Fighter planes, minimal viable products and the key to success in business

Have you ever wondered why during the Korean War the American F-86 Sabre managed to score a 10:1 victory ratio over the Russian MiG-15 despite the fact that by most measures the Russian fighter was a superior plane (it could fly higher and farther, turn tighter, and climb and accelerate faster)? Of course you have.

So did John Boyd, a fighter Pilot during the Korean conflict, military strategist, and fighter instructor. Boyd observed that the F-86's fully hydraulic controls, which allowed a pilot to transition more quickly from one manoeuvre to another, also allowed him to netralise and overcome what should have been the MiG's technical superiority.

Boyd concluded that all combat involves a cycle of observation, orientation, decision and action – which he named OODA loops.

John Savens describes the concept: “Under OODA loop theory, every combatant observes the situation, orients himself, decides what to do and then does it. If his opponent can do this faster, however, his own actions become outdated and disconnected to the true situation, and his opponent's advantage increases geometrically”.

(For more about OODA loops, check out Daniel Ford’s book, When Sun-tzu met Clauswitz: the OODA Loop and the Invasion of Iraq.)

Eric Ries describes a similar approach in The Lean Startup: “A core component of Lean Startup methodology is the build-measure-learn feedback loop. The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and then developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible. Once the MVP is established, a startup can work on tuning the engine. This will involve measurement and learning and must include actionable metrics that can demonstrate cause and effect question.”

Too many startups begin with an idea for a product that they think people want. They then spend months, sometimes years, perfecting that product without ever showing the product, even in a very rudimentary form, to the prospective customer. When they fail to reach broad uptake from customers, it is often because they never spoke to prospective customers and determined whether or not the product was interesting. When customers ultimately communicate, through their indifference, that they don't care about the idea, the startup fails.

All implementation is made up of feedback loops. Boyd calls these OODA loops – observation, orientation, decision and action. Ries talks about it as build, measure, learn.

Successful implementation is all about making these feedback loops as fast as possible. On a macro scale it is about implementing more projects, and failing them fast and cheap. On an individual project level it’s about building a prototype, or minimal viable product as quickly as possible, and then adjusting, or pivoting. If your team can get ten of these loops completed in the time it takes your competition to get three done, you win (even if your competition is smarter and better resourced).

The more businesses and practices I work with, the more I am convinced that the success is more a function of getting through more of these loops faster than of anything else.

Love to hear your thoughts – how can you make your feedback loops faster? You can leave them below.