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The Starfish, the Wildcat, and your OODA loop. Is your organization set for speed?

  • Published
  • By Lt Col David Vardaman
  • Headquarters Air Force Special Operations Command
Have you ever considered just how fast your organization is? Through this article I hope to generate something for you to consider regarding the flow of information, and therefore the "speed" of decision making, within your organization. Using anecdotes from business, sports, and aviation concepts my goal is to show that your environment is changing and that the most likely path to success will be developed by the new generation in your organization. Let's begin with what we mean by "starfish," "wildcat," and "OODA loop."

"Starfish" is an organizational concept attributed to Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom for their book 'The Starfish and the Spider,' which outlines that 'flat' organizations are able to expedite the flow of information to the ultimate decision maker. This is done via an organizational structure that is compressed (i.e. flat) with very few layers between line workers and the senior leaders. In the age of global business markets and 24-hour customer requirements, successful companies must be able to adapt their operations at a moment's notice or lose market share and eventually get pushed to the sidelines. I submit that military organizations share this need for speed and agility.

Secondly the "wildcat" is the latest craze in the sport of football. Named for a team whose players weren't as talented as most of their contemporaries, the coaching staff recognized that if they could spread the opponent's defense across the entire field they could find a single point of advantage and exploit it; sometimes with phenomenal results. Along with spreading the field the quarterback dictates the flow of the game, which puts the defense in reaction mode and therefore behind the informational power-curve. So this form of spread offense is akin to a flat organization and also thrives on the speed of information. Again, I'd argue that military organizations share this need for speed, especially units dedicated to combat.

Finally the "OODA loop" is the rapid decision cycle theory outlined by the famous airman Col John Boyd where you try to Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act faster than your adversary. In a nutshell he describes that the aircraft (organization in our case) with the fastest OODA loop survives; the second-place finisher does not. But before you kick-start the loop, you must first have a mechanism to get the data to you or your organization. I'd argue that those in combat who can do this are successful, and those that can't become irrelevant. So where are we going with this?

To survive, organizations must learn and evolve based on the data and signals of how their environment is changing. It is a constant evolutionary process. This organizational learning process takes place in accordance with the freedom to do so by their leadership. Bottom line, if the airman on the tip of the spear is looking for his supervisor to find the path to success, then the airman and his organization may guessed it, irrelevant.

Let's use an example to tie these three items together. The "wildcat" offense has revolutionized the game of football from high school all the way to the ultimate athletes of the NFL. Look no further than the recent Super Bowl win by the New Orleans Saints (by the way, "Who Dat!"). Ask yourself; who dictated the pace of the game most of the time, who marched step-by-step down the field repeatedly, who was prepared for their front-line warrior to make the gut-check decisions in the heat of battle? I'd argue that the win by the New Orleans Saints was set in motion months before when the leaders (coaching staff) established a system of speed, both offensively and defensively. And I am not talking about athletic speed because everyone in the NFL is fast based on the physical standards of the game. It is the "speed" of decisions and reaction that counts. As proof I reference the opportunistic statistics of the Saints' offense and the defense--each was near the leader board among the 32 NFL teams in game changing benchmarks; points scored and turnovers created. In some categories they were #1 and in some they weren't, but they were consistently in the top tier.

In conclusion, I've discussed the "starfish" (flat organization with rapid information flow) and the "wildcat" (sports analogy of rapid decisions). When you combine these two under the optic of a military mind you can easily relate it to the widely accepted OODA loop concept. Unfortunately, in many cases people miss a key component of the OODA loop--information. If you can't receive, disseminate, and transmit information in an expeditious manner then your organization may guessed it, irrelevant. So, I ask you to consider, how fast is your organization?