Admit It: Your Decision is a Hypothesis

John Boyd's OODA Loop

Do we have the moral courage to say we don’t know for sure

when we make a decision?

In the fall of 2004 when I was augmenting Regimental Combat Team 7, I vividly remember the CO returning to the operations center late in the evening after his daily patrols into Fallujah. He would huddle with the RCT’s Operations Officer and discuss what he and his command group had observed in the last 24 hours, and what he had learned when he talked to the commanders of the battalion task forces that were fighting in the city. Depending on the circumstances, I sometimes got to listen into the conversation. In most cases, what the CO had seen and heard caused us to make adjustments to our plans for the next couple of days.

When I took command of a battalion in July of 2010, I had several long conversations with my own Operations Officer about how we would work together. A lot of it centered around what I had learned while serving with RCT-7. Sure enough, when our battalion deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 I traveled around observing the action, talking to our Company Commanders, and talking to local Afghan leaders. These observations fed the constant dialogue I had with our Operations Officer, and from those conversations we would tweak our plans for the upcoming days.

The above technique is nothing new. I clearly mimicked my RCT-7 experience and I saw others use it often over the course of my career. After repeatedly seeing others do it and then doing more of it myself, I came to realize that no matter how well and thoroughly we plan we ought to admit that the choices we make are hypotheses. Until we put that decision into motion in the real world, we’re not sure how well it will work.

This kind of intellectual honesty allows us to look on our decisions from a fresh perspective. Once we decide and then take action, this perspective lets us see what parts of the decision are working as we intended – and what parts are not. From these observations, we can then make adjustments to our plans so that our success in the real world increases over time.

Mark McGrath, one of our recent podcast guests, explained the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (or “OODA”) Loop theory developed by John Boyd. It was taught to us as new Marine officers at the beginning of our careers (you can listen to that podcast here). I find the full-blown theory as comprehensive as it is elegant, and every time I review it I learn something new about people and how they make choices. On the podcast, Mark describes how the theory scales from the micro level to the largest corporate decisions.

It all starts by having the courage to admit that the choice we make is a hypothesis that can be improved if we incorporate the feedback we receive from reality.

Whether you make decisions in business or on the battlefield, here are a few things I learned from the theory and associated experiences that might be helpful for you:

1. Admitting that your decision is a hypothesis helps you “think through what you need to think through.” In other words, it causes you to be alert for signs of where your plan is working and for signs of where it isn’t. If you posture yourself and organization this way, you’re likely to adjust fast enough to make a competitive difference.

2. If you admit your decision is a hypothesis, you’re far more likely to practice active listening. That’s a good idea for many reasons. In terms of decision-making, it opens an important feedback loop between the decision makers and the people actually trying to make the plan work.

3. Learning a theory is one thing. Putting it to work is something different. Talking about how your organization intends to use the OODA Loop (or other feedback methods) gives you built-in accountability partners. It changes the discussion from whether it might be the perfect decision to looking for the holes you need to plug so that it works effectively.

We can increase our competitive advantage if we practice the moral courage needed to admit our decisions are hypotheses until they are tested in the real world

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