Oct 10, 2018
4 min read

Why OODA Health? Part 1: What’s in a name?

Over the last year, I have received many questions about OODA Health and the work we’re doing. I will try to answer a series of questions regarding “Why OODA Health?” through a few blog posts. The first question I will address is one our team is frequently asked, why did we choose the name ‘OODA Health’?

The name OODA Health is taken from the “OODA Loop” – a concept that emerged in the 1960’s in the context of military strategy, and then had a resurgence in the 1980’s, when it was adopted by the business intelligence (BI) crowd who were aiming to help companies derive strategic business value from data. At OODA Health, we decided to adopt the OODA Loop as an emblem of our approach to transforming healthcare administration and payments.

OODA is an acronym that stands for “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.” It was coined when former United States Air Force fighter pilot, Colonel John Boyd, noted an interesting phenomenon. Boyd, a star fighter pilot during the Korean War (his nickname was “40-second Boyd” since he had a reputation for winning dog fights within 40 seconds as an instructor) conducted a retrospective study. During the Korean War, American pilots in F-86 Sabre fighters routinely defeated the Russian MIG-15. At that time, it was well-accepted that the MIG was a superior fighter: faster, longer range and with better instruments. Yet, despite all odds, the American pilots were consistently winning.

While many factors come into play in explaining this phenomenon, including better pilot training, protocols, and processes, Boyd homed in on an interesting combination that proved to be both powerful and prescient. The first related to visibility and the second related to faster decision-making ability. The American pilots had a better field of view — and consequently much wider visibility — in the F-86 than their counterparts in the MIG-15. This was possibly the only technical advantage they had over the superior Russian fighter. The other big advantage was that the American pilots seemed to have a lot more latitude in decision-making and protocols that gave them more discretion in improvising decisions based on their real-time assessment of the situation. These two factors combine in a powerful way.

As Boyd studied these factors further, he broke down the decision cycle into four stages:

  • Observe - where a visibility advantage is critical,
  • Orient – where the observations are quickly turned into a situational assessment,
  • Decide – where a decision is made based on the situation, and
  • Act – where action rapidly follows the decision.  

Boyd was able to quantify how the American fighter pilots could go through the OODA Loop much faster than their opponents. He then studied how the OODA Loop concept applies to organizations (including, the military chain of command, and later, the business management hierarchy) and how its application can result in more effective organizations. The faster each step of the OODA Loop is completed, the more effective and agile the organization. For example, by giving pilots more latitude in decision-making and allowing more visibility, the U.S. Air Force was able to close the OODA Loop faster, without requiring laborious process/protocol checks and slow responses from a command chain.

The results of Boyd’s studies went on to affect the military hierarchy and made its way into core military doctrine. His impact continued through the early 2000s, where he remained a military strategist and an expert on using the OODA Loop to form more efficient organizations.

In the meantime, two decades after Boyd coined the OODA Loop, the IT field experienced a data explosion. Companies started to realize that data can have strategic value in understanding both the competitive landscape and decisions that are based on facts (data) rather than just impressions. This was the birth of the BI industry, which grew to tens of billions of dollars in BI tools sold by vendors to help companies extract information, understanding, and insights from their databases. The OODA Loop had its second resurgence as a basic BI principle: visibility leads to insights and understanding, and BI is about making the OODA Loop inside a business faster.

Now, how did we choose the name OODA Health? During the summer of 2017, I started spending time with the founding team of an unincorporated and unnamed new venture. At the time, this venture was dubbed “NewCo,” as many fashionable entrepreneurs tend to do in early stages. I remember getting a call on a sunny summer day in August 2017 from one of our co-founders, Giovanni Colella (I was in the South Bay and he lives in San Francisco, so I’m sure the day was not as sunny for him). Giovanni had just finished reading an article about the OODA Loop and the positive impact it could have on a company, “We are thinking of naming it OODA Health!” he said, pausing dramatically. I hadn’t heard of the OODA Loop in a dozen years, so my response was, “Interesting. Don’t you think the name is a bit dated?” There was a short pause, then he said, “No, I think it’s a classic term. Let’s discuss tonight.”

That evening we discussed the name, its background, and the tremendous impact that Colonel Boyd’s OODA Loop had on military strategy as well as business strategy. From that conversation, it became clear to me that the name exemplifies how we want to build our company, and reminds us to continuously go through the stages of the OODA Loop. We believe that better visibility and the ability to act faster is the only way to transform an entrenched system and overcome inertia in healthcare. At OODA Health, we plan to go through OODA Loops until we accomplish our vision of a healthcare system liberated from waste, focused on delivering affordable and high-quality care.

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