Certain to Win

Summary Written by Rex Williams
"Business is a dogfight. Your job as leader: Outmaneuver the competition."

- Certain to Win, page 66

The Big Idea

Agility is the key to victory

"We think perhaps we may have gotten inside of the enemy’s decision-making cycle and arrived with a tempo that put us in place before they could respond to the impending threat that now is a matter of history."- US Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, Doha, Qatar, April 4, 2003, quoted in Certain to Win, page 47

Agility seems like such a simple idea, and one that is not new. Software development has borrowed the word ‘agile’ to describe their breakthrough workflow technique. Entrepreneurs and startups have forever boasted that their agility is the key to battling with the big guys. Agile athletes can often out-perform stronger opponents. We know there’s something to this concept, but we just don’t unpack it enough to really understand how it works. Boyd defined it in a way that gives elevated understanding and allows for broad application.

The essence of agility, from Boyd’s perspective, is to keep one’s orientation well matched to the real world during times of ambiguity, confusion, and rapid change, when the natural tendency is to become disoriented.

Yes, that sounds like war. But in the rapid change world of business where ambiguity and confusion are rampant, the same principles of agility apply. The time it takes for your side to reorient to new conditions, compared to how long it takes your opponent, is why Boyd’s strategy is also referred to as “time-based competition”.

The OODA loop is meant to be done quickly. “You are simultaneously observing any mismatches between your conception of the world and the way the world really is, trying to reorient to a confusing and threatening situation, and attempting to come up with ideas to deal with it. It is the quickness of the entire cycle, and in particular, the time it takes to transition from orientation state to another…that determines agility and competitive power.”

For me, this means taking action more quickly and then reassessing my situation. I tend to get stuck in the decision phase, not quite confident enough to act. But I know that most actions don’t have as detrimental consequences as inaction. Most of the time, they’ll be beneficial.

Insight #1

Strategy creates agility

"Therefore it is said that victorious warriors win first, then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first, then seek to win."- Zhang Yu, commentator on The Art of War, quoted in Certain to Win, page 74

Strategy fills the gap between our present goals and future actions. They are not plans, even though they may seem similar. A plan is an intention about how to get from where we are now to where we want to be in the future. But since many things change beyond our control, so do plans. Strategy is a higher order device used for creating and managing plans.

This is why agility is based on what kind of strategy you have. If strategy is not informing plans, then you will stick to your plan regardless of the situation or new information – that is not being agile.

To build a plan we need to make assumptions about what the future will bring. But instead of building endless complicated scenarios of ‘what ifs,’ a robust strategy will provide you with focus and direction that allows you to change plans as necessary.

My plan then (in the generic sense) is to develop a higher level strategy for my life, that allows me to move towards the future I desire, using many different specific plans based on my situation at the time. Having this understanding makes it easier to change plans.

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Insight #2

Culture in business is fundamental

"Man is the child of custom, not the child of his ancestors."- Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, 1377 A.D., quoted in Certain to Win, page 100

In order to have an organization full of people who are continually executing rapid OODA loops, you must build a culture that fosters this kind of activity. This is not a trivial task. Culture isn’t the kind of thing you can build in a week, or a few months even. It takes sustained, consistent behavior from all leadership and employees.

Herb Kelleher, ex-CEO of Southwest, is known for saying that competitors could copy his system but they couldn’t copy the culture.

Chet Richards, the author, explains Boyd’s concepts of “an organizational climate for operational success” as four “key attributes of the Blitzkrieg.” You’ll recognize ‘Blitzkrieg’ as the term used to describe the military strategy of the Germans in WWII. Boyd analyzes it in depth and shows how comprehensive and powerful it was, including many aspects most people will not be aware of. His concept of OODA is derived from the German’s strategy.

The four key attributes are:

1. Einheit: Mutual trust, unity, and cohesion.
2. Fingerspitzengefuhl: Intuitive feel, especially for complex and chaotic situations
3. Auftragstaktik: Mission, generally considered as a contract between superior and subordinate.
4. Schwerpunkt: Any concept that provides focus and direction to the operation.

Richards liked to use the German words to preserve the real meanings, since he felt there were no exactly equivalent words in English.

Surprisingly, you might assume the German army to be more ‘command and control’ oriented than the US, but these attributes built a culture where decisions were decentralized enough to ensure victory.

Regardless of the misguided purpose and reprehensible actions of the German WWII military, we can still learn principles that will help us be successful in the chaotic battles of business.

Are you agile enough to be certain to win?

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Chet Richards

Chet Richards was a close associate of the late US Air Force Colonel John Boyd beginning in the mid-1970s. He has consulted with a number of aerospace and professional services companies and has lectured at the Air War College and the Army’s Command and General Staff College. He is the author of A Swift, Elusive Sword and other works on applications of Boyd’s strategy. Chet holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Mississippi and maintains a business and communications strategy practice with Tarkenton & Addams, Inc., a public relations firm in Atlanta, Georgia.

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