Disaster? DO The OODA Loop

A disaster like the Costa Concordia opens a wide variety of investigations and undoubtedly many people are very busy in analyzing what caused the vessel to strike the reef and to capsize, but striking reefs and capsizing actually is nothing new and, on a technical level, actually is pretty well understood.

What is much more interesting is to place oneself in the Master’s mind immediately after the Costa Concordia struck the rock. From a technical point of view, this is the interesting part of a disaster, and where proper analysis and training can make a real difference.

Undoubtedly, it is necessary to avoid disasters. But since disasters will always happen, an even more important goal is to figure out what to do once you are in the middle of the disaster.

What really is a disaster? A disaster is an undesirable condition, but maybe it is better to define a disaster as a condition where the manager can no longer figure out what to do to get control of the condition.

This is an important consideration, because this definition shows that one person’s disaster is not necessarily another person’s disaster.

Which brings us to John Boyd. John Boyd is one of the most amazing characters of the second half of the 20th century that nobody has heard off. Here I will only discuss one aspect of his accomplishments. John Boyd was an amazing fighter pilot, but instead of riding the mystique of the right stuff, John Boyd managed to figure out what the right stuff is and developed a fighter pilot training method to teach the right stuff. He called it the OODA loop.

It stands for Observe, Orientate, Decide and Act, and then do it all over again right away.

So this is what happens to a novice in the cockpit: He’d observe enemy fighters, and then will freeze in panic not knowing what to do until he gets shot down.

Instead John Boyd would train the novice to observe, to figure out where the problem was, to engage the option that is most effective under the circumstances, to take action and to see what happened after the action was taken and start the loop all over again. That makes sense, but what is really interesting is that it gets to be real fun when you can do the loop faster than the enemy, whether the enemy is a bunch of other fighter pilots, a bunch of pirates or a sinking ship.

This approach relates to the old joke: How do you outrun a bear? You can’t, but if you run faster than the guy next to you, you’ll be all right.

So let’s get back into the wheel house of the Costa Concordia right after the vessel struck the rock. What can be done? What data exists? (Observe) What options exist? (Orientate) What can be decided? What actions can be taken?

Oddly, we ran an exercise like this a number of years ago on a very large yacht, and when the crew lost control of the situation, we stopped the exercise and had a brainstorming session to deal with the Orientate and Decide part of the loop. Remarkably, once we stopped the exercise, it became obvious that the first thing to do was to get the passengers off the vessel since it would open new options in subsequent loops. We restarted the exercise and what looked like a disaster became a manageable emergency.

Now let’s get back on the Costa Concordia, and let’s suppose the Captain had been through the exercise on the yacht. What would his training make him do?

There are alarms everywhere, he knows his engineering crew is working as hard as they can to do their OODA’s, he knows a few mates are doing their OODA’s with regard to stability and navigation, meanwhile the rest of the crew is waiting.

He doesn’t know if the vessel will float or not, but he looks out of the wheel house window and sees the lights of Isola del Giglio twinkling in a cool calm night. He grabs the PA microphone and says: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a problem that we are evaluating right now. Meanwhile we are right next to beautiful Isola del Giglio and while we are evaluating the problem, out of an excess of caution, we would like to immediately direct you to the life boats and wish you a lovely evening on the Island. Please be careful, our available crew will assist you where needed.”

The ship may still end up capsizing, but that is going to be quite a number of OODA loops from then.