U.S. Air Force Innovator
by Scott Bowden
Although the United States Air Force has only existed for a little over 60 years (it was created as a separate entity in 1947), its sheer size and typical military bureaucratic tendencies made it an organization relatively immune to change. This inertia, however, ran in direct contrast to the mission of the Air Force to be both innovative in development and application of new technology (faster, more advanced aerospace systems).
John Boyd would not adhere to protocol throughout his career and was referred to as the “Mad Major” or the “Ghetto Colonel” for some of his erratic behavior. Boyd usually arrived late for meetings (usually more than 15 minutes), was unkempt in his appearance, brash, used profanity, and unruly in behavior. He was an interesting combination of the arrogant fighter pilot and academic eccentric. He did not follow rules and “borrowed” time on an Air Force IBM computer to complete the calculations supporting one of his theories. Few people left an initial encounter with a positive impression of Boyd. He also participated in a coterie of advocates known as the “Lightweight Fighter Mafia,” which alluded to the size/performance of the aircraft, not the intellectual capabilities of the group’s membership.
Despite all this, from within the middle-ranks of the Air Force came an innovator whose contributions are relatively unheralded but absolutely critical to the success of the entire U.S. military. Yet as is so often the case with innovators, though, their ideas are not quickly embraced by the bureaucratic establishment that the innovator seeks to reform.
After serving in World War II in a support role, John Boyd first excelled in his military career as a pilot in the Korean War and immediately encountered one of the infamous “puzzles” that so often confound innovators and ultimately drive them to a discovery. American jet fighters in the war were, on paper, inferior to the aircraft of their opponents (based on weaponry and speed) yet the U.S. pilots outperformed their adversaries by a ratio of nearly 10 to 1. Boyd concluded that the U.S. pilots succeeded due to the superior visibility afforded by their bubble canopies and the greater maneuverability of their aircraft. This theme continued throughout his career and applied equally to other dimensions (land, sea) as to the air. When faced with a problem, Boyd exhibited an incredible power of concentration and would search through a variety of alternative solutions until he found the one that made the most sense. Almost no outside distractions could pull him away from solving one of his puzzles.
These puzzles led to a series of innovations by Boyd:
• Wrote the first manual on air-to-air combat for the U.S. Air Force (Aerial Attack Study)
• Heavily influenced the designs of the F-15 and F-16 fighters which are still among the best in the world even though the designs are several decades old
• Created the OODA (Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action) loop concepts used in military strategy and business (the source for several articles in Forbes and the Harvard Business Review)
• Invented the Energy-Maneuverability Theory to use for aircraft design and analysis of tactics
• Defined the strategy that ensured rapid success in the First Gulf War
• Helped to initiate reform movements that spread across all branches of the U.S. Military and dramatically changed thinking about strategy.
Though Boyd was extremely well-read (Sun Tzu, von Clausewitz, Heisenberg), he never published any of his findings in leading military journals or books. He preferred to inject his ideas into operations manuals for fighter pilots and the much-maligned conference room briefing format. Indeed, his epic work was a nearly 200-slide, two-day briefing entitled “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” (later renamed “Patterns of Conflict”) which he refused to deliver to anyone, no matter how senior the rank, unless delivered in its entirety. This limited the audience that received the briefing until the word of its innovative qualities has spread sufficiently to motivate even the most time-constrained executive to make the investment to hear the presentation.
Some of Boyd’s ideas about military conflict from his famous “Patterns of Conflict” briefing are relevant to disruptive innovation in business (though in a less-confrontational sense):
• It is advantageous to possess a variety of responses that can be rapidly applied to gain sustenance, avoid danger, and diminish adversary’s capacity for independent action
• Variety/rapidity/harmony/initiative (and their interaction) seem to be key qualities that permit one to shape and adapt to an ever-changing environment
• Diminish adversary’s capacity while improving our capacity to adapt as an organic whole, so that our adversary cannot cope while we can cope with events/efforts as they unfold
• The person who is willing and able to take the initiative to exploit variety, rapidity, and harmony—as basis to create as well as adapt to the more indistinct-more irregular-quicker changes of rhythm and pattern, yet shape focus and direction of effort—survives and dominates
• Shape or influence events so that we not only magnify our spirit and strength but also influence potential adversaries as well as the uncommitted so that they are drawn toward our philosophy and are empathetic toward our success.
Despite the innovative nature of his work, Boyd was rarely accepted in the Air Force due to his constant challenging of the status quo and refusal to adhere blindly to contemporary strategies that he thought were flawed. This led to a substantial rift between Boyd and the Air Force leadership over the course of his career. At Boyd’s funeral in 1997, for instance, the Air Force only sent a single, low-ranking representative (the Marine Corps, which fervently accepted many of his ideas, sent a whole group of representatives). Yet this lack of acceptance did not force Boyd abandon his love for innovation for the institution. After retirement he refused the potentially lucrative offers from the defense industry that many of his colleagues accepted and continued to work on his theories and strategies even though it caused severe financial strain to his family (his archivist found thousands of dollars in uncashed checks for travel expenses and speaking fees after he had retired). As Marine Corps General Krulak wrote in 1997, “Colonel Boyd never sought the acclaim won him by his thinking he only wanted to make a difference in the next war.”
There is a lesson for the corporate innovator in this astute assessment. The innovator in a large organization should not focus on the praise or credit that he or she might receive from the acceptance of his or her idea. Rather, the chief measure of success is in the implementation of the innovative idea.
Sources: John Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” http://www.d-n-i.net/boyd/pdf/poc.pdf
Grant T. Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001)
Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (New York: Little, Brown, 2002)