ON SNOWMOBILES, AND SEEING WHAT OTHERS DON’T

The concept of Auftragstaktik (or “Mission Command”) dictates that human beings are most set up for success when they are internally motivated to achieve a common purpose, and provided with the tools, resources, and latitude to chase that purpose in their own way.

I believed then, and still do, that leading people is not science — it’s a form of “magic” that comprises many elements and emotions, and only a small number of would-be leaders ever understand how to wield it. Understandably, the expense and frustration of keeping all those frogs in the bucket incites many organizational managers to seek ways to minimize headcount while leveraging every procedural and technological resource to compensate for a diminished pool of human capital. This is akin to burning the house down to kill a spider. Sure it worked, but at what greater cost?

People who know me personally are apt to hear me talk about Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop as the most powerful of competitive advantages. Like most paradigm-shifting concepts, it takes years of study, application, and re-examination to truly understand the power contained within. An example of this is Boyd’s “snowmobile”.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, Colonel Boyd used to present an example of how “domains” (areas of knowledge and experience) are utilized to orient to new situations and drive outcomes quicker by breaking down those domains into their components and finding new ways to assemble and apply the information. The “snowmobile” is explained by Keith Hammonds in a 2002 Fast Company article:

“Imagine four scenarios: someone skiing, someone power-boating, someone bicycling, and a boy playing with a toy tank. Break down each domain into its component parts: For skiing, there would be snow, chairlifts, skis, hot chocolate, and so on. Within their domain, the parts have directly identifiable relationships with one another. But scramble together the parts from the four domains, and suddenly it’s hard to determine any relationships at all. We are thrown into chaos.

Now, Spinney instructs, take one part from each scene: From skiing, select the skis; from power boating, the motor; from bicycling, the handlebars; and from the boy with his toy tank, the treads. What do these elements have to do with one another? At first, seemingly nothing — because we still think of them in terms of their original domains. But bring the parts together, and you’ve used your creative pattern-recognition skills to build … a snowmobile! “A winner,” Boyd concluded, “is someone who can build snowmobiles … when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change.”

Others attack this idea from the perspective of how building one’s own snowmobile is an outcome of maintaining constant personal intellectual curiosity about many domains — and this is true. Take it a step further, though. If domains and experiences are so powerful, so intrinsic to successfully applying the OODA Loop to outpace one’s competition, then it stands to reason that being able to tap into an expanded pool of domains is crucial to faster and greater understanding of any situation.

In short, having rapid access to more domains provides greater orientation. This is the power of people. It’s why “crowdsourcing” is so incredibly useful, but like the proverbial caveman rubbing sticks together to produce fire, most leaders have no grasp of how it works…and thus, how to improve the outcome.

Consider the above image of a simplified OODA Loop. Where does the true power of this concept lie? Most people would say that it’s in the Action step. After all, it’s where knowledge and decisions are applied to the real world. Incorrect.

Being able to “cycle” through the rolodex of information faster than one’s opponent is where the Loop provides the key to unlocking competitive advantage. These recursive loops, incorporating new information and cognition that builds on the previous, are called “transients”.

It’s where the sum total of all domains, feedback, and experiences meet to drive new decisions and action. By empowering the right people and soliciting their ongoing input, and further, by trusting them, a leader vastly expands his Orientation. He is able to see the world through a thousand eyes, each unit of vision harnessed to the experiences, knowledge, and creativity of a living mind.

This is why I will always argue that the “right sizers” and “efficiency experts” of the world are counterproductive to organizational success. Reducing human capital to its financial cost is a fool’s errand, and is often more revealing of a leadership deficiency than the capability of the workers.

When properly engaged, humans are force multipliers.

Their domains add to the leaders’, and much like smashing the tiniest atoms together in just the right way creates nuclear power, tapping first into the knowledge and experience of human partners will accelerate an organization’s OODA Loop to breakneck speeds and total success. Or, as Colonel Boyd would always say:

“People, Ideas, and Technology — in that order.”

Dum spiro spero,

Huntsman

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