Boyd's: Destruction and Creation: Mental Patterns Shaped and Reshaped.Improve Our Capacity for Independent Action. Adapt & Win! | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

“In a world of limited resources and skills, individuals and groups form, dissolve and reform their cooperative or competitive postures in a continuous struggle to remove or overcome physical and social environmental obstacles. In a comparative sense, where skills and talents are pooled, the removal or overcoming of obstacles represents an improved capacity for independent action for all concerned. In a competitive sense, where individuals and groups compete for scarce resources and skills, an improved capacity for independent action achieved by some individuals or groups constrains that capacity for other individuals or groups. Naturally, such a combination of real world scarcity and goal striving to overcome this scarcity intensifies the struggle of individuals and groups to cope with both their physical and social environments.” ~COL John Boyd

The mission in writing is to generate a Discussion and is twofold. First and foremost to bring the strategic theories of John Boyd to those willing and wanting to learn them, as well as help those LESC members in seeking and acting on opportunities or as Boyd put it; “to improve the capacity for independent action” secondly as a student of John Boyd’s theories to increase my knowledge, and improve my abilities as well, through our discussions.

My focus in writing will not to be to repeat what’s already written, although I will quote often, Boyd’s words. Nor will I be attempting to explain the seemingly unrelated fields of mathematical logic, physics, and second law of thermodynamics, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. These fields indeed do apply, yet in this fast paced world something’s are left up to individual initiative and learning at your own pace. Perhaps this independent exploration and learning will inspire questions amongst this group we can explore more deeply. Instead I will attempt to translate the meanings of Boyd’s theories, down to the level in which I have translated and applied them.

My field is law enforcement and security. I also have a military background. Most of my translation of Boyd’s work I have applied in that realm in an effort, to insure law enforcement and security officers as well as military personnel have the knowledge needed to develop situational awareness and make critical decisions under pressure in high risk rapidly changing and sometimes dangerous circumstances.  However Boyd’s theories do not apply to these realms alone. They apply to any competitive situation such as business trying to understand market trends or leaders of any organization trying to inspire initiative and innovation and more production. The Col John Boyd Strategy Group is effort to bring awareness of who Col John Boyd was and help those, part of this group understand how his theories and concepts, apply to the individual or organization in its own environment.

I thought strategically, Destruction and Creation was a great place to start our discussion because as Frans P.B. Osinga author of the book Science Strategy and War The Strategic Theories of John Boyd, Said; “The heart of the essay, Destruction and Creation is about the nature of knowledge,”  knowledge of our environment, ourselves and our adversaries or competitors. It is important strategically because it effects how we go about improving our capacity for independent action. Sun Tzu says; “Each battleground has its own rules. As a commander you must know where to go. You must examine each position closely.”

Destruction and Creation

Destruction and Creation was written by Boyd in 1976. According to Grant Hammond author of the book, The Mind of War John Boyd and American Security, it is the quest by Boyd to find scientific, mathematical and logical verification for principles Boyd knew instinctively were true. After exploration testing and refinement “destruction and creation” became the basis for most of Boyd’s thoughts thereafter in his quest to understand conflict and the competitive environment.

“To comprehend and cope with our environment we develop mental patterns or concepts of meaning. The purpose of this paper is to sketch out how we destroy and create these patterns to permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment. In this sense, the discussion also literally shows why we cannot avoid this kind of activity if we intend to survive on our own terms. The activity is dialectic in nature generating both disorder and order that emerges as a changing and expanding universe of mental concepts matched to a changing and expanding universe of observed reality.”

This is the first paragraph of Destruction and Creation and as you can see it starts out deep and holds a lot of meaning. Understanding what it means is critical if we are to advance our position. The mental patterns Boyd speaks of here are developed uniquely and individually, from birth to present. The patterns of unfolding circumstances have different meanings to different people. Boyd explains elsewhere in his discourse on winning and losing the way we perceive situations is based on our cultural traditions, genetic heritage, previous experiences, new information gathered and analysis and synthesis of the situation presenting itself at the moment. Based on this we can see, we all may be observing a certain set of circumstances yet based on our backgrounds and experiences, as well as our position we are observing from we will have different interpretations as to what, is happening. Let me unitize a simplified example, from my own experience recently, while presenting a class on the Boyd Cycle to a University Campus Safety and Security agency.


During Alumni Weekend several complaints were received about an alumnus who was approaching people and trying to engage them in bizarre conversations. He began talking about a recent murder at another college and the FBI. Several of the complainants expressed concern for their families. They didn’t know if the person was dangerous.

The most recent complaint came from the Snack Bar. Officers responded but the individual was no longer present. No one saw where he went or in what direction. The officers received the following description. White, male, approximately 40 years of age, 5’8” 160-170 lbs, light brown hair, clean shaven, wearing jogging outfit with college logo.

While taking this information and checking the building another complaint was received from the athletic complex. This complaint was actually from the suspect alumnus. He wanted to complain that the gym “monitor” was not allowing him entry into the building. He wanted to make a formal complaint.

I ask. So you have the suspicious person and the activity on the “monitor?” Response, yes the monitor had him. I ask. You have his activity on the “monitor” and you can see what actually happened and can prove or disprove the activity, correct?   So what’s the problem? For those few seconds there was a complete look of confusion that came about the faces of the 20 students in the class. Then it finally hit me the MONITOR was a person! We had great laugh and at the same time a learning moment took place on the topic of “orientation” via the Boyd Cycle. Our orientations to circumstances are based on our experiences (all of them, birth to present) and how these experiences lead to our mental pattern recognition and our concept of meaning, (perception) of what’s going on?

My experiences with monitors were they were “things” computer monitor, CCTV monitor, heart rate monitor, etc. Not a person…As this simplistic story is being told I am visualizing the above described suspicious person and his activity being videotaped from a camera hanging on a wall in the gym. I formed an opinion based on my orientation to the story being explained, this orientation changed completely once my new experience and hence an understanding of the meaning of the word “monitor” in the college security environment.  Thereby Destruction and creation, destruction of my pattern or meaning formed by my interpretation of the word monitor, as I originally saw it, thus, create a new opinion based of the new information (monitor as a person) which reshaped my whole orientation and therefore decisions and actions I would take, or in this particular case, the advise I would offer in resolving this simplistic matter of a suspicious person.

When Boyd talks of mental patterns and concepts of meaning and the purpose of his discourse is to sketch out how we destroy and create these patterns to permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment.  He is talking about adaptation! Our ability to be open-minded, willing to learn and evolve based on the five contributors to orientation (cultural traditions, genetic heritage, previous experiences, new information gathered and analysis and synthesis). This simple example above shows how the process of destruction and creation works. I was under no pressure, the risks were low and I had plenty of time to find the mismatch of my developed meaning of the word monitor verses the reality of what was meant by monitor in this set of circumstances. For a moment there was confusion and disorder and uncertainty, due to my failure to shape (adapt) initially to the campus environment. With this example in mind, you can see the need for our ability to understand this concept of destruction and creation to assist us in adapting to the constantly changing and unpredictable world, which intensifies as risk rises and time is short. If you fail at this you lose opportunity. A law enforcement or security officers lose could be life. If a business your lose could be revenue or an venture to increase revenue.

Boyd says; “Recalling that we use concepts or mental patterns to represent reality, it follows that the un-structuring and restructuring just shown reveals a way of changing our perception of reality.  Naturally, such a notion implies that the emerging pattern of ideas and interactions must be internally consistent and match-up with reality.  To check or verify internal consistency we try to see if we can trace our way back to the original constituents that were used in the creative or constructive induction. If we cannot reverse directions, the ideas and interactions do not go together in this way without contradiction. Hence, they are not internally consistent. However, this does not necessarily mean we reject and throw away the entire structure. Instead, we should attempt to identify those ideas (particulars) and interactions that seem to hold together in a coherent pattern of activity as distinguished from those ideas that do not seem to fit in. In performing this task we check for reversibility as well as check to see which ideas and interactions match-up with our observations of reality.  Using those ideas and interactions that pass this test together with any new ideas (from new destructive deductions) or other promising ideas that popped out of the original destructive deduction we again attempt to find some common qualities, attributes or operations to re-create the concept—or create a new concept. Also, once again, we perform the check for reversibility and match-up with reality. Over and over again this cycle of Destruction and Creation is repeated until we demonstrate internal consistency and match-up with reality.

Boyd called this process building Snow mobiles and went on to say if you cannot build snow mobiles you will not survive in the unpredictable rapidly changing world. “Without the interplay of analysis and synthesis one can evolve neither the hypothesis or design and follow-on test, not the original “simple minded message” nor this presentation itself.”    If we are closed minded and unwilling to explore new ideas and meanings of circumstances unfolding in front of us, we will lose in a competitive environment.

This post for the COL John Boyd Strategy Group sets the tone for what Boyd called “The Conceptual Spiral.”

A Conceptual Spiral for:

Exploration Doing Relearning
Discovery Achieving Comprehending
Innovation Learning Shaping
Thinking Unlearning Adapting

Hence a Conceptual Spiral for Generating:

Insight! Imagination! Initiative!

The next post we will discuss the Conceptual Spiral and how to build experience and pattern recognition and build “snow mobiles” as Boyd put it. Any thoughts or comments as well as areas you would like to expand upon please feel free to . That’s what the Group is about, ongoing discussion and dialog amongst students of strategy. 

Stay Oriented!


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