Certain To Win

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“Certain to Win” [Sun Tzu´s prognosis for generals who follow his advice] develops the strategy of the late US Air Force Colonel John R. Boyd for the world of business.

The success of Robert Coram’s monumental biography, “Boyd, the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War,” rekindled interest in this obscure pilot and documented his influence on military matters ranging from his early work on fighter tactics to the USMC's maneuver warfare doctrine to the planning for Operation Desert Storm. Unfortunately Boyd’s ...

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Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business

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“Certain to Win” [Sun Tzu´s prognosis for generals who follow his advice] develops the strategy of the late US Air Force Colonel John R. Boyd for the world of business.

The success of Robert Coram’s monumental biography, “Boyd, the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War,” rekindled interest in this obscure pilot and documented his influence on military matters ranging from his early work on fighter tactics to the USMC's maneuver warfare doctrine to the planning for Operation Desert Storm. Unfortunately Boyd’s written legacy, consisting of a single paper and a four-set cycle of briefings, addresses strategy only in war.


Boyd and Business

Boyd did study business. He read everything he could find on the Toyota Production System and came to consider it as an implementation of ideas similar to his own. He took business into account when he formulated the final version of his “OODA loop” and in his last major briefing, Conceptual Spiral, on science and technology. He read and commented on early versions of this manuscript, but he never wrote on how business could operate more profitably by using his ideas.

Other writers and business strategists have taken up the challenge, introducing Boyd’s concepts and suggesting applications to business. Keith Hammonds, in the magazine Fast Company, George Stalk and Tom Hout in “Competing Against Time,” and Tom Peters most recently in “Re-imagine!” have described the OODA loop and its effects on competitors.

They made significant contributions. Successful businesses, though, don’t concentrate on affecting competitors but on enticing customers. You could apply Boyd all you wanted to competitors, but unless this somehow caused customers to buy your products and services, you’ve wasted time and money. If this were all there were to Boyd, he would rate at most a sidebar in business strategy.


Business is not War

Part of the problem has been Boyd’s focus on war, where “affecting competitors” is the whole idea. Armed conflict was Boyd’s life for nearly 50 years, first as a fighter pilot, then as a tactician and an instructor of fighter pilots, and after his retirement, as a military philosopher. Coram describes (and I know from personal experience) how his quest consumed Boyd virtually every waking hour.

It was not a monastic existence, though, since John was above everything else a competitor and loved to argue over beer and cigars far into the night. During most of the 1970s and 80s he worked at the Pentagon, where he could share ideas and debate with other strategists and practitioners of the art of war. The result was the remarkable synthesis we know as “Patterns of Conflict.” Discussions about generals and campaigns, however, did not give Boyd much insight into competition in other areas, like business

Now you might expect, at first glance, that business is so much like war that lifting concepts from one and applying them to the other would be straightforward. But think about that for a minute. Even in its simplest description, business doesn't really look much like war.  For one thing, there are always three sides to business competition: you, customers, and competitors. Often it is vastly more complex, with a multitude of competitors who are customers of each other as well.   In business, unlike war, it may even be desirable to be “conquered” by a competitor in a lucrative merger or acquisition. Finally, and most important, it is rarely possible to “defeat” the other player in the triangle, that is, to compel an unwilling customer to buy. Attempts to pressure customers into paying too much or into buying more than they need often open a window for competitors (as the US airline industry is belatedly discovering.) Generally all we can do is attract – offer products and services to potential customers, whose decisions determine who wins and who loses.

What this means is that the strategies and tactics of war, Boyd’s included, are destructive in nature and so never apply to business. Expressions like “Attack enemy weaknesses” have no meaning, except as metaphors and analogies. Across different domains, such literary devices are as likely to be misleading as helpful.


Boyd’s Strategy Still Applies

Business is not war, but it is a form of conflict, a situation where one group can win only if another group loses. If you dig beneath Boyd’s war-centered tactics you find a general strategy for ensuring that in most any type of conflict your group will be the one that wins.

Although Boyd made a number of new and fundamental contributions, his is an ancient school, extending back in written form 2,500 years. It is built around two primary themes:

A focus on time (not speed) and specifically, using dislocations in time to shape the competitive situation. These effects, by the way, are quite different in business than they are in war.

A culture with attributes that enable—even impel—organizations to exploit time for competitive advantage. Within Boyd´s culture, members will seek out or invent specific practices that will work for it.


Why You Should Read this Book

This book will give you a firm foundation in Boyd’s strategy, starting with its military roots, but it is not a how-to manual. There could never be such a manual for strategy since all sides could use it and so would derive no strategic benefit. Anything you can write a how-to manual for is tactics or even technique. Strategy begins where these leave off.

You should read this book if you’ve found other books on business strategy lacking something. You should read it if you appreciate that Sun Tzu seems to be revealing fundamental truths, but it’s not clear what they have to do with business. You should read it if you intend to run your own show – without the decision making by committee, shunning of responsibility, and breakdown of ethics and trust that you see around you every day.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781413453768
  • Publisher: Xlibris Corporation
  • Publication date: 6/24/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 188
  • Sales rank: 903,495
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.43 (d)

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – Nor the Battle to the Strong

In May 1940, the Germans attacked virtually the same allied coalition they had attacked a generation earlier.  As in 1914, the forces were roughly equal, but this time German weaponry was on the average inferior and there was no chance of achieving surprise.  Even so, the Germans won in two weeks.  Similarly in the world of business, there are many cases where smaller companies have managed to thrive and gain market share against their larger and better financed competitors.  If you ignore the tactics, which must always be different between war and business, you find that the cultures and strategies employed by smaller but scrappier armies are remarkably similar to their commercial counterparts.


Chapter 2 – Visible Figures Alone

Why basing your strategy on what can be measured, proven, and modeled will leave you open to a wilier competitor.  This is an insidious threat to modern business, as you can see from the common aphorism, "What gets measured gets done."  It is not that more accurate measurement or better models would solve the problem.  It is that by the nature of competition, this whole approach cannot succeed.


Chapter 3 – Sting Like A Bee

Agility: now it can mean anything from outsourcing to investing in higher speed networks.  To the late American strategist, Colonel John R. Boyd, USAF, it held a specific meaning that was largely mental and cultural in nature.  In a famous 8-hour briefing, he marshaled persuasive arguments to show that his meaning had produced winning armies for the last 2,500 years and invincible fighter pilots for the last 70.  Since it doesn't depend on hardware or even the type of competition, business can use it as well as the military.


Chapter 4 – What Strategy Is and What It Can Do For You

Unlike agility, "strategy" had a looser connotation for Boyd.  Military strategy fits between technique & tactics, which are destructive in nature and must be practiced to perfection, and the nebulous concepts of national goals and unifying visions, which are constructive ideals that underlie a country's grand strategy.  Boyd offered a solution to this dilemma, based as usual on what has worked from Sun Tzu to Moshe Dayan, and again, it is as applicable to commerce as to war.


Chapter 5 – A Climate for Winning in Business

An effective instrument is the difference between talking strategy and actually being able to use it.  For human organizations, armies as well as companies, this instrument is the culture, and Boyd recommended four elements of a culture that will enable organizations to employ his strategy.  Back in the late 1980s, I noticed that the way a few highly successful companies, particularly Toyota, described their cultures could have come right out of Boyd's briefings.  This idea intrigued Boyd and eventually led to this book.


Chapter 6 – Surprise and Anticipation

Once you understand the strategy and have an effective culture, you're ready to play the game.  The game you play usually goes by its Chinese name, cheng/ch'i. Although it has only has two basic moves, it is an ancient game of infinite subtlety that requires the utmost creativity, skill, and initiative from everybody on your team. In war, if you play it well, you can produce ambiguity, deception, surprise, and shock; in business you can create customers of fanatical loyalty.  If you learn this game better than any of your competition, you will make yourself, as Sun Tzu promised, certain to win.


Chapter 7 – What You Really Do with OODA Loops

The principles described in this book have been worked out in detail in only three areas.  In armed conflict, they are known as "maneuver warfare."  In manufacturing we find "lean production," essentially the Toyota Production System.  In product development, they lead to the esoteric field sometimes known as "set-based concurrent design" as used in in the Toyota Development System.  If you don't happen to work in any of these three areas, what do you do?  And even if your field is manufacturing or R&D, how do you get started?


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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2014

    Dont Don't try to run a business without this guide

    Chet brings the wisdom and brilliance of Colonel John Boyd to light. Every leader has heard of the OODA Loop. Now understand it and apply it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2004


    Perhaps the best business strategy/reorganization/restructing book ever written. Richards takes the ideas of John Boyd as detailed in his earlier 'A Swift Elusive Sword' and brilliantly applies it to businesses. If you want to stay ahead of the game, this book is a must!

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