Chet Richards on Formlessness and Orientation

Chet Richards on Formlessness and Orientation

Describing , Tom Barnett wrote:

Chet, whom I write about in BFA, is an intense fellow who lives and breathes national security like few people you’ll meet. He’s also more systematic in his thinking on the subject of military strategy than anyone I’ve ever heard speak, and I’ve heard a lot.

Dr. Richards recent accomplishment involve applying the logic of to business and military strategy. His business-oriented website, Belisarius, was recently featured in a tdaxp article on 5GW, while Chet’s military-oriented site Defense and the National Interest has long been on the tdaxp blogroll.

A noted author, Chet’s books include Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd Applied to Business and Neither Shall the Sword: Conflict in the Years Ahead.


As Dr. Richards has been kind enough to help tdaxp before, I asked his help when questions on Boydian logic on Liberal Education. So I asked him. Part of his answer surprised me.

On Implicit Guidance & Control in the

In a real-time operation, the “Implicit guidance and control” link from Orientation to Action should control, most of the time (95-99%). Important to recognize, though that this is not a reflex, not a direct Observation – Action link. It goes through Orientation, which is where previous experience and intuitive analyses/synthesis come into play.

The key to the Decision box is the subtitle, “Hypothesis.” The Decision block is the learning phase, where you try things out and learn from the result. It is part of how the loop shapes future Orientation. What you learn becomes a part of your (previous) experiences as well as affecting the types of analyses and syntheses you are able to perform. It is still operating even in the middle of a fight, although at a reduced level, since you will learn somethings about your opponent in the contest. However, it is most active in training, where you can try new things and learn without getting killed. All the hours of training that the martial artists go through is to program their Orientations so that the vast majority of the time, effective actions flow smoothly and rapidly from Orientation. A formal decision mechanism would be too slow. In fact, one thing you would like to do is force your opponent to make explicit decisions, i.e., force him out of what he can handle intuitively. Operating inside his/her OODA loops is one way to do just that.

On Formlessness.

“Larry, one of my commentators, noted that it’s no so much formlessness, as the absence of an especially-notable form. I thought that was interesting.”
– Dan tdaxp

It is most interesting. One can look at formlessness in several
ways, including:

1) The form is there, but it’s hidden or disguised. I’m pretty sure this is not what Sun Tzu had in mind, since a competent opponent using his intelligence (Chapter 13) would discover it. Not to say that camouflage or dummies, etc. aren’t extremely useful, but they aren’t what “formlessness” is about. So in that sense, I disagree with Larry. It’s not so much whether the form is notable, but whether it’s there at all. [compare against this and that — tdaxp]

2) One can take different forms, depending on the situation. This is most effective when you have more than a small set of forms (“stances”) to choose from. In the extreme, you have infinitely many, like water or a gas. I think this is a much more powerful interpretation. Also, water, although soft and formless, can destroy entire cities under the right conditions.

3) Related to 2), you may not have a “form” per se, but you have a culture / climate that allows you to find and exploit opportunities. So you don’t worry about your “form,” but about the organizational climate. Continuing with the water example: It can also penetrate the smallest crevice and so over time bring down the strongest wall. Watts goes into some detail on this point. Infiltration tactics in maneuver warfare is a good example.

4) And then there is the time element. Perhaps you have a form, even a transitory one as in 3), but you can change it more rapidly than the opponent can figure it out. This change could be organic, as in reconnaissance pull. So as far as the opponent is concerned you are formless. In particular, there is no “form” that his intelligence can discover, as Sun Tzu warns, and if he does discover one, it won’t be the right one by the time he can do something about it.

5) Related to 4) you have a form, but it is cheng. Your ch’i in that case could be the “formless” component. Or maybe it’s the other way around … The rapidity with which you can switch between these now becomes important.

On Fast Formlessness

” …if someone is inside your loop, they are not easy to see. In more ways than not, a true 4GW warrior is hidden. “
– Larry

Everybody who has studied this stuff has made a similar observation. If, for example, you employ an attrition-based doctrine, and you come up against someone employing maneuver warfare (which, incidentally, can include guerrilla warfare), you won’t understand what hit you. You may well think you’re winning up until the time the enemy breaks down the door to your palace.

Larry’s comment is especially pertinent to 4GW, since there you may well not even realize you’re at war.

6 thoughts on “Chet Richards on Formlessness and Orientation”

  1. The way into Dr. Richard's OODA loop was through trust. I was pretty sure your drawing was not completely telling the whole story and I was pretty sure Dr. Richard was being truthful to you. So, by way of my comments, I tried to make you go back and ask Dr. Richards about this and clarify what was drawn. Apparently, some clarification came out of my efforts.

    In some ways it may be said that I manipulated you into writing more about 4GW and less about 5GW, just as you manipulated me into answering this post. I would also have to say neither one of us presented any form to the other, unless you consider implicit commands as having form.

    Of all the places to hide, in plain sight would have the most advantages. If you are in plain sight and the enemy still doesn't see you, he or she probably will never see you until its too late.

    One way to do hide in plain sight is give your enemy complete trust. If the 4GW warrior has penetrated your OODA loop, the 4GW warrior has to give you his or hers complete trust. He or she has to make sure you see (image)your enemy.

    In fact he is not your enemy, he is you (folk, kin, trades). By my way of thinking, this would make him, in effect, formless.

    If your enemy sees a friend, you are a friend. If your enemy sees an enemy, you are his enemy. There is no disguise. You are hiding in plain sight.

  2. Excellent post Dan, very interesting ! And kudos to Larry for sparking further discussion.

    “In a real-time operation, the “Implicit guidance and control” link from Orientation to Action should control, most of the time (95-99%). Important to recognize, though that this is not a reflex, not a direct Observation – Action link. It goes through Orientation, which is where previous experience and intuitive analyses/synthesis come into play”

    A good term for this phenomena might be ” automaticity ” – a habitually practiced, almost effortless, mental operation that is linked to knowledge yet is not unconscious or merely reflexive. For example, a good portion of reading – and, the,is, a, but, then,they,she etc. etc. – is dealt with on this level allowing the mind to zero in on comprension of more complex concepts, nuances of meaning or integrating new data.

  3. Mark,

    Thank you.

    I first came across automaticity in cognition & instruction, [1] where I noted [2]

    “Types of Attention
    Automatic: Pre-Attention
    Selective: Focul Attention

    – taking in information and perform a task automatically
    – rearrange minds, exploit implicit guidance & control
    – enables fast OODA cycling
    – relation to fingertip-feeling

    Spectrum of Thought (?)

    Another way to think about fingertip-feeling might be when a difference is noticed in implicit and explicit guidance and control, with implicit being the stronger signal. Decision loops back to Observation, which makes it metacognitive [3]

    The human mind is a bayesian logic machine, [4] so it makes sense to trust one's implicit guidance control. When a very high quality Bayesian calculator [5] conflicts with a low-quality logical calculator [6], the wise man goes with the higher-quality machine.


  4. Ya, well Mark, I couldn't just let him add to the vertical line (1GW, 2GW, 3GW, 4GW) until he tore into Boyd's converging of KE into PE (PISRR).

    While I now understand the strategy of OODA (as well as any non-expert could), PISRR should be give equal time. OODA is going from Potential Energy (Observe) to Kinetic energy (ACT). PISRR is going from Kinetic energy (Penetrate) to Potential Energy (Reharmonize).

    Harmony can be considered non-destructive waves of changing potential energy. To reharmonize would be to reunite these non-destructive waves of energy into a society.

    There are many similarities, almost mirror images, to the OODA loop and the PISRR loop. Both rely explicitly on trust, this must have been where Col. North screwed up the PISRR loop. Both are powerful strategies in war. While OODA can be considered an organizational loop from Special Operations forces to a Leviathan force, PISRR can be considered an organizational loop going from Leviathan force to a System Administration force.

    Going from a Leviathan force to a System administration force might be an interesting topic to consider for discussion, although it might be more appropriate to talk about 5GW.

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