Book Review & Digest: Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Relevant for IT/Business)

This book is about a great person, about change, about one of the largest bureaucracies and dysfunctional organizations, about projects gone astray, about warfare and its latest evolution. Many of the challenges and ideas that we encounter in the book are not limited to the military domain but apply also to business and IT. It is worth reading whether you are  a military person, somebody trying to push through a change, a business person, or interested in thinking and organizations.


John R. Boyd was a fascinating person. He changed aerial fight by replacing gut feelings with tactics, maneuvers and contra-maneuvrs. He developed a theory that dramatically changed how fighter airplanes are designed and - against the will of Pentagon - designed the best fighter til the time, F16. Not stopping there, he revived Sun Tzu's thinking and introduced maneuver warfare, relying on agility, deception, and quick thinking, to replace the attrition warfare with its massive, force-aginst-force battles. Once again, against the will of many generals, maneuver warfare made its way through and saw its stellar moment in the Gulf War, reportedly under Boyds direct influence.

Boyd with his colleagues have brought about many changes and had to fight hard against Pentagon's resistance to change, so typical of large bureaucratic organizations. They both won and lost many battles, sacrificing their careers to be able to do something meaningful. There is a lot we can learn from this - often seemingly irrational and absurd - resistance to change and the successes and failures of the Boyd cabal in the fight.

It's also highly interesting to read about the absurdities and dysfunction of Pentagon and the military, especially with respect to the rejection of innovative thinking, absurd budgeting and weapon-acquisition projects, and a social organization that bolsters careerism and eliminates deviations. It's tragic and fascinating to read about the weapon acquisition and design projects that lead to exploded budgets, gold-plating resulting in airplanes that should do everything but suck in all of it, and ultimately the production of weapons that make generals and the military industry happy but that the soldiers using them would never buy. The American military as presented is quite dysfunctional in the sense that there are many interests detrimental to its primary goal of effective national defense. Personal interests, internal politics with the goal of securing higher budget than other departments, fear of change. (I'm afraid it is quite similar in our army, from the bits I have heard.)

As one reader writes:
[..] this book can be regarded as an excellent case study of the pathology of bureaucracy [..]
Noteworthy: Ideas of maneuver warfare applicable to the business too (-> books): learn & react faster; communicate the mission and empower teams to proceed toward it independently, using their situational knowledge.


A number of points from the book is applicable more broadly and also specifically to business and projects.

One thing that really stroke me is that he not only was good at what he did (fighter pilot) but also though about it extensively. I believe that we should think more about what and how we do.

The philosophy of maneuver warfare - learn quickly, decide based on the current situation rather than following a plan, communicate the objective and let the workers figure out the best way to achieve it rather than micro-managing them, build effective, independent teams.

The military projects are not dissimilar to some business projects - project goals out of touch with reality, many stakeholders resulting in compromise solutions good for nothing, serious and deliberate underestimation of risks and costs.

Similarly, the dysfunction of the military organization, its internal political fights, resistance to change, lack of unity, shared values and goals has parallels in big organizations in all other domains.

The military seems to be the antithesis of agile and lean organization and is therefore worth studying.

One of the really inspirational sides of this story is that it shows us that a single person can change the world - with some talent, luck, good friends, and hard work.



As Boyd later explained, "You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don't, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after."

A commander can use this temporal discrepancy (a form of fast transient) to select the least-expected action rather than what is predicted to be the most-effective action. The enemy can also figure out what might be the most effective. To take the least-expected action disorients the enemy. It causes him to pause, to wonder, to question. This means that as the commander compresses his own time, he causes time to be stretched out for his opponent. The enemy falls farther and farther behind in making relevant decisions.

To attack the mind of the opponent, to unravel the commander before a battle even begins, is the essence of fighting smart.

[..] The Japanese Art of War, [..] talks of "swordlessness," or the ability to defend oneself without a weapon, a concept that by implication means using the enemy's weapon against him. Cleary says this technique can be used in debate, negotiations, and all other forms of competition. He says sworlessness is the "crowning achievement of the warrior's way."

"There is not just one solution to a problem," he said. "There are two or three or five ways to solve a problem. Never commit to a single solution."

He [Chet Richards] later went to work for Lockheed and began studying the fabled Toyota production system, which he found "frighteningly familiar" from his study of maneuver conflict. [..] The underlying ideas of mutual trust, mission orders, and individual responsibility, and the concepts of "harmony" and "flow" and - most of all - the manipulation of time as a production tool were central ideas both in the Toyota system and the strategy of maneuver conflict.

Boyd put it more succinctly: "You can't change big bureaucracies until they have a disaster."

Various Highlights

  • prior to F16, Soviet airplanes were in general better than the American ones
  • gold-plating: deterioration of the original winning F16 prototype (YF16): bomb holders etc. => more weight => more fuel => bigger wings => less maneuverability
  • the horrors of politics (Navy picking the losing prototype of F16, Airforce x Navy forcing its plane on each other, ...); dysfunction: "Your worst enemy is not the communist SSSR but a colonel from another branch of the military that seeks to get higher budget at your expense."
  • know the ways of the bureaucracy to be able to defeat it, "do your homework"
  • projects: over-optimistic numbers, generals & industry knowing and cooperating to get budget from the politicians - highly understated budget, costs, time
  • denial of risks, weaknesses, and costs of weapons (B-1 bomber, the armored vehicle, missiles)
  • there seems to be no responsibility or retrospective when projects fail terribly to deliver what was promised and in budget
  • creative thinking requires destructive deduction (destructure the existing concepts) and constructive synthesis (combine the elements in a new way)
  • attrition (force-based) warfare reminds me of the attempts to save projects by throwing more people and money at them
  • as mentioned before, the change of bureaucracy (or organization/cultures in general) is hard, despite logic, evidence, benefits (see the case of Dr. Semmelweis that discovered that if doctors wash hands prior to helping with birth, they can drastically reduce mortality in the hospital - yet was, despite the facts, rejected and ignored

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