The Agility Loop

We love agility — that telltale combination of speed and nimbleness that marks great performers — not just because it’s beautiful, but also because it’s useful.

Quick thought experiment: Go find the best chess player in your area. Offer to bet them $100 on a game if they’ll play you under the following conditions:

  • 1) you give up half your pieces before the game starts
  • 2) you move twice for every one of your opponent’s moves

What you’ll find is surprising. Despite being outsized; despite your opponent’s higher skill level, you will win. In fact, you can give up practically all the pieces and still pull off victory because of a simple reason: you are more agile.

We see that same pattern at the core of many recent successes in sports and business. Think of the revolutionary no-huddle offenses succeeding in college and the NFL; or Obama’s block-by-block data-driven strategy of the 2012 election, or the continued success of the lean-startup model — all of which are the same story: speed and agility trump all other qualities — including skill, size, and experience.

So, where does agility come from? How do you build it?

We get a useful answer from an unlikely source: a fighter pilot named John “Forty Second” Boyd. Boyd, a Korean war pilot who went on to be head of instruction at the USAF Weapons School, was famous for his standing bet with trainees: he could, from a position of disadvantage, defeat any of them in a dogfight in 40 seconds or less.

Boyd’s secret? The OODA Loop, which Boyd developed to increase the speed and agility of fighter pilots, and which has since been adopted by many sports teams and businesses. It works like this:

O: Observe: collect the data. Figure out exactly where you are, what’s happening.

O: Orient: analyze/synthesize the data to form an accurate picture. 

D: Decide: select an action from possible options

A: Action: execute the action, and return to step (1)

The genius of Boyd’s idea is that it shows that speed and agility are not about physical reflexes — they’re really about information processing. They’re about building more/better feedback loops. The more high-quality OODA loops you make, the faster you get.

When you tune into it, you start to see OODA feedback loops everywhere: in Messi’s seeing-eye passes, in Google’s quicksilver iterations of its online products, in the daily routines of successful stock traders. They’re all fast, but they succeed because they are ruthless about following the OODA loop. They observe, orient, decide, and act — and then start the cycle over.

The real key in using OODA loops is to embrace clarity. You have to be 100 percent merciless about figuring out where you are, what’s really happening, and where you want to go. If you shade the truth to protect your ego, you lose the chance to improve.

So here’s a takeaway: in order to get more agile, the first step is to be brutally honest with yourself.

(PS – Big thanks to reader Andrew Lingenfelter, who pointed out OODA loops in a comment back in July.)

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