“Despite what many people in business think, the hardest part is knowing your own company according to these elements. To do the comparisons correctly, absolute and brutal honesty is essential.” — Chet Richards.


Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part interview.In the world of military strategy and among a growing number of business executives, the name John Boyd and the somewhat awkward term “OODA loop” carry tremendous weight.

Chet Richards, an Atlanta business executive, author and long-time colleague of the late Air Force Colonel, is now striving to make Boyd’s thinking more relevant to business today.

In his new book, “Certain To Win”, Richards discusses how Boyd’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act”) cycle of thinking combined with thinking of the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu can help companies win today.

“The secret to long term success is creating a culture where the organization as a whole becomes better at this all the time,” Richards, a retired Air Force officer who is an executive with Tarkenton & Addams, Inc. in Atlanta,, tells Local Tech Wire. “Where it pretty much happens automatically, in other words.”

But the new book is not another “business as war” title. War and business are vastly different, he says. Instead, he talks about creating, thinking and growing — not destroying.

When asked why he draws stark differences between business and war, Richards says: “Because business is not war or even anything related to it. Practically anything you can say abut the conduct of war will have no application to business. It is a separate form of conflict.

“The typical problem with declaring ‘war’ on rivals is that you don’t win because of what you do to your rivals. Your emphasis can get misplaced. The software industry used to call this the ‘I Hate Bill!’ disease, where rival execs would work themselves into a lather over Microsoft’s practices, and forget that they were supposed to be offering superior products and services to customers.”

The focus on better products and service is a key part of applying Boyd’s thinking to business. Richards’ point is to not only develop them but to get them to market before the competition.

Tom Peters, in his book “Re-Imagine”, describes Boy’s OODA loop thinking this way: “Confuse and confound the ‘enemy’ by your speed per se. While the Champions of Inertia are busy scheduling the next ‘planning review’, you swiftly get the jobs done — and go public with it.”

The OODA Loop

Boyd, a fighter pilot who bucked the Air Force chain of command and the Pentagon bureaucracy to help create a so-called revolution in military affairs, advised then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney on how to win the 1991 Gulf War. Having studied Sun Tzu and other military strategists for many years, Boyd developed the OODA loop — to get inside an opponent’s “decision cycle”. By doing so, a general — or executive, as Boyd discussed in later years with Richards — can confuse, disorient and unravel the competition.

A crucial point of emphasis for Boyd was “time-based theory of conflict”. He wanted to compress the time between observing and acting and then execute a strategy that was the least expected in order to win a battle perhaps before it even began.

After all, a general who wins without fighting, thus avoiding cost to himself, is the ideal leader in the mind of Sun Tzu.

But in order to win, Richards stresses that Boyd and Sun Tzu also stressed that an executive has to know himself and his company.

“The key to winning in business, that is, surviving on your own terms (growth, profitability, in charge of your own destiny, whatever) lies in getting everybody in the organization to use his or her initiative to create and exploit opportunities that further the goals of the organization, while they are still opportunities,” Richards says in describing the central premise of his book.

“The secret to long term success is creating a culture where the organization as a whole becomes better at this all the time. Where it pretty much happens automatically, in other words.

“The premise comes from Sun Tzu: If you concentrate on achieving such a culture, and become better at it than any competitor, you will make yourself certain to win.

While Tzu touted the importance of knowing one’s enemies, he also put tremendous value on self-knowledge. In “Certain To Win”, Richards says having that understanding can be the most difficult challenge an executive faces.

“At the end of Chapter 3 of the ‘Art of War’, Sun Tzu states that if you know yourself and know your enemy, you will never be defeated (you’ll be “certain to win,” so to speak),” Richards explains. “What he has in mind is not a collection of assorted facts about your enemy but a set of specific comparisons that you must make —

“By pondering the items on these lists, a commander will come to understand the two sides well enough to predict what will happen when the campaign gets underway.”

The importance of ‘mutual trust’

Teamwork is also a crucial ingredient in this process, Richards says.

“The most significant indicator is the degree of unity – what Boyd called ‘mutual trust’ – between all the ranks of the army. Some translations of Sun Tzu simply call this element, ‘The Way’ (Tao) of conflict, implying that everything else flows from and depends upon it. Incidentally, neither of the lists mentions the things that most modern intelligence services obsess over — numbers and types of weapons.”

If executives and companies are honest in their self-appraisal and also accurate in assessing the opponent, Richards says they gain a tremendous advantage.

“The important point here is that it’s the relative comparisons that determine the outcome,” he explains. “If I’m better than you on the elements of these lists, then I’m certain to win. So to make a valid comparison, I have to understand both sides.”

Too many executives are not willing to take an honest look, however.

“Despite what many people in business think, the hardest part is knowing your own company according to these elements,” Richards points out. “To do the comparisons correctly, absolute and brutal honesty is essential.

“It’s a rare CEO, for example, who can admit that his or her organization is suffering from a breakdown of trust, or that another company’s scientists and salespeople are more capable, perhaps because their company’s leaders put more emphasis on long term professional growth and less on minimizing today’s unit labor costs.

“This is why companies that are successful year in and year out have mechanisms to ensure that they aren’t drinking their own bathwater. In “Certain to Win” I describe Martin van Creveld’s “directed telescope,” which is a technique every leader should consider. The Toyota culture has an interesting component called genchi genbutsu, ‘go and see for yourself’, but it’s much more than that. I describe a similar technique in the book and Jeffrey Liker has a chapter on it in ‘The Toyota Way’.”

To Richards, the CEOs and C-level execs who can’t bring themselves to make what could be harsh assessments and change their companies are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

“Companies that don’t understand the need for such mechanisms are like ships where the captain doesn’t realize that everybody is afraid to tell him or her about icebergs.”

Next: Why John Boyd’s thinking should matter to entrepreneurs and CEOs today.

Note: For information about ‘Certain To Win” and the author, visit: www.taradd.com