How winners win: John Boyd and the four qualities of victorious organizations
As long as I’m talking about people whose thinking has influenced my own, I should mention another one: John Boyd. Boyd was an Air Force officer who laid out some new and fundamental ideas about how people and organizations behave when in conflict with each other. Discovering Boyd and his ideas helped me better understand a lot of things I had observed in life but could never really explain.
I’m not going to use this space to write a bio of the man, especially since a very good one (Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War) already exists. What I want to do instead is try to encapsulate a small part of his thinking in language suitable for general audiences; since Boyd was a military man, much of the discussion about his ideas has been conducted inside the defense community, which means it’s laden with jargon and acronyms that outsiders can find impenetrable. (And Boyd himself didn’t help either; he preferred to present his ideas via in-person briefings rather than writing articles or books, which after he passed meant that his ideas were locked up in decks of slides and notes rather than a single cohesive work. A book written by one of his associates is the closest thing we have to a “Boydism 101.”) Which is a shame, since there’s a lot of stuff there that’s valuable for anyone to understand.
Let’s begin with a fundamental question: when organizations come into conflict, why do the winners win? Or, more precisely, what about them makes them winners?
Boyd, being a warrior, looked at this question through the lens of military history. Throughout history, there have been a few armies that somehow managed to sweep from victory to victory in a seemingly unstoppable fashion, even when confronted with theoretically much stronger opposition: Hannibal’s Carthaginians, Genghis Khan’s Mongols, Napoleon’s Grande Armée, Guderian’s panzerkorps. Forces like these could still be brought to bay — sometimes by patient opponents willing to absorb enormous numbers of casualties, other times only by exogenous factors like the Russian winter. But before that happened they all racked up such impressive strings of victories that they reshaped the story of their age.
So, Boyd wondered, was that all just dumb luck? Or is there a common thread that runs through all of them — some element of how they were organized that predisposed them to victory?
Boyd’s research led him to believe that such a common element did exist. It could be found in the culture that all these institutions fostered among those who belonged to them. A culture focused on a particular set of essential principles, Boyd believed, would give the organization that followed it an edge when confronting any organization that did not. He called this set of principles the “organizational climate for operational success.”
The most commonly given version of Boyd’s presentations on this subject listed four core qualities that, taken together, would create this organizational climate. Boyd used German words to identify each, so I’ll do the same here, but with English-language explanations of the idea each one is getting at.
The four qualities are:
Fingerspitzengefühl — “intuitiveness.” Victorious organizations find roles for people that match their talents, and then give them time and opportunity to develop their skills to such a point that they can react to new situations automatically rather than having to consult policies or wait for direction from above. The word fingerspitzengefühl translates literally to “fingertip feeling,” and this gives a sense for the meaning of the term; by the time a baseball pitcher, say, reaches the major leagues, he’s thrown so many pitches that he has an intuitive sense for his own strengths and weaknesses and how to apply those against the strengths and weaknesses of each different batter. He doesn’t need to pull out a manual to find out which pitch to use against a particular type of batter. He just knows.
Einheit — “unity.” Victorious organizations foster a common outlook among all their participants, from the lowest to the highest; a feeling of “we’re all in this together.” This outlook is fostered by participation in common experiences, which help individuals in the organization continue to relate to each other, even as their own individual careers focus on the things necessary to develop their own individual fingerspitzengefühl.
Auftragstaktik — “leadership by contract.” Victorious organizations avoid micromanagement, preferring instead to have leaders define goals and then offer subordinates a defined set of resources and constraints they will have to operate within order to achieve those goals. The subordinate then has the free choice to either take on the package of goals, resources and constraints, or decline to do so if she feels the goals cannot be met with the resources and constraints offered. The leader can then either work with the subordinate to tune the parameters of the project to a point where she can honestly say she can fulfill its requirements, or try to find someone else who can work with a different set of parameters. Hence the phrasing “leadership by contract” — once the two have scoped out the task and the subordinate has said she can get it done within the parameters described, an unwritten contract is in effect between the two; the subordinate’s responsibility is now to do what she has promised to do, while the leader’s is to ensure that the resources promised are made available and the constraints described don’t change.
Schwerpunkt — “the point of decision.” Victorious organizations identify their opponents’ biggest weakness, and then focus all their efforts on exploiting that weakness. They do not divert effort to satisfy internal politics, or in an attempt to hedge their bet. They put all their people, money and time behind a single arrow, and launch that arrow with devastating effect at their opposition.
Now, none of these qualities is a discovery unique to Boyd. Boyd’s insight lay in seeing that they only lead to success when they are all employed together. You have almost certainly seen this in your own experiences; everyone has seen a group with highly skilled members (lots of fingerspitzengefühl) that nonetheless fails because they waste those peoples’ skills on a million unrelated side projects rather than focusing them all on a single clear goal (no schwerpunkt), or a group that is focused on a schwerpunkt but falls apart before arriving there because the people in the group don’t trust one another (no einheit).
Even more importantly, this means that while all four qualities have to be fostered to gain Boyd’s edge, failure at any one of them can lead to losing it. Think of a startup whose founders and staff, for instance, work together in a big open-plan workspace. Then imagine the founders cash out, and new management comes in, and the first thing they do is set up offices for themselves while everyone else works keeps on working in the open space. By breaking the established social contract in the group, such a move demolishes einheit — suddenly, rather than the team being Us, it becomes Us and Them. Even if the new managers do better fostering the other three qualities than the founders did, it won’t matter, because their group’s lack of unity will undermine them; the group will destroy itself before its opponents ever need to.
So whether you lead a group or are simply a member of one, Boyd offers a lot to think about regarding your institutional culture. Is it setting you up for success? For victory?