Training the Whole Circle: Blending Boyd's Cycle and Cooper's Color Codes

My good friend Steve Cliffe of Imminent Threat Defense Systems, LLC out of Buffalo, NY has written a very interesting article on Training the Whole Circle: Blending the Boyd Cycle and Coopers Color Codes that's been published over at

“In any comprehensive self-protection training discussion it is inevitable that you will eventually hear mention of Boyd’s Cycle (a.k.a. the OODA loop, which will be used interchangeably throughout this article) and Cooper’s Color Codes.  These concepts are usually used to begin a discussion on situational awareness or the skills required to be ahead of the curve (proactively positioned and precognitive of the many facets involved in any particular scenario) rather than reactive and caught unaware—in the position of trying to stem an attack that you should have seen coming in the first place.  The following is a brief discussion that considers the broad-strokes of these two threat response codes and how we can use them both more effectively as companion strategies in our personal protection training.  In part, my intention is to oversimplify these two important set of training icons to provide the novice with a better working vocabulary.”

My first question, (a reoccurring one the last couple of weeks) upon reading Steve's article was, does the Boyd Cycle indirectly cover Cooper’s Color Codes in the observation and orientation phases and do the color codes enhance the all important decision and action phases taking the Boyd Cycle to the next level? 

After two weeks of thinking about this, reading articles such as this one by Steve Cliffe, Mike Asken’s article From OODA to AAADA, conversations on the topic with John Demand of Observation on Demand, a couple of outstanding posts over on the Disciples of Boyd Strategy Group on LinkedIn, discussions with cops in training all got me to thinking about one, how do we refine this process of developing superior situational awareness and decision making?

Ed Beakley of Project White Horse brought up an interesting point about orientation and situational awareness, that first stopped me in my tracks and then took me to more research and refining my own thoughts and ideas on the Boyd Cycle. Ed states:

 While definitely related and overlapping, Situational Awareness and Orientation are not the same thing. SA is knowing where things are, how they're moving, some level of Intel-based backplane on who, what, how, tendencies/history in other situations, and maybe some derived aspect of their intent. Orientation incorporates SA but allows for and requires a different type of "knowledge" (vice data) - Boyd's depiction of the Big O. But he really didn't go too deeply into the process of analysis-synthesis to decision. As I have stated previously, I believe it to be seriously situational dependent with the simple-complicated-complex-chaotic recognition of environment if not the most important factor, at least in the top two or three.

For the simple case - and I consider the MiG/Sabre dual a perfect example - the "observation" of the MiG gives both SA and Orientation as one and the same, since the fighter pilot brings this orientation to the fight via training and experience. But as the incident moves to complicated, complex, or chaotic, the SA circle acquires fuzzy edges and the boundary lines on Orientation move outward - more and more aspects necessary for actionable understanding.

At the far end - extremely undeterministic - the responder senses and sees disaster - but cannot determine the correct solution. He acts to limit damage AND gather more information so as to better define the SA-Orientation relationship.

Note from Frans Osinga’s Science Strategy and War The Strategic Theory of John Boyd he states, Boyd stresses, ‘how orientation shapes observation, shapes decision, shapes action, and in turn is shaped by the feedback and other phenomena coming into our sensing or observing window. Without the context of Orientation, most Observations would be meaningless. Boyd is particularly detailed about Orientation. To survive and grow within a complex, ever changing world of conflict it is necessary to have insight and vision, focus and direction, he had stated earlier. To that end, Boyd says, we must effectively and efficiently orient ourselves; that is, we must quickly and accurately develop mental images, or schema, to help comprehend and cope with the vast array of threatening and non-threatening events we face. This image construction, or orientation, is nothing more than the process of destruction (analysis) and creation (synthesis) he discussed in his briefings. It is how we evolve. Evolve in a given set of circumstances.’

I  use the term “Turn on your Boyd Cycle” in an effort to get folks to understand the importance of  possessing the proper attitude or mindset when dealing with conflict and violence so we are prepared and ready to adapt and act accordingly. This is the insight, vision, focus and direction component discussed by Boyd as Osinga mentions above and in my view the mindset Cooper discusses in his Color Codes. In affect Coopers Color Codes ready you to observe-orient-decide and act !

During interplay between, humans, in conflict our strategy, tactics and operations blend and work together allowing us to adapt in real time to stop a threat. It only makes sense that the decision making concepts we utilize must blend cohesively as well. There is a time for persuasion and a time for force and as cops and security professionals we must balance this paradox in performing our duties. Steve explains this concept very nicely as he blends OODA with Coopers, white, yellow, orange and red color codes of awareness. 

I often preach, learning, unlearning and relearning and its importance to becoming more effective on the street. The last couple of weeks I had to do just that, LEARN-UNLEARN and RELEARN. The Boyd Cycle and Boyd’s theories I firmly believe will save a cops life on the street by reducing friction in our decision making cycle and increasing friction in our adversaries. The theories of Boyd are complex, as is the nature of conflict and violence. We must be self aware and open-minded to new ideas to improving these concepts so we first and foremost understand them and then apply them in context of the ever changing and complex conditions we find ourselves in. Thanks to all of you who keep me on my toes, thinking and adapting. My hope is the ideas, convert to training we can all apply on the street.

Developing skills for situational awareness and pattern recognition are key to properly working through Boyd’s cycle because if we are not placing things in their proper context we are potentially ignorant of the implications – in effect, we place ourselves in the White according to Cooper’s codes by neglecting this aspect of tactical training.

Steve has done a great job showing the relationship and how mindset enhances the Boyd cycle by blending it with Coopers Color Codes. Read Steve Cliffe’s great article: Training the Whole Circle: Blending Boyd’s Cycle and Cooper’s Color Codes

Stay Oriented!