COL John Boyd: Building Snowmobiles and a Fine-tuned Situational Awareness

Snowmobile When reading COL John Boyd’s theories one will find it is based on constant exploration and refinement. Boyd work spanned 40 years and he practiced what he preached a Conceptual Spiral of exploration, discovery, innovation, thinking, doing, achieving, learning unlearning, relearning, comprehending, shaping, adapting; Hence a conceptual spiral for generating: insight, imagination and initiative! This constant learning, in an effort to develop our orientation and ability to adapt to changing conditions, and reach our strategic goals, utilizing the crux of Boyd’s theories fluid time competitive OODA Loops, observation, orientation decision and action cycles.

This in Boyd’s view is a constant process not in only learning strategic theory, but in translating theory and applying it to the street in the case of law enforcement and security or any other competitive environment. The mental patterns we develop must be shaped and reshaped based on the circumstances, the competitive environment we find ourselves in. You cannot use the same mental patterns learned and apply them in every situation. If you try to do so you will fail to adapt. Instead you must use these developed patterns (experience) and adapt what you have learned in combination with the new information, you are processing now, in the moment. Boyd said; “only open systems can adapt adequately to change, so an organism needs to maintain interaction with its environment if it is to survive.” This is so individually and organizationally.

In chapter 6 of Science, Strategy and War the Strategic Theory of John Boyd by Frans P.B. Osinga the author quotes Edward T. Hall book Beyond Culture (also referenced by Boyd) in an effort to bring this point of adaptation home.

“Everything man is and does is modified by learning and is therefore malleable. But once learned, these behavior pattern, these habitual responses, these ways of interacting gradually sink below the surface of the mind and like the admiral of a submerged submarine fleet, control from the depths. The hidden controls are usually experienced as though they were innate simply because they are not only ubiquitous but habitual as well.’ … The only time one is aware of the control system is when things don’t follow the hidden program. This is most frequent in intercultural encounters. Therefore the great gift that members of the human race have for each other is not exotic experiences but an opportunity to achieve awareness of the structure of their own system, which can be accomplished only by interacting with others who do not share that system…”

This describes what Boyd meant when he talked of building snowmobiles. He stated in his work, “A loser is someone (individual or group) who cannot build snowmobiles when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change; whereas a winner is someone (individual or group) who can build snowmobiles, and employ them in the appropriate fashion, when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change.”

Boyd’s approach to strategy and building snow mobiles:

Boyd started with these questions:

· What is strategy?

· What is the aim and purpose of strategy?

· What is the central theme and what are the key ideas that underlie strategy?

· How do we play this theme and activate these ideas?

Then Boyd would ask his audience to join him on a mental exercise: “Imagine that you are in Florida riding in an outboard motor boat, maybe even towing water skiers. Imagine that you are riding a bicycle on a nice spring day. Imagine that you are a parent taking your son to a department store and that you notice he is fascinated by the toy tractors or tanks with rubber caterpillar treads.

Now imagine that you pull the skies off but you are still on the ski slope. Imagine also that you remove the outboard motor from the motor boat, and you are no longer in Florida. And from the bicycle you remove the handlebar and discard the rest of the bike. Finally, you take off the rubber treads from the toy tractor or tanks; this leaves only the following separate pieces: skis, outboard motor, handle bars and rubber treads.

He then asks; what emerges when you pull all this together? SNOWMOBILE

The message is obvious; to discern what is happening, we must interact in a variety of ways with our environment. We must be able to look at the world from numerous perspectives so that we can generate mental images or impressions (orientation) that correspond with, “what’s happening now?”

To be successful reading our environment we must always be observing our situation and pulling things apart (analysis) and putting them back together (synthesis) in new combinations based on the current conditions. This gives you a more fine tuned situational awareness through past experiences and the new information being gathered.

In simple way of looking at this snowmobile example applied to the real world is; the mind becomes accustomed to our routines and if we do not continue learning (analysis & synthesis), in the current set of circumstances we find ourselves in. We become complacent, our awareness and therefore our orientation to the current situation is remiss. This puts us at a strategic and tactical disadvantage, because we have anticipated an outcome based solely on past experiences.


In law enforcement, one of the most common encounters where officers are injured or killed is during arrest or detainment phase. It is important to note that in all law enforcement encounters force is used in less than 1% of these cases. This fact develops a mental pattern of “people do what we ask them to” and over time you come to expect or anticipate that response. There is an expectation formed in the mind that nothing unusual will happen and no analysis or synthesis is taking place because we are caught up in the routine and expect a certain outcome. There is no interaction taking place, hence no real awareness. A tragic mistake strategically when the adversary you have contact with is of the 1% who has a more sinister response, than you anticipate. FBI studies have taken statements from assailants who have killed law enforcement officers in the line of duty who said; they attacked because their perception was the officer appeared to be unprepared and unaware! So they exploited the opportunity.

This building snowmobiles theory Boyd discusses holds true as well, for any organization expecting the same results in sales, negotiations or organizational morale, but continues with the same old strategy and tactics, when the climate has changed. We must understand our situation and develop a strategy to deal with it.

Boyd answers the questions he posed on strategy:

What is strategy? Strategy is a mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts, as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.

What is the aim or purpose of strategy? To improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we as (individuals or as groups or as a culture or nation-state) can survive on our own terms.

What is the central theme and are the key ideas that underlie strategy? The central theme is one of interaction/isolation while the key ideas are the moral-mental-physical means towards realizing this interaction/isolation.

How do we play to this theme and activate these ideas? By an instinctive see-saw of analysis and synthesis across a variety of domains, or across competing independent channels of information, in order to spontaneously generate new mental images or impressions that match-up with an unfolding world of uncertainty and change.

To keep things in perspective, a proper orientation of the situation you must as Sun Tzu says, “Know yourself and know your enemy. You will be safe in every battle.” For Boyd this “strategic game” as he called it was one of isolation and interaction. Interaction permits vitality and growth (strength and the ability to adapt) while isolation leads to decay and disintegration (weakness, lack of awareness and unpreparedness). He went on to say “strategy is “a game in which we must be able to diminish an adversary’s ability to communicate or interact with his environment while sustaining or improving ours”.

Boyd’s work was centered on winning conflict. What he called the Art of Success and defined as: Shape or influence the moral-mental-physical atmosphere that we are part of, live in and feed upon, so that we not only magnify our inner spirit and strength, but also influence potential adversaries and current adversaries as well as the uncommitted so that they are drawn toward our philosophy and are empathetic toward our success;

Yet be able to

Morally-mentally-physically isolate adversaries from their allies and outside support as well as isolate them from one another, in order to: magnify their internal friction, produce paralysis, bring about their collapse; and/or bring about change in their political/economic/social philosophy so they can no longer inhibit our vitality and growth.

Boyd’s essay on “destruction and Creation” is about knowledge and the “conceptual spiral” is about constant education and learning not just through schooling and books although important, but through reading the situations you are in and learn as much as you can, based on the situation, risk level and time available. This was also part of Boyd’s effort to explain the value and effect; psychology, science, math, engineering and technology have on winning conflict and as mentioned above was refine his earlier work patterns of conflict, strategic game of ?and?, and organic design for command and control, which pieces of are weaved throughout these first two short posts.

I started here, where Boyd ended his work, because it helped me as I began my study to better understand the Boyd Cycle (OOAD Loop) as it applies to the three realms of conflict, the mental, moral and physical. So it is the same I wish for those whom are part of the LESC community.

Next post we will explore the mental-moral-physical realms of conflict and how they apply to the development of a good strategy.