The OODA Loop is is an idea that arose within the US military in the 1960s. It was developed by Colonel John Boyd. But the principles are broader than military theory, and managers can get a lot from them.
When I first learned about the OODA Loop, there was very little available to read about it. A few highly technical papers by military strategists, and copies of Boyd’s original seminar notes.
Now, there is a lot more available on the web. But almost all of it still focuses on the military applications. I want to see what the OODA Loop offers us more widely.
For hundreds of years, there has been little to challenge traditional hierarchies for their ability to organise at scale. Holacracy is doing just that.
It’s a form of Adhocracy, which we covered in an earlier article. But, whilst we are way past ‘peak adhocracy’, it seems that holacracy is is thriving.
Holacracy is a modern attempt to reform traditional hierarchies. It keeps the aspect of senior level overviews and subordinate focus. But it gives a far greater autonomy to individuals, and a more substantial decision authority to small teams at the focus of operations and change.
How do you adapt traditional project management into a rapidly changing environment? One that is characterised by shifting priorities and high uncertainty. Arguably, you don’t need to – project management has always had the tools for this. But, with the Agile Manifesto of 2001, software projects have a new paradigm. A modification of traditional approaches, called Agile Project Management.
And make no mistake… Agile has become a ‘Big Thing’. In fact, it bears some of the hallmarks of a fad, while also having a lot to offer an informed organisation with wise and pragmatic project leaders to call upon. But, as with all good ideas, it also attracts its converts and zealots.
Of course, here at Management Pocketbooks, we tend to eschew extreme and simplistic ‘right versus wrong’ arguments in management. We’re here to suck out the good stuff and brief you on what it is and how to benefit from it.
Arguably, it is how Nonaka and Takeuchi took some of their thinking forward that has led to a far bigger transformation. In 1985, they co-wrote an article for the January 1986 edition of Harvard Business Review. Called ‘The New New Product Development Game’, this article was instrumental in revolutionising the discipline of Project Management.
Takeuchi and Nonaka gave us a new way of thinking about how to develop products and deliver projects. And they coined an evocative sporting metaphor for their process, which has stuck: Scrum.
Born in 1935, Ikujiro Nonaka gained a BS in political science at Waseda University, then started work at Fuji Electric, where he created their management programme. Nonaka left Fuji in 1967, to study at the University of California, Berkeley. He was awarded his MBA in 1968, and his PhD in Business Administration, in 1972. He took posts at US universities, before returning to Japan, as a professor at the Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy, Hitotsubashi University.
Born in 1946, Hirotaka Takeuchi got his BA from the International Christian University, Tokyo. After a short spell working at McCann-Erickson, he went to the University of California, Berkeley, where he got his MBA in 1971, and his PhD in 1977. During his time at Berkeley, he also worked summers for McKinsey & Company in Tokyo and, more important, met Nonaka.
Takeushi took a lectureship at Harvard in 1976 until 1983, when he joined Hitotsubashi University School of Commerce, where he became a full professor and Dean of the Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy. He stayed until 2010, when he returned to Harvard, as Professor of Management Practice, where he is now.
The New New Product Development Game.
In January 1986, Harvard Business Review published ‘The New New Product Development Game‘ by Takeuchi and Nonaka. This was about a new way to do New Product Development, or NPD. They drew on the idea of ‘ba’ – a Japanese coinage of Nonaka’s, meaning a meeting place for minds and the energy that draws out knowledge and creates new ideas.
They also took a look at the Toyota idea of teams coming together to solve problems. They introduced a sporting metaphor from the game of Rugby; that of the scrum. They used scrum to denote the way teams work together intensively when the ball goes out of play. In a work environment that demands creativity and innovative problem solving, this is just what is needed.
The model they created for Scrum Teams is of a cross functional group that can work autonomously to resolve its own problems. Their organisation is ’emergent’ meaning there is no assigned leadership or structure; it just emerges from the effective collaboration of its members.
To work best, a Scrum Team needs to be co-located, and work together full-time. This allows a high level of cross-fertilisation of ideas, and a dedication to working on their shared problems, tasks, and initiatives.
Scrum as an Agile Project Management Methodology
Agile project management seeks to avoid the all-or-nothing approach to projects that used to characterise traditional approaches – especially when done in a way that slavishly follows a set of ‘rules’. Although good project managers have always incorporated a lot of plan-do-review (the Deming Cycle), the growth of software development projects demanded an increase focus on agility and incrementalism.
In Scrum projects, a Product Owner is responsible for detailing the business requirements and ensuring that the business gets a good return on its product development investment (RoI). The Scrum Team, led by a Scrum Master, selects one subset of functionality from a product backlog of undeveloped functions, divides it into tasks, and works intensively on developing the outputs for a fixed time, known as a Sprint, which is usually 30 days.
Each day, the team gets together for a daily Scrum Meeting to share learning, report progress, discuss challenges, and solve problems. At the end of the sprint, the team should produce a working product that is stable and useful. After a reflection and learning process, the team then works with the product owner to define the subset of functionality it will work on in the next sprint.
The team continues like this until the Product Owner concludes that the next sprint would not create enough additional value to justify the incremental cost.
Possibly the first business book I read as a new publication was an innovative take on project management. The book had a charismatic style, much like that of its author. Its title is emblematic of the focus of Eddie Obeng’s career.
Eddie Obeng was born in Ghana in 1959, and grew up in Britain, attending a boarding school in Surrey. He earned a BSc in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at University College London in 1980, and stayed on to take a PhD in Biochemical Engineering.
From there, he went to work as a scientist at Shell from 1983-5 and then to March as a consultant. During his time there, he took an MBA at the Cass Business School. This allowed him to move to the Ashridge Business School in 1987, first as an Assistant Director of Studies, and then, from 1990, as an Executive Director.
In 1994, he left to found Pentacle, an independent business school, which he still runs actively. He is also a visiting professor at Henley Business School and was awarded the prestigious Sir Monty Finniston Award by the Association for Project Management, in 2011, for his contributions to the study and practice of project management.
At the core of Obeng’s thinking is change. He has articulated this simply, by comparing the ‘old world’ with the ‘new world’.
We learn faster than our environment changes, so our learning equips us well, to cope. Stores of knowledge and experience are applicable and the learned thrive. We can build stores of best practice and we can afford long cycle times in developing new products and services.
Our environment changes faster than we can learn, so our knowledge and experience are always out of date. Constant learning and adaptation is our only way of maintaining success. We need to find ways to develop and test new ideas rapidly and be prepared to honour ‘smart failure’.
Does this remind you of the Growth Mindset ideas of Carol Dweck? It does me.
Consequently, Obeng’s teaching is based around five disciplines we need if we are to succeed in the New World:
Inventing the Future – Innovation
Delivering the Future – project management
Delivering Today – operational management
Leading Organised Talent – leadership and team management
Ensuring Results – sustaining change
All of this tracks back well to the central idea that attracted me to Obeng’s writing in the mid-1990s: that there are different sorts of change, which require different styles of leadership and different balances of capabilities and styles among team members.
These he describes as:
Going on a Quest
Goals and objectives of the change are clear, but you’ll need to figure out how to achieve them. You will need to think carefully about your resources, lead with confidence and commitment, and sell the benefits effectively. You need to stack your team with problem solvers and sleeves-rolled-up doers.
Walking in a Fog
Neither where you are likely to end up, nor the route you will take are clear. You need to move forward carefully and deliberately, one step at a time. You’ll also need to constantly reassure team members with praise for their contributions. You’ll need plenty of problem solvers and also caring people who can create strong team cohesion in the face of uncertainty.
Making a Movie
You understand the processes of change, but are open to discovering where the changes will take you. Consequently, professionalism and expertise are your your tools to ensure that the outcome will be right for your organisation. You need plenty of experts around you, who can follow processes correctly and innovate when needed.
Painting by Numbers
The clearest form of change is where the end result is evident and the means to get there are familiar. Excellence will come from precision and accuracy so it is vital to avoid the threat of complacency. As well as knowledge and skill, your team needs people who can monitor, review, and evaluate well.
This framework is now familiar to many project managers. We often learn project management as if every project is like Painting by Numbers, but it isn’t. My experience was very much with Going on a Quest projects, for example. The rise in Agile Project Management, from the mid-1990s is very much a response to this dynamic – particularly to Making a Movie and Walking in a Fog type projects.
Obeng’s charismatic style is not to everyone’s taste (see the video below), but his ideas are often stimulating and easy to grasp. At their best, they are also valuable aids to thinking about the world of work in the twenty first century.
Eddie Obeng at TED: Smart failure for a fast-changing world