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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12 Responses to “The Agility Loop”

  1. As a chess player, I think the analogy of making two moves to one does not make sense in the agility context. Making two moves to one is not just an advantage. Since chess goes by taking turns, during which each move can result in a decisive position, it’s as though in a street fight someone is allowed to perform one free attack before each attack. In that situation, any weakling could, for example, cut off the opponent’s arm or shoot him in the head, before executing a “normal” move. This game is not just tilted, it is a travesty, as in the chess game with two moves to one.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Hi Franklin, Thanks for your point — I appreciate it, and I see what you’re saying — it’s clearly, wildly unfair.
    The larger point is that this rule change is a reasonable simulation of being able to do more, faster. It’s the combination of two moves into one that provides the real strategic leverage. (It’s not quite the same as your streetfight analogy, because I’m not saying that you should suddenly be able to use your pawn to move like a queen — aka cut someone’s arm off while they stand there. You still have to obey the rules.)
    This combination of two moves in the space normally reserved for one– which is essentially what’s happening in cases like the no-huddle offense or fighter jet pilots — is precisely what agility is.
    Does that make any sense?

  3. Trevor says:

    I think the chess analogy is a good analogy. When you consider the Patriots hurry-up offense, that literally is a game changer. Taking advantage of certain variables and adjusting your actions to benefit the outcome of an offense is relatively similar to taking two moves in chess. Please consider the effects of playing faster: you get off more plays. Perhaps the Patriots only get off 30 – 40% more plays, but they do get off more plays – thus taking advantage of a controllable variable.

  4. Joe Mello says:

    When I started reading on agile software development and lean startup methods for business, I stumbled across OODA on Wikipedia. It quickly struck me as a core principle for successfully redesigning many things – software, business, education, designing products and services, and management, etc. The principle of honesty is good to highlight. We often use data we gather to support decisions we’ve already made, instead of letting the honesty if the data to guide us. Also, we tend to see what we expect, and need to learn to see clearly.

    The article begs the question – what are some good exercises to help a person see a situation and data clearly and honestly?

  5. Jose Barrera says:

    Check this article on Bill Parcells……who improved the NY Giants, NY Jets, Patriots and Cowboys from lossing records, to making playoffs in 2 seasons and in some cases making it to Super Bowls (and winning a few!)

  6. James says:

    I agree 2 moves to one would ruin chess, that is what makes it such a good analogy. The extra moves destroys the context formed by the limitations that make chess a great game.

    On the subject of agility you may find this new extreme sport apropos.

  7. Daniel, I think the street fight analogy to chess is correct, because chess is a game where every move radically alters the nature of the position and most positions hinge on a single move, not on a series of moves. This is how chess works, like a street fight. In the average chess position, if you could have two moves, you could use one move to blow up your opponent’s position permanently, then use the second move to finish him off. In real chess, you get only one move, so most single moves have a defense and therefore most kamikaze moves lead to loss for the attacker. But if you could go kamikaze without getting a response immediately, you’d win. I don’t see the ability to make unpunished kamikaze attacks to be part of any real life agility.

  8. Ryan Hockman says:

    “No Huddle” offenses vary in their tempo. An up-tempo offense, whether huddled or not, is what changes the process of defensive deployment and action. When the offense is up-tempo – or uses a variety of tempos – the defense has to go through its process (OODA) faster than it normally does, while the offense has been practicing and gaming it for weeks, months or even years. The “agility” the offense has is in its ability to process fast and taking advantage of defenses that are not used to that. The same can be applied to pre-snap offensive movement or pre- and early-snap defensive disguisement and movement.

    I think speed chess would be more applicable to processing speed. Also, the more defenses encounter up-tempo offenses, the quicker they will be able to make adjustments.

  9. Alex says:

    I was thinking about picking Barcelona plays and editing so the video would pause before the more relevant decisions and I would have to pick one and check it against the ones from the Pros. I’

  10. schubie says:

    I think we’ve discovered here that the chess analogy is not perfect. The question is whether the analogy clarifies more than Boyd’s original use of the OODA Loop, which was in dog-fighting with jets.

    I think more people would understand and identify with the idea from the chess analogy than from talking about air combat.

    Every analogy falls apart under strict and determined scrutiny, the question is how to make the analogy better so it shows the essence of the idea to non-experts.

  11. This loop only works if the opponent play by your rules.
    In football all you need to do is to break a bone of Messi and barcelona looses.
    sure it might be unfair but surely also ensure whatever loop to be gone.
    same applies in a dogfight, if the pilot isnt engaging into your responses and reactions your loop would then be gone.

    chess plays by rules, changing rules also ensure chaos, and the chessplayer if faced with such decision likely wont be able to play as good vs the opponent even with proper rules.

    any action in the context is built upon a reference model and default mode for most. knowing that operating mode allows tactical advantage.

  12. John says:

    No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar. – Abraham Lincoln

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