June 18, 2015 By Venkatesh Rao
If you’re a certain sort of metacognition-obsessed person, at some point in your intellectual wanderings, you will eventually run into a murky and illegible world of ideas and practices swirling around words and phrases like OODA loop, control the tempo, snowmobile, fast transient, maneuver warfare, E-M theory, inside the decision cycle of your adversary, fight the enemy, not the terrain, and be somebody or do something. If theseseem vaguely familiar or have a peculiar resonance for you, you’ve encountered this world. It is the world of "Boydian" ideas, which swirls chaotically around the life and intellectual legacy of John Boyd. You’ve seen glimpses of this memeplex on this site before, and probably elsewhere on the Internet and in meatspace as well.
In the last four years, I’ve found myself giving impromptu and messy introductory tutorials on Boydian thought multiple times, in contexts ranging from casual emails and executive coaching conversations to online debates and talks at events. I’ve done 1-minute versions and 3-hour versions. I get reactions ranging from instant recognition ("Oh, I’ve often done that, I didn’t know there was a German word for it!") to complete and bewildered incomprehension.
I figured it’d be fun to try writing a quick-and-dirty practical guide to this stuff, so I don’t have to keep repeating myself. So this post is the first of a series meant to serve as an initiation of sorts into Boydian thought. It’s not an "introduction" since the idea space resists that kind of entry. Think of it as a guided segue into an ongoing live-fire conversation.
Why a Dialectic?
Boydian thought is hard to define, delineate or characterize clearly. Is it an approach to decision-making? An approach to creative ideation? An approach to conflict? A philosophy of innovation? Applied thermodynamics? A creative problem-solving model? A metaphysics of creative destruction a la Schumpeter in economics? A description of how the world works? A normative framework for how you ought to act? A system of virtue ethics? A cult of personality around a charismatic figure? A playbook for being an effective CEO or general? A big brother to "Lean" or "Agile" thinking? An approach to entrepreneurship? A model of guerrilla warfare? A US Marine Corps religion?
Unfortunately for your sanity, the answer really is all of the above.
But this does not mean Boydian thought is a random collection of non sequiturs. Or that it simply reflects the wide-ranging interests of one idiosyncratic individual. In terms of Isaiah Berlin’s fox-hedgehog typology, this is not the inventory of a fox-mind. All these pieces fit together harmoniously into a decidedly hedgehog world view. It’s just that understanding the gestalt is…complicated.
The best way to think of this evolving memeplex of ideas and practices (though the evolution has, to be honest, slowed to a crawl since the death of John Boyd in 1997) is as a dialectic. It is a dialectic in the same sense as Socratic or Hegelian dialectics.
This becomes clear when you try to use the ideas. You will quickly find that the best way to use them in everyday life is to level up consequential conversations (including ones inside your own head with yourself) in a certain way.
I’ve found I can’t really "teach" or "explain" this conversational style. The best I’ve been able to do is help people recognize when they’re already thinking and processing in "Boydian" ways, and help them refine their practice. The few scattered useful readings on the subject don’t help as much as just conversational practice thinking with the ideas.
In my consulting, I find that if a client takes naturally to Boydian thought, it makes for a very high-leverage foundation for the relationship. What I like to call my "sparring partner" approach to 1:1 consulting works much better if the foundation is Boydian. How much better? I’d say around 3x – 10x, depending on how familiar the other person is with the ideas. This means Boydian processing of a problem or challenge through conversation can be 10x faster (by contrast, the Socratic and Hegelian dialectics, which can also be used to frame conversations, tend to slow things down rather than speed them up).
I have been idly trying, for nearly four years now, to distill the unique gestalt of this dialectic into a tweet-sized description, and I think I finally have it. Just as the Socratic dialectic is about a stylized kind of discovery by interrogation, and the Hegelian dialectic is about thesis, antithesis and synthesis, the Boydian dialectic is about the interplay of serendipity and zemblanity.
Serendipity and zemblanity. Creating and manipulating good luck and bad luck. Pleasant surprises versus unpleasant unsurprises. Working indeterminate forces to control and overpower determinate ones.
That’s the central idea around which the Boydian dialectic whirls.
I’ll unpack the thought in a few different ways as we go along, and relate it to other ideas within the dialectic.
Why "Boydian"?
Calling it "Boydian" is not about according credit (or blame: there are quite a few people out there with legitimate beefs with the dialectic, as is inevitable with any sufficiently rich and non-vacuous body of thought).
In fact you can trace back almost all of Boyd’s ideas back to other thinkers and practitioners in multiple domains. These include the architects of the German Blitzkrieg model, Napoleon as analyzed by Clausewitz, Musashi, Sun Tzu, Darwin, the pioneers of lean manufacturing, pragmatic programming, Mao, and many others. Since Boyd worked in the military world, the Boydian dialectic has a distinctly military flavor, but that flavor is not an essential part of the story.
The reason "Boydian" is the most useful descriptor is that the peculiar and idiosyncratic way of putting this body of ideas together for contemporary life is inseparable from John Boyd’s personality. And this is not because he had an ineffably mysterious and cryptic personality, but because he was a pragmatic thinker for whom the specific problems he worked on through his life were more important than the abstract models he eventually ended up with. These problems ranged from rethinking fighter combat tactics and airplane design to hacking the Pentagon bureaucracy and rethinking ground warfare. These problems focused his attention and creative energies on some parts of received tradition more than others. And because he did not stick to one kind of problem, and skipped across a few domains through his career, his thinking was somewhere between domain-specific and general.
There are many ways for this swirling mass of ingredients within the Boydian dialectic to come together, just as there are many ways an operating system can coalesce out of the swirling mass of relevant ideas in computer science, mathematics and engineering. The integrated version of these ideas that is most widespread is Boydian in the same sense Windows is a Microsoft product or OSX an Apple product: it reflects the personality and brand of the primary synthesizer.
This means there is also an aesthetic at work in the specific way the constituent ideas come together. So the Boydian dialectic is at once personal and impersonal. Just as Monet’s paintings exhibit a personal aesthetic, but also impersonally embody the broader aesthetic of impressionism. Unlike the "military flavor", which is dispensable, the less tangible "Boydian aesthetic" is not easily eliminated. If you like the component ideas and broader idea space, but not the specifically Boydian aesthetic — it is not for everyone — the only way you can get rid of it is to replace it with your own. This means consciously developing your own distinct style, comprising original elements as well as elements borrowed from Boydian and other styles, just like Boyd himself did.
So when you choose to do something, like manage a company, compose a song, or wage a war, using a "Boydian" approach, you’re at once adopting a broad aesthetic from a long-running tradition, and borrowing from a particular master of the tradition.
In other words, when you try to do something in a "Boydian" way, you’re not just learning, practicing and challenging a time-tested model of thinking and doing from a tradition that is a few thousand years old. You’re doing art in the style of a particular school within that tradition that is only about fifty years old.
So to the extent the Boydian dialectic is a sort of artistic style within a broader tradition, my summary take on it as "a dialectic of serendipity and zemblanity" is something like a summary critical assessment of the work of a school of art. It is not the only possible such assessment or a uniquely true one.
This has implications. For example, the Boydian "way" of doing something may be an effective way, but it is meaningless to ask whether it is the "right" way. To do that is to treat the Boydian approach as a procedural methodology, a case of throwing out the baby, retaining the bathwater, and creating a cargo cult around it. Indeed, it may be impossible to get a given group of Boyd connoisseurs to even agree whether the way you did something is "authentically" Boydian. The point of the critical conversation is to keep the dialectic evolving, not to certify something with a Boydian seal of approval.
Fortunately for the vitality of the tradition, Boyd (deliberately) chose not to leave a canonical version of his ideas behind, around which a high priesthood could form. Unfortunately for the vitality of the tradition, this has also led to the ideas being relatively inaccessible and unmarketable, not to mention somewhat starved of fresh thinking and attention.
So to stick with the spirit of the tradition while hopefully making the ideas a bit more accessible, I am not only not going to shoot for a canonical treatment, I am going to actively shoot for a non-canonical one. When it comes to the Boydian dialectic, heterodoxy is the only orthodoxy, heresy is the only gospel, and the only possible authoritative account of the ideas is a revisionist one. Which means the only way to be a priest is to be a heretic.
Game Rules
I am not a very practical person myself, but I realize that most people attracted to the Boydian dialectic are. So I’ll try to be a bit more practical than I normally am.
It’s probably going to take me 4-5 posts to cover what I want to, and I am not making any promises about when I’ll get through them, or indeed, whether I’ll get through them. But I’ll try to make each post relatively self-contained, under 2500 words (my usual is 4000+), and thematically focused rather than too discursive. I’ll also try and get through the series in less time than my last longer series, the Gervais Principle, which ended up spanning 5 years.
But just to set expectations, I am not an expert on military matters or Boyd. Though I am probably among the few civilians to have visited and browsed through the Boyd archives at the Quantico library, I have not pored deeply over Boyd’s briefings, his (heavily annotated) source materials or limited writings. I am not, nor do I aspire to be, a "Boyd scholar."
So what I am going to try and do is very selectively pick out and arrange the elements of the Boydian dialectic that I have personally found most useful (both for myself, and for helping others) in a hopefully useful way.
In terms of where I fit in within the tradition, though I casually know many of the people in the core Boydian community (yes, there is such a thing), I wouldn’t consider myself an insider. I know too little of the intricate details and continuing practice of Boyd’s military legacy, and my grasp of the Boydian canon, to the extent such a thing exists, is impressionistic and shallow rather than detailed and deep. At best, I count as a ringside spectator of the Boydian tradition proper.
What I do have though (almost entirely by accident), is a perspective on the core ideas that is perhaps richer than most, due to being positioned in a neighboring tradition — systems and control theory in engineering — that has a lot of overlap with Boydian thought. So it is worth saying a bit about how I discovered the Boydian world and became a frequent visitor and borrower.
I personally caught a glimpse of Boydian thought (via an article referencing E-M theory, a way to design fighter planes, something I was interested in as an aerospace engineering student) perhaps 15 years ago, but gave it no thought and moved on. It wasn’t until 2011, when a couple of reviewers of an early draft of Tempo pointed out the correspondences between my ideas and Boydian thought, that I paid serious attention. Since then I have explored the memeplex in a great deal more detail, and gotten to know many of the people in the Boydian world.
Tempo, with the benefit of four years of hindsight, now appears to me to be a partial "unwrapping" of the Boydian dialectic in the form of a notion of narrative rationality. If you will excuse a possibly obscure analogy, the OODA loop is to notions like the Double Freytag triangle and Freytag staircase in Tempo as a differential equation is to the integrated form of the solution. If you have read Tempo or decide to read it, it’s useful to keep this connection in mind. The overlap between the idea space I explored in Tempo and the Boydian dialectic is high, but not 100%, so don’t try to force-fit a complete one-to-one mapping.
Since my thinking on these matters have a very different starting point and direction, there are also dissonances, which I hope to explore if I ever get around to writing a second edition. It is not yet clear to me whether the line of thought I began pursuing with Tempo diverges from or converges to, Boydian thought.
Anyhow, that’s the setup. We’ll dive in next time.