What was Boyd Thinking and...What Can Policing Learn From It?

I just had to share this piece and great illustration on John Boyd's work from Chet Richards's site Slightly East of New. All too often in policing we play follow the follower when it comes to new ideas, strategy and tactics. Someone in the profession mentions something that might work, or does work for them and all of policing jumps on the follow the follower train, without any real thought as to, whether or not it will actually work for their agency and community. Policing, all to often standardizes everything based off a thought without considering, context. This holds true in police training, leading and in how we serve our communities and how we respond to crisis. Research shows that context impacts even the most intimate aspects of our lives, and this conclusion offers to those who embrace it insight as well as competitive advantage, so important to policing.

It is OK to follow ideas as long as we have thought them through, got different perspectives reaching across many disciplines and stakeholders inside and outside our criminal justice system (police, community members, courts, probation, health care providers, the criminal element, academia, science, mathematics, philosophy, engineering, manufacturing, complexity theory, military, history, learning organizations, leadership methodologies, human systems dynamics, etc. etc. etc.) We must analyze ideas, develop and experiment with them to ensure they are indeed working ideas that can be applied.

When we look at new ideas, strategies, and situations objectively, detaching ourselves from the emotion and bias that often cloud or vision and judgement, we are better able to pick up on the clues that allow us to understand other people and achieve the outcomes we seek. To understand human nature, policing must appreciate the power of situations to develop sound ideas that allow one to adapt, shape and reshape them. The world around us is constantly pulling our strings, coloring how we think and guiding how we behave. And yet we barely notice. Policing must take the time to do better. The stakes of policing a free society depend on it.

Boyd, while developing his ideas, did just this and his ideas are still alive and thriving, while still being refined and implemented to numerous disciplines, beyond the military. When you think that John Boyd started developing his ideas over the skies of Korea as a Fighter Pilot in the 1950's and continued refining them, up until 1997 when he passed away, it becomes very clear how important it is to have a growth mindset, focus efforts and commit to lifelong learning. John Boyd would be proud of this, commitment and refinement of his work as he believed:

“You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after.” ~John Boyd

Chet Richards has explained Boyd's process of thinking, analysis and synthesis, very eloquently here. My hope is you will find value in this piece and take the dogma out of policing:

What was Boyd thinking and when did he think it?

In his own words:

For the interested, a careful examination will reveal that the increasingly abstract discussion surfaces a process of reaching across many perspectives; pulling each and every one apart (analysis), all the while intuitively looking for those parts of the disassembled perspectives which naturally interconnect with one another to form a higher-order, more general elaboration (synthesis) of what is taking place. As a result, the process not only creates the Discourse but it also represents the key to evolve the tactics, strategies, goals, unifying themes, etc., that permit us to actively shape and adapt to the unfolding world we are a part of, live in, and feed upon. Abstract (c. 1987)

I took a stab at illustrating Boyd’s process:


The bubbles in the arrows show some of “perspectives” he pulled apart. The boxes along the bottom represent his syntheses, the presentations that make up his Discourse on Winning and Losing.

I was involved at the two ends, “Destruction and Creation” (1976) on the left and the two boxes — Conceptual Spiral (1992) and The Essence of Winning and Losing (1996) — on the far right.

It turns out that one of Boyd’s closest associates, Chuck Spinney, also drew a flow chart depicting how his concepts developed. Chuck was intimately involved with all the boxes on the chart:


This isn’t in strict chronological order (neither is mine), but in terms of how the ideas came to maturity, I agree completely.

Both of these illustrate the process of many-side, implicit cross-referencing across a variety of domains. The rest of Boyd’s concept of Orientation, “projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection,” usually involved phone calls late into the night. Coram’s book describes this very well.

Incidentally, Chuck noted that early on, “ODA” stood for “Orientation, Decision, Action” which John came up with during his time running Development Planning on the Air Staff at the Pentagon. Later, he added “Observation.”

All of the presentations and papers mentioned here, with the exception of the Aerial Attack Study and Boyd’s original Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) papers (which would be of interest only to historians of air-air combat and are summarized in New Conception) are available from the Articles page.

Chuck blogs at http://chuckspinney.blogspot.com/