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The New Killer App: The OODA Loop and Cynefin Framework, Part I

From counter-terrorism to counter-errorism, the OODA loop and Cynefin framework are informing leaning-forward military strategists to safety analysts on how to navigate the complexity and uncertainty of our time. From Wardley Maps to Scrum and the Lean Startup to maneuverer warfare, the OODA loop’s ubiquitous decision-making process is found anywhere non-linear methods are needed to gain a competitive advantage in our non-linear world. For those working in the fields of cyber security, AI, ML, Big Data, or patient safety, chances are the OODA loop has become part of your vocabulary and decision-making approach. Similarly, at NATO, SOCOM, and the World Health Organization, the Cynefin framework is helping leaders make sense of their operating environments so they can act accordingly.

So how do these two frameworks work together?

Dave Snowden asked me to take a stab at answering this question a little over a year ago. Recently, while working on improving safety and culture within the U.S. Navy, I realized why this is such an important task as I found myself explaining the domains of Cynefin using stages of the OODA loop while describing the nature of a mishap. This approach forced me to focus on the links of the OODA loop and provided the impetus and insights I needed to answer Dave’s question.

In a series of posts, I will share insights on this subject reserving the right to go back and improve on ideas based on feedback or criticism. Don’t worry, I have thick skin.

Image of Cynefin and OODA combined

I will eventually get to explaining the above image over the course of several posts and I present the image early as a roadmap to where I am going in this series. After a quick introduction to both frameworks and key terms, my focus in Part II will be on the sense-making phase or stage of the OODA loop and its two critical links. It is the eight OODA loop links, not the Observe-Orient-Decide-Action steps, that will be the primary focus of discussion and this approach may be a radical departure in the way many people think about the OODA loop. However, I believe this approach will provide a stronger connection between both frameworks and help in the creation of a New Killer App.

The OODA cycle is all about making decisions, and decisions have to be made in all domains. Looking at how the OODA loop would apply in each domain is interesting. – Dave Snowden

Image of Dave Snowden in front of an image of John Boyd

Dave Snowden pictured in front of John Boyd’s original OODA loop.


The OODA loop is an individual and organizational learning and adaption process, a non-linear decision cycle fit for VUCA (Volatility-Uncertainty-Complexity-Ambiguity) that addresses organizational behavior and success. Often associated with fighter aviation, the OODA loop’s creator, Air Force Colonel John Boyd, spent more than 40 years combining lessons from warfare, natural and social sciences, and strategy before drawing the “back-of-the-napkin” decision-making framework.

Image of the OODA loop

The OODA loop represents an open system and has four action steps (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) and multiple links (Implicit Guidance & Control, Feed-Forward, and Feedback). One of the key lessons in this series of posts is that the quality of the links is more important than the quality of the actions steps.

The Cynefin Framework

Image of the Cynefin framework

A few years after drawing his OODA loop in 1995, another “back-of-the-napkin” framework emerged from overlapping disciplines to include Knowledge Management, the science of Complex Adaptive Systems, and advanced human terrain mapping techniques funded by DARPA. Considered a sense-making framework by one of its creators, Dave Snowden, the Cynefin framework and its associated methods are designed to help leaders understand context so they can apply the correct method or leadership approach in changing situations.

A Few Definitions…


Introduced by the U.S. Army War College to describe perceived conditions resulting from the end of the Cold War, VUCA is synonymous with “Complexity,” “Turbulence,” and “Complex and Tightly Coupled.”

Image of VUCA domains. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity.


How do we make sense of the world so we can act in it (Snowden)

-The process of creating situational awareness and understanding in situations of high complexity and uncertainty in order to make decisions (Klein)

Why care about the OODA loop and the Cynefin framework anyway?

As the operating environment becomes more complex and tightly coupled (increasing VUCA), the non-linear and paradigm-shifting concepts and methods associated with the OODA loop and Cynefin framework are connecting and informing scalable methods in safety, culture change, and strategy. Additionally, the popularity of the OODA loop and Cyenfin framework in DevOps, Big Data, Operational Excellence, Cyber Security, Agile, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence circles is growing and creating mismatches between those who grok the frameworks and those who mock them.

OODA is a powerful concept, but with the help of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and super-strength computing power, we can create an “OODA loop on steroids. – Dr. Valtteri Vuorisalo

The Grok-Mock Gap: Examples

Image showing that Plan-Do-Check-Act is not the same as Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.

Unfortunately, the OODA loop is often mischaracterized as a four-stage cyclical model and the Cynefin framework is misused as a categorization tool. These and other abuses are expected from quick interpretations of “back-of-the-napkin” frameworks that represent decades of research. However, in the era of “Deep Fakes,” leaders should be suspicious of consultants and authors who only promote “faster OODA loops” or make reference to the “five quadrants” of Cynefin (you will need to check plane geometry for this one).

What’s Next?

I will be adding more posts to this blog in the coming weeks including a post on mapping Recognition-Primed Decision Making to the OODA loop mapped to the Complex and Complicated Domains of the Cynefin framework.

Later, I will break down the OODA loop through the lens of four of the five domains of the Cynefin framework and introduce four sections or stages of the OODA loop that align to the ontological phase shifts assumed by the Cynefin framework. Translation: I will explain both frameworks simultaneously starting with the concept of sense-making and moving on to what the OODA loop looks like in each domain of the Cynefin framework. I will also add in some key insights on both frameworks.



VUCA: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volatility,_uncertainty,_complexity_and_ambiguity

Sense-making: https://cognitive-edge.com/blog/what-is-sense-making/

Weaponising Your Data: Take OODA to the next level. Dr. Valtteri Vuorisalo’s article on https://voicesfrompublicservice.accenture.com/unitedkingdom/blogs-weaponising-your-data?lang=en_GB