibility, for example,  while success of a mature business can be measured by financial metrics.  Many companies, however, apply a one size fits all management style to all businesses in their portfolio, regardless of their stage in the lifecycle.

Leading in turbulent times

This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Don Sull is professor of management practice in strategic and international management, and faculty director of executive education at London Business School. This blog is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs, managers, and outside directors to lead more effectively in a turbulent world.

Over the past decade, Prof Sull has studied volatile industries including telecommunications, airlines, fast fashion, and information technology, as well as turbulent countries including Brazil and China, and found specific behaviours that consistently differentiate more, and less, successful firms. His conclusion is that actions, not an individual’s traits, increase the odds of success in turbulent markets, and these actions can be learned.