OODA loops and reflective practice

As a university lecturer, I spend a lot of my time thinking about the process of learning and how we can equip our students with the tools and techniques to reflect upon their individual journeys and so use critical self-reflection as a means to develop and grow.

In the workplace, this is often referred to as ‘reflective practice’ – the process by which we seek to reflect and learn from our experiences

While this process can be applied to any form of work, it will perhaps be most familiar to readers working in the healthcare professions, where reflective practice is a key part of professional development.

Thinking about reflection

Arguably, the most famous model of reflective practice is David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle. The cycle comprises four elements: Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization and Active Experimentation. Or, more simply: something happens; we reflect on our observations; form an abstract concept around what happened; and experiment with our concept in the real world.

There are also then other useful approaches such as those developed by the likes of Gibbs (1988), Driscoll (1994) and Rolfe et al. (2011). While these models all take slightly different approaches to the process of reflection, they all tend to adopt a similar format in that ‘something happens’, we think about it, and then we take action. The main difference really is in the way we think about the problem, and the prompts we use for reflection.

Outdated models for the digital age

While these models may serve as a useful starting point to self-reflection, none of them are really fit for purpose in our modern age. Key problems include the chronology of events, the impact of external inputs and the fact that neither education nor the workplace follow a structured, linear path.

In a paper recently published in The International Journal of Management Education, my colleague Carolyn Downs and I explore these challenges in more detail and propose a new ‘solution’: John Boyd’s OODA loop. We argue that OODA loops offer the chance to reshape reflective practice and work-based learning for a world where individuals must cope with a reality that is ‘uncertain, ever changing and unpredictable’.

Introducing the OODA loop

At its most basic level, the OODA loop describes four stages: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. However, the theory is far more nuanced than the acronym suggests. This is because the loop places significant emphasis on orientation as the key guiding force that shapes how we gather observations, which themselves then feed into orientation and the way we understand our place in the world.

While several scholars have considered the applications of Boyd to process scenarios such as policing, disaster management and emergency response, none to date have used Boyd as a framework through which to consider reflective practice and learning more broadly in whatever setting it may take place – be it at home, a formal education setting, or the workplace.

John Boyd's OODA loop
The OODA loop based on Boyd’s sketch in ‘The Essence of Winning and Losing’ (1995 & 1996). The layout used here mirrors that used in Bousquet’s The Scientific Way of War (2009, pp. 187–188).

Boyd’s philosophy

Boyd’s theory emphasises the fact that all systems are subject to change, as without change they will soon fall into stagnation and decline. As such it is important that practitioners are prepared for change and adopt an agile mindset, in order to keep one’s orientation matched to the real world.

By drawing on John Boyd’s OODA loop theory, educators can help students develop critical self-reflection which will ultimately help them become more resilient and more employable, equipping them to embrace change while also embedding the concept of life-long learning.

Practical applications

If we are to think about Boyd’s teaching in terms of reflective practice, there are several key lessons that all students, educators and practitioners should take on board.

Firstly, and most importantly: all locations are learning environments, be they home, school, college, university or workplace. Furthermore, all skills are worthwhile, no matter where they have been obtained. Certificates in and of themselves mean very little. Much rather, it is the application of learning (Orientation) to any given event that is important – something the academy needs to recognise if it is to produce graduates that are sufficiently well prepared for an uncertain and ever-changing world.

As Boyd shows us, without a proactive mindset for change, all systems are destined to decay as the world changes without them – just as careers are destined to decay if workers cannot reorient themselves in the face of job uncertainty. To quote Boyd himself: ‘Without OODA loops […] we will find it impossible to comprehend, shape, adapt to and in turn be shaped by an unfolding evolving reality that is uncertain, everchanging, and unpredictable’. This is the ‘solution’ we pose to the crisis in management posed by the likes of Tourish (2019, 2020) et al. It is, we hope, but the first step in many towards a new way of thinking about business and management education.

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