Becoming data-driven: lessons from a fighter pilot

(part 1 of 4)

John Boyd revolutionised US Air Force strategy in the ’70s and ’80s. Along with being known as the ‘Father of the F16’, he is most remembered for the ‘OODA loop’.

The OODA loop was not just a strategy but a way of thinking, a mindset for fighter pilots to practice and use to get the edge over their opponents. It’s since become popular in business, and is more relevant than ever in today’s fast-moving, data-driven business environment.

Thinking about your data assets and processes in terms of OODA is a great way to make your business fully data-driven and out-manoeuvre your competitors. In this article, I’ll provide a brief outline of how OODA works, along with details on the first step.

We’ll be publishing further steps in the next few weeks, so do sign up to our newsletter or follow us on Twitter so you don’t miss out.

The four steps of OODA are OBSERVE, ORIENT, DECIDE and ACT.

As you read through this series, it’s important to remember that each step of loop feeds into all the others, feedback from one will help you improve what you’re doing elsewhere.

For example, when you are at the Orient step, you will often realise that you are missing info you need, and will therefore need to expand your Observations to take that into account

Step 1: Observe

The observation step of the loop is all about gathering information about the situation you’re in. For a fighter pilot, this might be about the speed and position of his or her adversary.

In business, this is about working out what your metrics are, and what drives them.

The best way to do this is to decide on your primary metric, and work back from there. For many businesses this will be profit or turnover, depending on whether they’re growth or profitablity focussed.

To work back, you need to work out what underlying numbers make a difference, and keep going. Some people find the five whys method useful; the point is to keep asking questions until you get to numbers that you can use in the following steps.

For example, if you’re doing business to business telephone sales, you might go through the following steps:

  1. Our goal this year is to increase overall turnover and grow
  2. Growth requires us to increase the number of new customers signed up
  3. The number of customers signed up depends on both the number we call and the number of those calls that convert
  4. The conversion rate depends on how well customers have been targeted based on their propensity to buy

Once you get a couple of steps down the process, you’ll discover more and more data points you could be looking at. That’s fine - with practice, you’ll learn to select the most important ones to measure and take action on.

In our example above, the business might select conversion as a particular metric of interest, since increasing the ‘number of calls’ metric would mean hiring more workers.

Having decided on your data points, you’ll need to make sure you’re gathering them reliably. This is where a data audit can come in handy, whereby you consider all of your data sources and systems and work out what’s missing or needs to be made more efficient.

Some busineses will find they already track what they need to know; many will need to invest in new systems or processes to record the relevant data.

It’s also important, at this stage, to reflect on what you do not know. Often,it will be necessary to consider third-party data suppliers in order to enrich customer records and provide the necessary insight.

Your observation step enables you to understand where you are, clarifies what you should be thinking about, and lays the foundations for becoming a truly data-driven business.

In 2018, all businesses are data businesses. Make sure you’re using your data effectively to help you reach your business goals.

In the next entry in the series, we’ll be talking about Orientation: working out what the data you’ve just gathered is trying to tell you. Sign up for our newsletter or follow us on Twitter to be notified when it’s published.

About Tech City Labs


Tech City Labs

Tech City Labs is a full-service data agency, offering a range of data services from audit through to strategy, processing to enrichment, and complete platform hosting. We love to help businesses make the most of their data resources, helping them grow and operate effectively. You can find out more by contacting us here: