John R. Boyd in the Korean War (This photo is in the public domain)
By Andrew Bibb
There is no anxiety like that which precedes a Civil Affairs (CA) recruit’s first key leader engagement (KLE) in a training environment. The recruit walks into a confusing situation in which the fear of failure and the uncertainty surrounding exactly what is expected of them generates timidity and confusion. These factors undermine one’s confidence. Once the recruit steps into the room and is faced with a belligerent role player who refuses to be mollified by anything the recruit says or does, it can feel impossible to make any progress whatsoever, much less control the conversation.
Fortunately, there are biological and psychological processes at work that the recruit may take advantage of to ease their anxiety and facilitate productive engagement, regardless of who it is with. Rather than being concerned with factors beyond their control, the recruit can focus their energy on those few things they can do that inevitably lead to greater understanding and more effective engagement. Much of the groundwork for understanding these processes has already been laid by a fighter pilot and military theorist named John Boyd.
COL (Ret.) John R. Boyd is best known as the man behind the “OODA loop,” a cognitive framework that describes how human beings process information and make decisions, as well as how to take advantage of those processes in the context of armed conflict. Before he conceptualized the OODA loop, Boyd laid out the foundation for his thinking in a paper called “Destruction and Creation.” In this article, I describe how John Boyd’s groundbreaking ideas have guided the development of the Engaged Awareness Cycle (EAC)1 and how CA practitioners may benefit from them.
Destruction and Creation
The title of Boyd’s paper refers to the distinct-but-complementary cognitive processes of destruction and creation. Destruction, he explains, is the process of breaking down a concept or idea into its individual parts, continually separating out the details so that each may be examined apart from the overarching whole. It is differentiation, deduction, and analysis. Creation is the process of taking those individual parts and reconstituting them into a new concept that resembles reality more closely than the old one and is thus more useful. It is integration, induction, and synthesis.
To understand what Boyd means by these terms, one need only think about the processes that take place during a KLE. Every CA servicemember is familiar with the anxiety that precedes a KLE, be it real-world or in a training environment. Regardless of his or her familiarity with the individual, the setting, or the matter under discussion, every KLE presents the servicemember with a situation where vastly more is unknown than is known.
Facing this disorderly and chaotic situation, the servicemember is tempted to retreat into their own presuppositions, which constitute a closed system of thinking and are only imperfectly representative of reality. A retreat into these assumptions prevents the servicemember from paying attention to their environment. Anxiety increases because the unknown remains unknown. Chaos never becomes order. They fumble their way through the KLE, thinking only about how badly they want it to end. When it finally does, they have neither gained nor shared information. The servicemember has done little to nothing to foster a relationship with the subject of the engagement. Consequently, the opportunity to build and leverage influence with their conversational partner is squandered.
This is the result of failing to embrace the process of cognitive destruction. The initial ideas the servicemember entered into the engagement with are the ones they leave with. Without the destruction of these initial ideas, they are prevented from reassembling any newly-acquired details through cognitive creation into a new concept that would prove useful and accurate.
However, the servicemember may instead choose to embrace the chaos, or “entropy,”2 inherent in KLEs. Rather sticking to their initial assumptions, they may open up to the reality of their chaotic environment. The servicemember walks into the room in which the engagement is to take place and, rather than mentally rehearsing talking points, scan the room and get a feel for their environment. Instead of trying to recall everything they have heard or read about the subject with whom they are to meet, they pay attention to the subject’s body language, demeanor, and facial expressions. Early in the conversation, they implicitly encourage their interlocutor to talk about what he or she cares about rather than immediately force the servicemember’s own agenda.
In approaching the engagement this way, in paying attention to the reality of the situation unfolding before them rather than trying to impose their own presuppositions on that interaction, the servicemember converts mental chaos into order. By simply paying attention, they enable the processes of cognitive destruction and creation to work to their advantage. As they do so, they become familiar with their environment and with the subject of the engagement. This growing familiarity eases anxiety and makes them comfortable in a space that only moments before was entirely alien to them.
As the engagement progresses, the servicemember grows in understanding. Throughout the conversation, their initial ideas are pulled apart, new information is integrated, and a synthesis of these new data points produces a refined concept of reality. They can respond to their conversational partner in a manner that reflects their growing understanding, thus fostering relationship and trust where before there was only estrangement. This combination of understanding and rapport allows them to wield a degree of influence that they previously could not.
The purpose of these examples is not to say that preparation is unnecessary to a successful engagement. It is to say, however, that the servicemember should use their preparation as a starting point rather than remain married to their initial concepts. They should come to their conclusions after, not before, the information gleaned from the engagement is integrated into their cognitive framework.
Every CA practitioner should strive to master this ability to turn cognitive chaos into order through the destruction of old ideas and the creation of more accurate and useful ones. The goal of engagement, whether as an individual CA servicemember in a one-on-one conversation or as an operational unit in a destabilized environment, is to both understand and influence that environment. Boyd’s ideas can help us do so. He explains that the processes of destruction and creation “permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment.”3 This is the essence of engagement.
The Engaged Awareness Cycle
It is to encourage and enable this process that I offer the Engaged Awareness Cycle (EAC) as a useful tool (Figure 1). Unlike COL Boyd’s OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), the EAC is not maneuver-focused. The OODA loop emphasizes the importance of time and tempo in gaining a decisive advantage over one’s opponent, injecting confusion and uncertainty into the opponent’s decision cycle.
The EAC is not concerned with dominance, but (as the name states) engagement. The purpose of the EAC is not to move through its phases (Attend, Understand, Act) quickly, but to take full advantage of each phase in every engagement for the purposes of gathering and sharing information, building relationships, and leveraging these as influence, regardless of the length of time involved. That being said, the cognitive processes that Boyd describes in “Destruction and Creation” apply as fully to the EAC as to the OODA loop.
Figure 1. The Engaged Awareness Cycle
Boyd argues that to “make timely decisions” that influence our environment, “we must be able to form mental concepts of observed reality, as we perceive it, and be able to change these concepts as reality itself appears to change.”4 To do so, we begin by paying attention. As CA servicemembers and organizations, paying attention starts in the planning phase of operations. Pre-mission analysis both creates the initial framework for understanding and begins the “destructive” process of breaking those generalities down into their particulars. This is the goal of such tools as area studies, running estimates, and operational variables/civil considerations crosswalks.
We must avoid, however, treating these tools as ends in themselves. Filling out a PMESII-PT/ASCOPE crosswalk does nothing if it does not help us build an initial cognitive framework through which to approach a given environment. We human beings are story-telling creatures, so the ability to construct a narrative from this analysis (however imperfect) is critical for preparing to engage with that environment effectively and honestly.
As CA practitioners move from the planning stage to operations, the initial cognitive framework acts as a jumping-off point from which to begin paying attention to the particulars in time and space. Through engaging with the environment and the people within it, the servicemember disassembles that initial framework and takes in new information that contradicts their initial conception. As they pay attention, their understanding grows, which allows them to pay still more attention at a more granular level of detail.
The servicemember remains in this healthy back-and-forth between the “attend” and “understand” phases of the EAC until their concept of the situation demonstrates “internal consistency and match-up with reality.”5 At this point, “the concept becomes a coherent pattern of ideas and interactions that can be used to describe some aspect of observed reality.”6 The servicemember is then able to confirm or deny assumptions made during the planning phase, fill information gaps, and identify opportunities that had previously been overlooked. It is at this point, having achieved sufficient understanding through the processes of cognitive destruction and creation, that the servicemember is prepared to act. Then the process of attending, understanding, and acting continues for as long as the servicemember engages with that particular environment.
The process of destruction and creation occurs within the mind of an individual, setting the conditions for effective action through attention and understanding. Since organizations are made up of individuals, destruction and creation occurs at an organizational level when the individuals therein attend, understand, and act along parallel lines of effort toward a common goal. From the individual practitioner all the way up to the regiment as a whole, CA is an asset in proportion to its ability to engage, understand, and conceptualize reality as it manifests itself on behalf of its supported command or organization. By doing so, CA forces gather, convey, and integrate relevant information; establish and cultivate meaningful relationships; and leverage information and relationships as influence. This is the way the Civil Affairs regiment proves itself to be a force multiplier in today’s complex environment.
About the Author
Captain Andrew J Bibb, U.S. Army, currently serves as the Brigade Civil Affairs Officer for 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC. He holds a B.S. in Government: Politics & Policy and an M.A. in Public Policy from Liberty University. Before becoming a Civil Affairs Officer, CPT Bibb served as an Infantryman with the 3/75th Ranger Battalion and the 3rd Infantry Division. He has completed combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as operational deployments to Bahrain, Latvia, and Germany. His articles have been published in the Congressional Record and Small Wars Journal. For his other published works, visit his LinkedIn page.
Standard Disclaimer. The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.
1 For an introduction to the Engaged Awareness Cycle, see Andrew Bibb, “Making the Most of Spontaneous Civil Engagement: An Introduction to the Engaged Awareness Cycle,” Small Wars Journal, March 2, 2020, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/making-most-spontaneous-civil-engagement-introduction-engaged-awareness-cycle.
2 John Boyd, “Destruction and Creation,” September 3, 1976, http://www.goalsys.com/books/documents/DESTRUCTION_AND_CREATION.pdf.
3 Ibid., 1.
4 Ibid., 1-2.
5 Ibid., 3.
6 Ibid., 4.