I know a secret that will make you invincible. It will turn the odds in your favor so that you never ever fail. Companies like PayPal, Twitter or Instagram all did it and they’re not doing half bad! As tons of other good stuff, the army had it first:
Colonel John Boyd and the OODA loop (aka Boyd’s Cycle)
“The mad major” – one of his nicknames – was a famous military strategist and officer for the U.S. Air Force. His model for aircraft performance, now a world-standard for the design of fighter jets, made the famous F15 and F16 possible, and his tactical skills proved invaluable in the planning of Operation Desert Storm.
Boyd based all his research and strategies on one key concept which he dubbed OODA: a continuous cycle of processes that take place in all intelligent organisms and organizations:
- Observation – get data from the environment
- Orientation – analyze, synthesize and interpret the data you got in step 1
- Decision – based on your interpretation from step 2, make a decision for the course of action you should take
- Action – the actual, physical action-taking.
These processes happen continuously and there’s no way to stop it. Even though it can be often interrupted when new incoming information contradicts the premises for the current action, the loop just starts all over again from the top.
What you can control though is the speed and outcome of this cycle. The faster you are at going through the loop, the more things you get done. The better your interpretation is, the better your decisions will be. The better the decisions you make, the less interruptions you get and the sooner the cycle gets interrupted if you got it wrong the first time, the sooner you’ll be on the right track.
Max Levchin and Peter Thiel started out by building encryption software for PDAs – the forefathers of smartphones – with a company called Fieldlink. It didn’t turn out to be a success so they switched the company’s focus to building software used to “beam” money between PDAs and renamed it Cofinity. That didn’t work so well either so in 1999 they launched PayPal. One year later they merged with X.com, their competitor, to become the world’s largest online payment system. In short, their OODA loop got interrupted twice. Even thought the initial plan has little to do with the product that turned the company into a booming business, Thiel and Levchin are now internet legends.
Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan started Pyra Labs in january 1999, looking to build a project management / contact manager / to-do list combo. In stead, they ended up turning an internal note-taking tool into Blogger.com. Not only did they almost single-handedly turn “weblog” into “blog” and set the word in stone for generations to come, but they also sold to Google for a tidy amount in the 10s of millions range.
Back in 2006, Odeo was working on a podcasting platform, which basically let people host audio recordings (or “episodes”) on certain topics that other people could subscribe to. If this sounds familiar it’s because Apple launched iTunes podcasting right around that time, and made it instantly available to it’s 200M iPod-owners, effectively killing Odeo’s plans to ever become relevant. Evan Williams, CEO, turned to his team for new product ideas and that’s how Twitter was born. Now, it’s like Odeo never even existed thanks to a forced but inspired change of direction.
…was originally Fabulis.com, a social network for gay people. When Jason Goldberg and his co-founder Bradford Shellhammer flew to London to host a party for their users, almost nobody showed up (observation) and they realized their startup was not so fabulous after all (obvious interpretation). Soon after, they turned it into a daily deal site for gay men. Four months after that, they changed course again and imagined a website full of quality designed objects at below retail prices. They struck gold.. eventually.
Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger got $1B from Facebook for their breakthrough photo sharing app, but they didn’t start out with photo filters and hashtags in mind. They were building a product called Burbn, a checkin app with an optional photo feature. It was too similar to existing services like Foursquare, so it didn’t take off until they changed it to a photo sharing app, with an optional checkin. Systrom’s girlfriend, Nicole, correctly observed that sharing photos would be stifled by their quality (who wants to share poorly-lit, blurry pictures, right?) and that’s how Instagram’s filters were born. Boyd would have been proud of this particular OODA cycle!
After Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple he started Next Inc. to develop computer workstations intended for higher education and business markets. 7 years later, the company had only shipped around 50K units so they changed gear and focused on their innovative object oriented operating system. It turned out to be a great decision because Apple bought the entire company in 1996 for almost $500M and put Jobs back at the helm of what is now one of the most valuable companies in the world.
So, the secret to never failing is …
to stop calling it failure. It’s as easy as that. You’ll never ever fail again.
Use another word: the all-mighty PIVOT. To pivot is to adapt, survive and thrive. To pivot is to change course when there’s evidence you have to.
None of the companies above succeeded in what they originally wanted to do. Did they fail? Sure they did, but in stead of letting that be the end of things, they pivoted into a new business model.
Being fully aware of Boyd’s cycle, it easy to understand that failure is nothing more than a short interruption. Even if you completely crash and burn and get a job at McDonald’s, it’s just a career pivot and pivots are what success is made of, if history has any say in it.
The bottom line? Failure is a hard word and its meaning very difficult to accept. It makes you feel worthless and crawl under a rock. Ability to pivot, however, is cool, it shows courage and vision, it proves that you understand what you are doing wrong and decide to fix it. A pivot gets you straight from the bottom of the Grand Canyon of self loathing to the peak of the Everest of enthusiasm. It’s just a matter of perspective and, with colonel John Richard Boyd in mind, you now know the better one
Save your social graph from cats: