OODA: The Mindset of Scrum

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

While working with Dr. Jeff Sutherland, he often proclaimed that OODA is the Mindset of Scrum. A former RF-4C Pilot with intense combat experience over the skies of Vietnam, and the co-creator of Scrum, Dr. Sutherland is an expert in both flying the OODA loop and applying it to Scrum.

OODA and Scrum

Scrum is from the Toyota Production System and OODA loop, according to Jeff Sutherland
"In the book [Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time] I talk about the origins of Scrum in the Toyota Production System and the OODA loop of combat aviation."

- Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum

What is the OODA loop?

The OODA loop is an individual and organizational learning and adaption process, a non-linear decision-making framework fit for survival and growth in this VUCA world.

Air-to-Air Combat and the OODA Loop

Over the skies of Korea, years before Jeff Sutherland and his RF-4C’s Weapons System Operator’s (WSO) flight plans were constantly disrupted by North Vietnamese gunfire, SAMs, and MiG fighters, John “40-Second” Boyd was mastering the art of air-to-air combat in the American built F-86 Sabre.

For almost four decades, Boyd reflected back on his experiences in the skies over Korea to understand how a seemingly inferior aircraft, the American built F-86 Sabre, had a kill ratio of 10:1 over the nimbler, more agile MiG-15. As an F-86 pilot who regularly engaged with MiG-15s, Boyd realized in the mid-1970s that it was the F-86’s bubble canopy that provided American pilots better situational awareness (the ability to better observe and therefore process reality) over MiG-15 pilots. In addition to giving pilots better situational awareness, as Boyd would also realize in the mid-1970s, the F-86's ability to "Pivot," or what Boyd called "Fast Transients," gave American pilots the real tactical advantage over the MiGs.

Scrum-OODA Timeline

The OODA loop is often associated with fighter aviation from the 1950s but the first OODA loop sketch did not appear until 1995, four years after the creation of Scrum by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, and nine years after Takeuchi and Nonaka wrote about Scrum project management in their 1986 Harvard Business Review article, The New New Product Development Game. Side note: Rumor has it that Professor Nonaka is writing a book on the OODA loop.

If you are interested in learning more about the OODA loop, you can get the "Gouge" here as well as John Boyd's final sketch of his real OODA loop.

The connection between the Toyota Production System and the OODA loop

The Toyota Product System, according to Chet Richards, close friend of the late John Boyd and author of Certain to Win, is a manifestation of maneuver warfare applied to a production system. Maneuver warfare in the military is associated with John Boyd and his OODA loop. Interestingly, John Boyd studied the Toyota Production System in the late '80s but he also studied cognitive science, psychology, cybernetics, biology, strategy, systems and complexity thinking, and warfare before synthesizing what is now known as the OODA loop.

The Infinite Game

The OODA loop allows us to play an infinite game where the rules constantly change and players come and go.

Below is the OODA loop as found in Jeff Sutherland's book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.

Boyd's OODA loop as found in Scrum: Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time

A short personal history of presenting the OODA loop as the mindset of Scrum

A few years ago I tried my best to explain this “Mindset” when I co-coached with Joe Justice during his Scrum in Hardware – Train the Trainer course. It was a daunting task considering I was surrounded by some of the world’s finest Scrum Trainers and Agile Coaches and was asked to deliver the “Origins of Scrum” using Scrum, Inc.’s slide deck. Not easy.

Knowing that much has been written about the connection between Scrum and OODA including Steve Adolph’s 2006 paper, What Lessons Can the Agile Community Learn from A Maverick Fighter Pilot, I decided to spend my limited presentation time focused on two lesser known features of OODA: empathy and fast transients. Before rolling-in on these two features, here is some more background on Scrum

According to Jeff Sutherland, Scrum’s origins are in OODA and hardware manufacturing, not software. In fact, for those of you who are Lean Startup practitioners, you may want to adopt OODA as your mindset as well considering the Lean Startup is based on the OODA loop. Similarly, Cyber Security borrows from Boyd’s OODA Loop as do several product design approaches.

Back to Scrum.

Scrum is widely practiced by software development teams but is applicable for transitioning work from the complex domain to complicated domain of the Cynefin framework. Best place to learn about Scrum is the 19-page Scrum Guide. If you want to learn about the interplay between the OODA loop and Cynefin framework, join Dave Snowden and me this November in Quantico, VA for the Cynefin-OODA loop exploratory.

OODA: The Mindset…

As I had limited time during my “Origins of Scrum” presentation, I decided to focus on empathy and fast transients, two lessor known characteristics of OODA.

Empathy: Get inside the mind of your customer

A 1 v 1 dogfight is an exercise in empathy, according to the award-winning thinker, author, broadcaster, and speaker on today’s most significant trends in business, Geoff Colvin. In his 2015 book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will, Geoff proposes that “Even a fighter jet dogfight, in which neither pilot would ever speak to or even see the other, was above all a human interaction. Few people would call it an exercise in empathy, but that’s what it was—discerning what was in the mind of someone else and responding appropriately. Winning required getting really good at it.” (Page 96) In his 1995 briefing, The Essence of Winning and Losing, John R. Boyd points out that analysis and synthesis are dependent on implicit cross-referencing across different domains including empathy.

Fast Transients: The organization that can handle the quickest rate of change survives

The ability for your organization to transition from one state to another faster than your competition will ensure your organizations survival. Moreover, “Fast Transients” will bring confusion and disorder to your competition as they under or over react to your activities.

Orientation is Schwerpunkt (focal point)

Orientation is the “genetic code” of an organism and cognitive diversity is key to creating innovative solutions to complex problems.

Focus on Feedback Loops

One feature of complex adaptive systems are feedback loops. Learn how to provide feedback. Effective retrospectives are a great start.

Leverage Uncertainty

We live in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Agility is Adaptation with a Time Scale

Adaptability is a cognitive skill found in High-Performance Teaming™ and Crew Resource Management. Agility is adaptability with a time scale and that time scale is rapidly shrinking.

Non-Linear Systems Have Inherently Identical Structures

When looking for solutions to problems, look outside your industry. The future already exists.

I look forward to your feedback and comments.

Updated September 16, 2019

Previously updated January 20, 2019.

Originally published February 20, 2016.

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering naval aviator, co-founder of AGLX Consulting, LLC, and creator of the High-Performance Teaming™ workshop, an evidence-based approach to rapidly build and develop high-performing teams. Brian “Ponch” Rivera is also the creator of the ZONEFIVE™ Team Performance Indicator, a CE Cynefin Foundations trainer, and co-creator of the Toyota Flow System. Contact Brian at brian@aglx.consulting.

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