Commentary

June 7, 2013

An Innovator’s DNA: Col. John Boyd

Col. Houston Cantwell
732nd Operations Group

John-R-Boyd-3S
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Surprisingly, few Airmen have heard of Col. John Boyd, with far fewer aware of his innovative contributions to the advancement of modern-day air power.

As the month of May closes and the Air Staff feverishly reviews the thousands of innovative ideas submitted by young Airmen, I thought it appropriate to recognize an Airman who committed his entire career to innovation.

Though Boyd retired nearly 30 years ago, modern Airmen can learn from his success — we can identify the skills that fueled his creativity, develop them within ourselves, and spur our own innovation.

Boyd is most recognized for the development of his OODA loop — the observe, orient, decide, and act decision-making process taught throughout professional military education.

But, arguably his most important contribution to the advance of air power was his 1970’s Energy-Maneuverability theory, which revolutionized the study of fighter-jet dogfighting. His in-depth mathematical study of fighter aviation permitted, for the first time, an objective measure of an aircraft’s maneuverability based on science — a tool used almost daily at the USAF Weapons School. The theory identified which Soviet-built MiGs had a dogfighting advantage over our jets and vice-versa. Given the context of the Cold War and the disappointing air-to-air performance in Vietnam, this was groundbreaking and important information. But, what character traits enabled Boyd’s success? Borrowing from a recent book titled, “Innovator’s DNA,” I’ll identify the five traits of successful innovators and then determine how Boyd exemplified these traits.

Why do some people seem to, as Apple Computer’s founder Steve Jobs puts it, “think different?”

Why are some people more successful innovators than others?

Authors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen have developed an interesting hypothesis. They believe five traits fuel innovation — the abilities to observe, associate, experiment, question and network. Most importantly, if their theory is correct, then any advance at developing these qualities should increase our own abilities to innovate. Not surprisingly, Boyd demonstrated these characteristics in spades.

Boyd demonstrated keen observation skills. He studied history and, following the Vietnam War, was all too aware of the slipping kill ratios of American fighter pilots.

Also, as a highly-respected Fighter Weapons School instructor pilot at Nellis Air Force Base, he had spent countless hours maneuvering his F-100 jet in relation to numerous other fighter aircraft. He observed skilled pilots aggressively maneuvering their machines against one another — simulated missiles and cannon-fire streaking across the sky — and downing the adversary. But, other than pilot skill, no other attribute contributed to the explanation of why one aircraft out-maneuvered another. Boyd would not be able to explain his observations until he hung up his g-suit and grabbed a scientific calculator.

While attending engineering courses under an Air Force Institute of Technology scholarship, Boyd would make a ground-breaking association between science and flying jets.

While studying basic thermodynamic principles, he derived a mathematical equation to determine a jet’s level of maneuverability based on basic information like thrust rating, aerodynamic drag, lift coefficients and aircraft weight. His E-M theory codified what no scientist had ever done before, certainly not a ‘knuckle-dragging fighter pilot.’

Boyd committed himself to extensive experimentation to prove his new E-M theory. Verification of this complex theory would require hundreds of hours of calculations by the most advanced computers available.

But, back in the 1960s prior to the advent of the personal computer, access was very limited. Determined to prove his new theory, Boyd used his resourcefulness to gain much-needed computer access. In fact, he was nearly court-martialed for what many characterized as “unauthorized” computer access while stationed at Eglin AFB, Fla. No one ever said the path to innovation was an easy one!

Boyd was not afraid to question everyone and everything around him.

His E-M theory armed him to question things few field grade officers would dare. As the Air Force wrestled with determining the future capabilities of its future fighter aircraft, his theory gained credibility. Boyd could prove the inferior performance of advanced jets like the F-111 and F-14 compared to their Soviet counterparts. He used E-M to fight for the development of advanced fighters like the F-15 and F-16. Some even credited him as the father of the F-16.

Throughout Boyd’s career he demonstrated expert networking skills.

He loved to think out loud, often on the telephone to one of six trusted confidants during the wee hours of the morning. Over the years he gained an affinity for calling his ‘acolytes’ to get their perspective on his latest breakthrough. These men shared Boyd’s passion for the truth and for doing what was right. Over time they began to share his goals and ideals.

Through this trusted communication Boyd refined his thoughts and prepared himself for the onslaught of disdain for his radical ideas outside his small circle of friends.

John Boyd was far from the ideal officer.

He exhibited faults, some more exaggerated than most. But, his strength was his ability to innovate. He demonstrated five traits linked to innovation — the abilities to observe, associate, experiment, question and network. At the beginning of May, the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff challenged us to focus our efforts and innovate. As we leave this month of innovation and chart a course forward, I hope we can all learn from Boyd, celebrate his innovation, and further develop the innovator within each and every one of us.

Editor’s note: References to books and authors is purely informative and does not constitute endorsement by the Air Force, Department of Defense or U.S. government of any company or individual, or the information, products, or services contained therein.




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