How we made the best use of Deliberate Action and OODA Loop

Al Belisario CPP, Senior Director Payroll Operations, NBC Universal

Al Belisario CPP, Senior Director Payroll Operations, NBC Universal

Through the implementation of Deliberate Action and the OODA Loop, we were able to effectively eliminate the tendency to react prematurely

It’s been my experience that in high-pressure high-volume payroll operations where daily deadlines take priority, critical thinking and analysis takes a back seat to expediency and “just getting things done”. I’ve observed staff members, when asked to do something or provide information, quickly go into solution mode, leading to a rushed decision and often resulting in less than desired outcomes. When this happens, additional back and forth interaction occurs as the staff member tries to fine tune the requirements and start again. In my current company, this was a daily occurrence and a lot of time and effort was spent on fulfilling these requests. We needed to identify and implement a more methodical way to analyze data and make decisions in a fast paced, high volume, deadline driven payroll operation. The solution we implemented for our team was Deliberate Action.

We originally defined Deliberate Action as “to think carefully or talk something through intentionally.” How that manifested itself in real life was the creation of a mindset amongst team members where focus on the questions asked were valued more than knowing the answers. The foundation of our analysis starts with a simple question, “what are you trying to achieve?” This prompts visualization of the desired outcomes and what they would look like. As a way of framing this analysis, we introduced the team to the OODA Loop, a concept developed by Col. John Boyd, an Air Force fighter ace, military strategist, and instructor in air combat. He created the OODA Loop for rapid decision making in combat operations, and we found that it could also be applied to our operation. The OODA Loop recognizes that decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of four actions: Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. The premise of this approach is to go through this cycle as events unfold, thereby reacting in a more deliberate fashion than your opponent to gain the advantage. In payroll operations, our “opponent” was uncertainty in how to approach a problem, unclear requirements, competing requests with limited resources, deadlines, etc. These everyday challenges require a more deliberate approach to the execution of a task or process. 

After determining what is being achieved, a team member would go into the first step of the OODA Loop: The Observe phase, or information gathering. This step requires asking the right questions to gain context into the issue being addressed. For instance, a follow up to the initial question might be “what is the expected result?” with the goal of trying to understand the deliverable. Team members were cautioned to avoid solutioning in this phase as it shifts the focus away from data collection and may limit the scope of information gathered.

Once all the relevant information has been gathered, the Orient phase is initiated to analyze the data and filter it through previous experience, cultural traditions, current processes and procedures, current resource utilization, etc. Common pitfalls in this phase include analysis paralysis where team members over-analyze a situation thus hampering forward movement; confirmation bias where the focus is on confirming preconceived notions on what the solution should be prior to analyzing and discussing the facts at hand; and again, determining solutions prematurely. These are challenges that the team must overcome in order to arrive at a possible solution. Once the team is properly oriented and they have analyzed the data required to meet the deliverable, they begin the Decide phase, where all solutions are compiled and challenged resulting in a decision.

The final phase is Act, which is focused on documenting a plan of action and executing it. This can be as simple as a task list or as complicated as a project plan, depending on the size and scope of the task at hand. As part of this process, the individual or team must remain situationally aware to identify new information or requirements relevant to their analysis so they can repeat the cycle as necessary until the end goal is achieved.

Initially, the OODA Loop seemed timely and unnecessary when first introduced, and it was deemed cumbersome and unusable in the real world. However, by focusing on the thought process and analysis, team members began to apply and see the benefits in thinking through each step. Taking the time to ask thoughtful questions led to better and more precise answers, resulting in greater clarity of purpose with better alignment to the desired results. The feedback challenged the team to re-examine how and why they complete tasks in a certain way and energized them to actively create more efficient solutions. Through the implementation of Deliberate Action and the OODA Loop, we were able to effectively eliminate the tendency to react prematurely. We still have a ways to go to perfect our operations, but with the right framework in place to encourage critical analysis and strategic action, major improvements and success are well within reach.

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