Make Better Decisions: Lessons From a Fighter pilot and The Honey Badger.
by Rafael Aldon, Director VenturesOne
Imagine if your business could outmanoeuvre the competition with the same instinctive predatory agility as displayed by Daniel Riccardo in his breath-taking drive to win the Chinese Grand Prix this year.
If you missed it, then take a quick look at the highlights because it was a masterclass in precision driving by the Australian and probably the most exciting F1 race in recent memory.
The beauty of sport (much like Mr Gump’s proverbial “box-o chocolates”) is that you never know what you are going to get.
As I perched on the plastic seat in stand H at the Shanghai International Circuit last Sunday, my brain was saying “this could be a 56 lap procession”. It was a brilliant sunny day with no chance of rain, which is the usual slippery catalyst for unpredictable races. But what transpired was anything but, and my view over the hairpin of turn 14 turned out to be the perfect location to witness the pivotal moments unfold.
You may be thinking “What can you learn about decision making from watching a single bend on a race circuit?”. It turns out quite a lot, but first- I promised you a fighter pilot…
Talk to me, Goose
John Boyd served as a Colonel in the US Airforce and became a Military Strategist at the Pentagon in the late 20th Century. As a fighter pilot, he was undefeated and earned the nickname “40-Second Boyd” for his ability to win any dogfight in under a minute. Although he never academically published his work, his framework for strategic decision making known as the “OODA Loop” has prevailed in military, sporting and business contexts for years.
How OODA came to be
“It is said that the ideas behind the OODA Loop were set in motion during air-to-air combat exercises at Nellis Air Force Base in 1974 (Lind, 1985). During this time, Boyd was tasked to evaluate why U.S. pilots flying F-86s fared so well in air-to-air combat against enemy MiGs during the Korean War. During his investigation, Boyd discovered that the U.S. planes were actually inferior to the North Korean MiG-15s in almost all measures of performance.
However, two features of the F-86 allowed U.S. pilots to gain an advantage. First, thanks to a bubble-shaped canopy, U.S. pilots had better visibility enabling them to better attune themselves to their air environment. Second, the F-86s had powered hydraulic controls that allowed faster manoeuvre transitions. U.S. pilots used their superior situational awareness and ability to make rapid changes to force enemy MiGs into a series of manoeuvres from which they could not escape. The shock that set in when the enemy realized that they were in trouble only hastened the deadly outcome.
Boyd recognized that the ability to cycle through observing, orienting, deciding, and acting faster than an opponent led to a considerable competitive advantage”
(William S. Angerman, Captain, USAF – source)
OODA’ya like my Loop?
In its simplest form, OODA is a cycle of these four activities (Observing, Orientating, Deciding and Acting) that combined provide a model to ensure your strategy is resilient to change.
Figure 1- The OODA Loop (John Boyd)
Observation – the collection of data using the senses (in a business context this could be all sorts of business intelligence to understand your relative position to the competition).
Orientation – the analysis and synthesis of the data combined with previous experience and other factors to create a mental picture of the situational reality.
Decision– the output of the orientation stage is options, so the next step is the determination of a course of action based on current perspective.
Action – The physical execution and testing of the hypothesis made during the decision phase of the loop.
Although depicted as a series of steps this is, in reality, a continuously repeating cycle with steps of one loop feeding into the steps of another simultaneously. If that seems too abstract, then imagine what’s going on inside the heads of the F1 drivers duelling for position on the track. This cycle would be happening millions of times during the race, as each driver ingests sensory information on their relative speed, track position, available grip etc and then processes it to plan and execute an overtake manoeuvre and respond to changes in their opponent’s reactions in real-time.
There’s been a lot of talk this season about the Mercedes engines having a ‘Party Mode’, but in China, Daniel Riccardo had his OODA Loop knob turned up to 11. While benefitting from fresh tyres late in the race he was clinical and efficient in passing the competition from 6th on the grid for the win.
But that wasn’t the full story of the Chinese Grand Prix. From my seat, at Turn 14 I witnessed two critical OODA Loop failures that gave Ricciardo the chance of Victory, and one inspired OODA move by his team Red Bull Racing that set him up for the win.
These offer some insights and can be explained by diving a little further into Boyd’s theory.
It Started with a kiss.
(The Torro Rosso’s Collide – source)
“It should have been Sebastian Vettel’s day, but Ferrari were passive on strategy in the first phase of the race and got jumped by Valtteri Bottas. It should have been Bottas’ day after that, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the Safety Car came out.” (James Allen, source )
The safety car came out with 21 laps to go, due to an ambitious overtaking move from Pierre Gasly on his team-mate. In trying to send his car up the inside of his colleague Brendon Hartley’s Torro Rosso, he misjudged and clattered into it sending Hartley spinning and sharp pieces of carbon fibre across the track.
In the post-race interviews a somewhat embarrassed looking Gasly explained:
“The team told me that they were going to switch our positions so I went on the inside of the back straight thinking he would give me space…Unfortunately, I don’t think he saw me and once I was on the inside there was nothing I could do.”
(Figure 2 –Detailed OODA Loop, source)
When we examine Boyd’s detailed OODA model it’s clear “Outside Information” plays an important role in the Observation stage. Gasly’s team radio gave him outside information that he would get to pass his team-mate, but critically it lacked where on the track the swap should take place. When his teammate left some space on the inside of the corner, Gasly went for it because he had misinterpreted this as a signal he might be let through. By the time he realized the move wasn’t on the cards, it was already too late.
Take Away- Outside Information is GOLD
“You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after.” John Boyd
We live in a time where the speed of change is accelerating. Data is so abundant that some businesses are already struggling to assimilate internal data, so it’s easy to overlook Outside Information sources as a result. History has taught us those market-leading companies that fail to see the big picture due to having internal blinkers on are set for a big upset at some point. Outside Information not only provides vital perspective; it represents a huge opportunity for identifying competitive advantage.
I’ve experienced both sides of this coin. I spent 6 great years working at BlackBerry, who were brilliantly innovative and I’m delighted to see bouncing back after a rough few years. They really paid the price of leadership not paying proper attention to Outside Information. On the flipside, is my current involvement with a big data company that provides actionable intelligence using satellite and drone imagery, called Geospatial Insight. They deliver competitive advantage through Outside Information. Companies can access visual intelligence on their competition and even indicators on how parts of economies are performing. So today, any business leader worth his salts should be asking, “What Outside Information are we using?”
Red Bull’s Bold OODA Move in China.
The debris from the collision of the Torro Rosso’s was enough to trigger the safety car and Red Bull reacted brilliantly to bring both of their cars in for fresher tyres on the same lap. This seems unremarkable, like most strategy calls that pay off, almost obvious in hindsight but this was a high-risk and high-reward strategy with no margin for error.
They had just enough gap between their two drivers cars to not compromise either’s race if they executed the stops perfectly, and they did. Within 10 seconds they had changed all four tyres on both cars and lost minimal time to competitors that were impaired by following the safety car. Their drivers were now on fresh soft tyres that would prove faster than their competitors more worn medium compound tyres. In one flash of an inspired OODA cycle they had created a competitive advantage, game on!
Mad Max’s OODA Hiccups.
Red Bull Racing had given both of their drivers an enviable strategy of fresher and faster tyres, but they were going to have to overtake their competitors on the track. That’s never easy, and just like dogfighting fighter planes, it requires exceptional judgement and perfect execution at high speeds.
Ricciardo’s team-mate Max Verstappen is one of the most exciting talents in F1 today and has had some truly exceptional drives since joining the sport, but sadly for him (and Vettel) in China, things did not go to plan…
Although he was ahead of Ricciardo after their pitstops it wasn’t for long. He caught up with Lewis Hamilton in third with 17 laps to go on a fast and twisting section of the track. He immediately tried a “hero of zero”, low percentage chance of success move around the outside of the Mercedes driver and ran wide, allowing his team-mate to pass him while he was off the track.
However, the headline-grabbing OODA fail of the race was to come with 13 laps to go as he caught up with the Championship leading Ferrari driver, Sebastian Vettel. Verstappen saw Vettel struggling for grip and threw his Red Bull at the inside line. Unable to slow the car down enough, he struck Vettel into a spin and the outcome was a 10-second penalty for his efforts and the finishing result of 5th instead of the podium.
So why did Ricciardo make winning decisions and Verstappen make losing ones when Verstappen had the advantage on track? Perhaps a glimpse into how we process our decision-making options will shed some light…
Orientation- Where the Magic Happens
“Orientation isn’t just a state you’re in; it’s a process. You’re always orienting.” John Boyd
Boyd’s model shows five factors involved during the Orient phase of OODA that provide a mental model to assign meaning to the Observation data. Boyd considered this phase the most critical part of the Loop as it entails awareness of both your position and that of your opponent.
Even without diving into these interconnected sections we can assert that the difference between the Red Bull drivers on the track in China was likely down to their mental mode during the Orient phase of OODA.
It would be lazy to infer that Verstappen’s relative performance was down to less “Previous Experience” given his age and time in the sport compared to Ricciardo. There have been times that he has outshone his more experienced team-mate so experience is only part of the formula. Perhaps his “Analysis” may have been coloured by the pressure to perform in China after having a relatively poor start to this season.
At the start, Max’s direct approach paid off as he made up places in the first corners. Part of the entertainment of F1 is that we get some clues into the drivers’ mentality during the race through their team radio transmissions, and as he completed an overtake on Kimi Raikkonen Verstappen said;
“See you f*****g later son”, over the team radio.
Verstappen was clearly pumped-up, but his engineer was quick try to calm him down:
“Alright, don’t get greedy now mate. That’s good, settle down,” was the reply.
In the context of what was to transpire later, it’s a clue that Verstappen’s mental model may not have been optimal for challenges that lay ahead.
In comparison Daniel Ricciardo was relatively quiet over his radio throughout the race even while making numerous overtakes in the late stages, suggesting a more neutral state of focus. His only outburst was “Get it Girl, Get it!” when he took the lead from Valtteri Bottas and realized the win was in the bag.
Verstappen was reflective after the race acknowledging his mistake, apologising directly to Vettel and his post-race comments were also interesting:
“I don’t think necessarily I need to be less aggressive or anything as it has nothing to do with being overly aggressive, maybe it’s just wanting too much.”
“Maybe I should just, not even calm down, but maybe oversee the situation a bit more. I don’t know why, I think I was quite good at that before but somehow this year, maybe with the previous two races not going your way you want to recover the points and it’s working against you at the moment. Of course, this is definitely not what I want. It’s a life lesson.”
It’s this sometimes painful process of self-analysis that transforms our future Orientation phases and allows us to come back stronger, more experienced and ultimately forges the foundations of future victories.
“Orientation shapes the way we interact with the environment…it shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act. In this sense, orientation shapes the character of present OODA loops, while the present loop shapes the character of future orientation.”
(Frans Osinga – Science, Strategy and War)
It will be fascinating to see how the young Dutchman performs over the next few races. My bet is that Max will bounce back, even stronger!
Take Away – ABO = Always Be Orienting
We all need resilience to succeed. In business, the way you build a resilient organisation is similar to the process Verstappen is going through now. You learn from failure. You don’t hide it; you embrace it.
You sit down, debrief, understand what went wrong and what could be better and go about making the changes. This is however only possible if the organisational culture allows for, or better still encourages, feedback loops.
We can consume case studies on what has and hasn’t worked for other companies. Ideate new models, think through concepts, and test strategies that become ready to deploy when the need arises. Yet somehow, it’s bouncing back from failures that seem to offer the biggest net gains in the long run.
Steve Jobs summed it up well in his Stanford commencement speech. On the bitter experience of being fired from Apple, he said- “It was awful-tasting medicine, but the patient needed it.”
The Last Word from the “Honey Badger”
Just in case you were wondering where the Honey Badger features in all of this- it’s Daniel Ricciardo’s self-penned nickname. As Ricciardo explains it:
“He seems quite cute and cuddly, but he’s supposed to be the most fearless animal in the animal kingdom, and he’ll go after anything.”
If that’s not a brilliant mindset to have when making big decisions, I don’t know what is!