Planning and Reflection

Ash Maurya rebooted his blog as “The Space Between“–experimental format where he is exploring the space between ideas–and has offered a number of short reflective posts. Here are excerpts from three where he explores the value of planning and reflection, and the need to prioritize learning over the illusion of progress.

Planning and Reflection: OODA Loop is More Than Speed

The Lean Startup prescribes “Build -> Measure -> Learn” which also has a strong call for action with the goal of learning. The original “lean thinking” has a step before building (or doing) that in our exuberance for action we skipped…This is the Deming or PDCA loop: Plan, Do, Check, Act. While doing leads to learning, there are many things you can learn from the comfort of your armchair if you simply take some time to plan.”
Ash Maurya in Plan Before Doing

I wonder if Lean Startup merges back into Lean over the next five to ten years and we look back at Build-Measure-Learn as a poorly thought out shortcut for PDCA .

Give Your Brain Time to Think

Some things take time to click.  You can interview half a dozen people and not notice an “obvious” key insight until a week later.  You can continuously bang your head against a hard problem only to come back after a short walk and see the solution waiting.

Your brain needs time to steep on problems on its own. It needs time to pattern match by relaxing its muscles, not tensing. You can’t force this to happen. You can only create spaces for when it might happen.
Ash Maurya in Give Your Brain Time to Think

This is the “orientation” step in the OODA loop (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act). Due to a blatant misrepresentation of OODA by a Roger Sessions of Microsoft that “Speed of iteration beats quality of iteration” which was amplified by Jeff Atwood as “Boyd’s Law of Iteration” Lean Startup bloggers have stressed speed of quality. But Boyd’s OODA loop teaches that it’s not the fastest reaction, it’s the decision that leads to the first effective response.

OODA Loop Diagram from A Briefing on Metrics and Risks for Autonomous Decision-making in Aerospace ApplicationsEssential Insight
of the OODA Loop

So let’s go back to the essential competitive insight of OODA, and forget about the coarse interpretation that it simply means it is better to iterate fast than to worry about the quality of an iteration.  OODA is all about getting inside the other guy’s decision making process and forcing him to respond to you.  Once he is following your lead, you control the game and as long as you keep things that way, you can win.  If you can Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act such that you worry the other guy and he interrupts his own decision making to respond to what you’re doing, you have accomplished that goal.  You are inside his decision loop and you are now the master.

On that basis, you must not only iterate faster than the other guy, but your iterations must be of sufficient quality and effectiveness that they interrupt the other participant’s plans.

Let’s keep in mind something else too about iteration: each iteration has both fixed and variable costs.  Fixed costs are usually unproductive from the standpoint of delivering some value impactful enough to distract your competitor from their own plans.  Fixed costs are things like whatever it takes to roll a development version into production, upgrade the users, run the regression tests , and all that sort of thing.  These are things you will do every iteration whether it is long or short.  The shorter the iteration, the greater the proportion of time taken up by the fixed costs and the less time available for variable costs like actually adding any valuable functionality.

Considering the fixed versus variable costs is not an excuse for indefinitely long release cycles which fail for all sorts of other reasons.  But it is a justification for not making cycles so short that you start to cavitate.

Cavitation is another military-inspired term that has good analogies to business.  When a submarine’s propeller turns too quickly it cavitates, and in the process produces a lot of noise, gives away your position, and becomes less efficient at propulsion.  In the worst case, cavitation will even start to tear chunks out of the propeller.  We’ve all seen cavitation at work on a development cycle, and it’s not a pretty sight, especially the part about making a lot of noise with dramatically less forward progress!
Bob Warfield “Jeff Atwood is Not Quite Getting OODA

The reality is that startups are not faster than established companies, they succeed by picking markets that are initially less attractive to competitors, often by offering business models that would negate a competitor’s strength if copied. Deciding where and how to compete are critical to a successful market entry. This requires careful observation and planning.

Go Only As Fast As You Can Learn

Speed is key, but simply going fast on everything will only get you lost faster…Backtracking and then course-correcting costs even more…Rather than speed up tasks per unit time,  maximize learning per unit time.
Ash Maurya in Go Only As Fast As You Can Learn

Markets continually evolve, forcing each firm to run it’s own “Red Queen Race,” running faster and faster (or learning more and more) just to maintain market share. But action without planning and reflection is rarely effective.

“The ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”
Arie P. de Geus in “Planning as Learning” in HBR March-April 1988

Not So Fast! Boyd OODA Looping Is More Than Speed

Update Dec-5-2015: Richard Bejtlich published a thoughtful take on the real implications of the OODA loop “Not So Fast! Boyd OODA Looping Is More Than Speed.”

I’ve noticed an increasing number of vendors invoke Boyd and his OODA loop as an answer. Unfortunately, they fixate on the idea of “speed.” They believe that victory over an adversary results from operating one’s OODA loop faster than an opponent. In short, if we do  something faster than the adversary, we win and they lose. While there is some value to this approach, it is not representative of Boyd’s thought and misses key elements of his contribution.

The best reference for gaining a deep appreciation for Boyd’s strategic thought is the book Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd by Frans P.B. Osinga.

Boyd’s OODA loop is more about affecting the adversary than it is about one’s own operations. Our side should take actions to target the adversary’s OODA loop such that his cycle becomes slower than ours, due to the adversary’s difficulty in properly matching his mental images of the world with what is actually happening in the world. On our side, we want to be flexible and nurture a variety of mental images that better match what is happening in the world, which will enable more efficient OODA loops.

In brief, the OODA concept has a speed component, but it is much more about coping with perceptions of reality, on the part of the adversary and ourselves.

If you’d like to learn more, in addition to Osinga’s book I recommend reading Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram and listening to the Pattern of Conflict videos on YouTube.”

Richard Bejtlich in “Not So Fast! Boyd OODA Looping Is More Than Speed.”

Related Blog Posts

Image Credit: OODA Loop from “Diagram 8: John Boyd’s OODA Loop” in “A Briefing on Metrics and Risks for Autonomous Decision-making in Aerospace Applications
by Susan A. Frost, Kai Goebel, and Jose Celaya (Copyright: Public Use Permitted)

4 thoughts on “Planning and Reflection”

  1. Enjoyed the post. and could not agree with you more. I always thought that was the detriment in using Build-Measure-Learn as it precluded the Planning stage which is an important part of Lean Thinking.

    I think part of the problem is that many view Plan from a waterfall perspective of “planning” versus the PDCA view that P is forming a hypothesis. PDCA is a learning cycle to prove that hypothesis through an iteration such as Build-Measure-Learn.

    Your comparison of the OODA Loop and discussion of speed is excellent. I would like to add one caveat and get your opinion. I have a hypothesis of my own that converting the OODA Loop to Lean Thinking is better suited using CAP-Do versus PDCA. I learned CAP-Do from a couple Deming disciples, Brian Joiner and Yoji Akao. Checking (Changed to Study by Deming for better clarification of the step) and Acting (which is really adjusting in Lean) is more aligned with Observe-Orient. The Planning (forming a hypothesis) and Doing (carrying out the experiment) coincides with Decide-Act.

    I think the OODA loop is a great tool along with Build-Measure-Learn but when we start flipping between methods, we can lose much of the meaning. Thoughts?

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