Act Fast, but Not Necessarily First

By Frank Partnoy  |  Harvard Business Review

Speed is killing our decisions. The crush of technology forces us to snap react. We blink, when we should think. E-mail, social media, and 24-hour news are relentless. Our time cycle gets faster every day.

Yet as our decision-making accelerates, long-term strategy becomes even more crucial. Those of us who find time to step back and think about the big picture, even for a few minutes, have a major advantage. If every one else moves too quickly, we can win by going slow.

No one understood the challenge of time-pressured decision-making better than military strategistJohn Boyd, arguably the greatest fighter pilot in American history. Boyd developed a decision-making framework that our best leaders use today, in military and in business. It is known by the acronym OODA, for observe, orient, decide, and act.

As a pilot, Boyd advocated lightweight, maneuverable aircraft. He helped design the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which could be used like a switchblade in a knife fight. A pilot could pump the control stick back and forth, force the adversary to overshoot, and then flick through buttonhook turns to gain a tactical advantage. Boyd could outmaneuver his opponent — not by acting first, but by waiting for his opponent to act first.

Boyd saw these pilot tactics as a metaphor for longer-term strategy. What matters in battle, he said, is not merely speed. He developed a time-based theory of conflict, derived from Sun Tzu, in which the crucial insights for a fighter come in four stages. First, observe the rapidly changing environment; second, orient yourself based on these observations, process the disorder, and understand when and how your opponent might become confused; third, decide what to do; and finally, act at just the right moment, when your opponent is most vulnerable. Boyd spoke of operating “inside” your adversary’s time cycle: once your opponent moves, gauge his degree of overreaction or underreaction and swoop in accordingly.

The ultimate goal of OODA is to act fast, but not necessarily first. This applies to lots of things beside armed conflict. In general, we make better decisions when we minimize the time it takes to decide and act — so that we can spend more time observing and orienting.

Consider professional athletes. Because a pro baseball or tennis player has only half a second to hit the ball, it might seem like the key to success would be going faster. But high-speed studies show that professionals are better than the rest of us because they start their swings later. They wait a few extra milliseconds, so they can take in more information about the speed and trajectory of the ball, then orient themselves in order to make an ideal swing.

The same applies in business. The faster we can execute a decision, the more time we free up to understand the task, gather information, and analyze the issues. If we require too much time to decide or act, we are forced to finish observing and orienting earlier. And if we act too quickly, we might respond to a problem that changes or even goes away before the deadline. The four-step OODA framework works for decisions of all types, small and large:

1. Observe

The first step of any good decision is to take in information. What are opponents doing? How are they superior or weaker? Are there relative drawbacks to your product or service?

This first step is the easiest one to ignore under time pressure. But it is the anchor to good decision-making. Great leaders assess how the winds are changing before they set sail.

So the first step is simple: what do you see?

2. Orient

Once you have gathered the relevant information, the next step is to process it and position yourself for a decision. Orientation means becoming aware of the implications of what you are seeing. How important are particular strengths and weaknesses? Where is the open water?

The second step also gets lost when time is tight. Yet without a proper orientation, a business will head off in the wrong direction.

3. Decide

Finally, once a manager has gathered information and understands the key questions (who, what, when, and where), it is time to make a choice. Notice that this step is distinct from action. It is purely mental, the moment before implementation.

For the third step, it is important to make a confident, firm move. This decision is not the first — nor will it be the last. There will be time to adjust later. Remember, the enemy is watching.

4. Act

Finally, every businessperson understands the importance of execution. Once a decision has been made, it should be implemented in the most efficient, straightforward manner. Don’t look back.

The fourth step is not the final one. Once it is complete, go back to step one: observe. Don’t second-guess. Instead, assess. How quickly do you need to change your product cycle? Are your customers changing? What information do you need? Ask these questions, and then look. As a pilot, Boyd would constantly adjust his speed and tactics, cycling through the “OODA Loop” to refine his plans, confuse his opponent, and maintain superiority.

Boyd, like the most successful business decision makers, outgunned his competition because he was so good at managing delay. He got fast in order to go slow. He used time, instead of letting time use him.