Military Strategy Applied to Startups

OODA was a technique coined by John Boyd, one of the leading military thinkers of the last 100 years, based on the German’s Blitzkrieg-style warfare which prioritized speed and surprise over the traditional win, hold and grind attrition techniques of trench warfare. After @pmarca tweeted about the concept, I read one of the books on the topic called Certain to Win.

Boyd’s thesis is that leaders of successful teams have to enable their organization to move rapidly, which means empowering people at all levels to make decisions. Speed is a huge asset in confrontations in both business and war, particularly when there is a substantial size difference between two competitors, so the author writes.

According to Boyd’s philosophy, the way to enable teams to become agile is by using two frameworks each with four ideas, the Organizational Climate and OODA.

For teams to act swiftly, Boyd reasons, they must share four cultural values. First, the team must have a shared mission. Second, the team must be singularly focused on a goal. Third, they must trust each other. This confidence is most often developed through shared experiences/hardship. Fourth, the team must have an intuition for the problem space, which more frequently than not comes from training, but sometimes raw talent. Intuition is critical for fast decisions. It’s easy to see these values embodied in a Navy Seals team, but a little harder to picture for a consumer marketing team or an enterprise sales team.

The second framework is OODA. OODA is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. The ideas behind each step are straightforward, but the most important part of the process, which doesn’t have a letter in the acronym, is the debrief/feedback loop process that sends data back to the Observe step.

My key takeaway from the book is leaders need to be disciplined about how they create the right cultures within their organizations, which means investing in team training, building trust among team members, setting a strong vision and creating an environment of candid and prompt feedback.

But, I wish the book had more concrete examples about how to apply these frameworks on a tactical basis. Which types of training are the best for teams? How much time to invest in team building? What is the optimal way to build trust among colleagues?

Today, there seem to be many different methods accomplish these goals. I suspect there are some best practices out there. I’m going to find some of these and write about them, in the hopes I can make the OODA and Organizational Climate ideas more immediately useful.

Published 2014-01-31 in startups  Best Practices  Culture 


I'm a partner at Redpoint. I invest in Series A and B SaaS companies. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 18,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.


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