STRATEGY: A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focus; an effort as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world; of many bewildering events and many contending interests.” John Boyd.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part interview.The late John Boyd was a US Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist extraordinaire, not a businessman. So why should entrepreneurs and executives be interested in what he had to say?

That’s a question sometimes put to Chet Richards, a retired Air Force officer himself and colleague of Boyd who is striving to apply Boyd’s insights and guidance to business. His new book, “Certain To Win”, shows how the teachings of Boyd and the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu can be used to tremendous advantage by executives today.

“For one thing, Boyd studied the general problem of what enables groups of people to work together to achieve their goals when other groups of people are trying their best to stop them,” Richards tells Local Tech Wire. “This defines war, business, politics … any situation where I can win only if you lose. It certainly does not define all human activity, but if you do find yourself in a win/lose situation, Boyd prescribes ways to ensure that you are the one who wins.”

While Richards does not support the concept as business as war, he points out that Boyd’s thinking on beating the opponent does apply.

“Another reason for investigating Boyd is that his answers to the question of general competitiveness were largely cultural, that is, they talk about the attributes that people within the organization should develop and how the people within it should interact,” he explains.

“In particular, Boyd highlights four elements of a competitive ‘organizational climate’:

  • Mutual trust

  • Intuitive competence

  • Assigning missions (rather than tasks)

  • Designating concepts to provide focus and direction.
  • “If these don’t seem terribly profound, that may be because these terms are poor translations of four German words that Boyd distilled from his readings about the Blitzkrieg (lightning warfare) and expanded through his subsequent conversations with some of the surviving German generals as well as with military analysts from the US, the UK, and Israel in particular.

    “I devote two chapters in the book to trying to illustrate the complexity, richness and power of these concepts and how they apply to business.”

    Like Boyd, Richards has studied companies and industrial processes, looking for winners. He cites Toyota as a winner.

    “In fact, what got me started on all this was a realization that all four of these elements could be found in the two major systems at work in Toyota, the Toyota Production System (TPS) and the Toyota Product Development System,” Richards explains. “Both of these are demonstrably (that is, in cold hard data) the best in the world at what they do, and more important, they are constructed or more accurately they have evolved into systems that naturally and organically improve themselves.

    “So implementing the TPS, for example, doesn’t mean you’re suddenly in the same league with Toyota, but it does mean you’re moving on the right track and will soon out perform any competitor who is still operating according to older paradigms.”

    A reading of Boyd’s own definition about strategy shows that he realized commanders and executives need to be thinking always about changes and threats, adapting — and prevailing.

    “STRATEGY: A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focus;” he wrote, “an effort as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world; of many bewildering events and many contending interests.”

    Business as war — in a limited way

    While Richards says “practically anything you can say abut the conduct of war will have no application to business,” he does note that a good dose of competitive sprit can rally the troops. He pointed to another example from Japan.

    “The ‘we’re at war’ device — can be a good way to rally the troops — Honda used it in the ‘H-Y War’ with Yamaha, for example,” he explains. “But Honda won that ‘war’ because they were able to out-innovate Yamaha by better than 2 to 1 over an 18 month period, and customers bought the models they were introducing instead of Yamaha’s.

    “In other words, all those ‘We will crush Yahama!!’ headbands Honda employees wore would have meant absolutely nothing if customers hadn’t preferred Hondas over Yamahas. It was a trick or technique built on top of a fundamentally sound competitive culture.”

    Building a winning culture

    Executives simply can’t snap their fingers and demand their employees embrace such a culture, either. They have to work at it — live it, as Richards says.

    “There is only one way to create any kind of culture — live it 24 hours a day,” he explains. “Insist that others also live it and remove those who don’t, no matter how good their numbers. If your culture incorporates Boyd’s four elements (cited above) it will naturally exhibit the kind of disrupt, jerky, market dislocating and exploiting behavior typical of cheng / ch’I (Chinese terms for the unexpected in warfare) maneuvers and quick OODA loops.”

    Those embracing Boyd’s thinking must be careful, however. Richards notes there is a big difference between time and speed.

    “You have to be careful with overtly stressing time, at least initially,” he says. “Otherwise people will confuse it with speed and try their hearts out to do what they’ve always done, just do it faster. Such an approach is absolutely, 100 percent money back guaranteed not to work (or even be kept up for very long.) And it will probably discredit the whole approach.”

    Richards cites Toyota again as an example where competitive thinking is not done in haste.

    “While researching Toyota, (executives) will run across the notion of hansei, reflection, or as it’s usually known, ‘Make no decision before its time’,” he says. “One of the best papers on Toyota, for example, was subtitled, ‘How delaying decisions makes better cars faster.’ Their OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loops are running full bore, but the system appears to be moving at a deliberate pace. The trick is that nothing is being done over, iterated, or reworked. So the overall result is a producible design in half the time it takes Detroit, and often incorporating superior quality and technology.”

    In all of military history, one warrior — Japanese samurai Musashi – is recognized as being extremely deadly while not being the fastest. Richards used him as an example of speed vs. thinking.

    “The movements of a master, as Musashi insisted, do not appear unduly fast.”

    Next: Using OODA Loops in business.

    Part One of interview:

    Note: For information about ‘Certain To Win” and the author, visit: