decision process design

shukumine wrote that the ultimate measure of the quality of a martial art would be based on the actions of its practitioners. with this notion in mind, he designed the core strategy of taido as a decision process. in an unfortunate example of dissymmetry, this process does not quite match up with the 5jokun – though they do express a few shared values. however, understanding this process is quite important in applying taido to battle or any other situation. maybe you have seen this somewhere before…

unsoku, sotai, seiho, kimegi, gentai

of course, this refers to the order of technique in jissen. first, we must respond to the opponent and make plans while moving in unsoku. when we see an opening, we initiate with some sen, un, hen, nen, or ten motion. while checking the opponent’s reaction, we make adjustments, attempting to control his movements until we can finally deliver a connecting strike. then we return to kamae at a safe distance. (incidentally, this where we get the saying that “taido begins and ends with unsoku” – since we use unsoku to make gentai, this is literal as well as philosophic.)

i think i must have been about eleven or twelve when uchida first gave a few of us a rough explanation of all this. being that we were children who didn’t speak any japanese, he broke things down in terms that looked more like this:

observe, analyze, initiate, conclude, reflect

which is basically the same thing, just not in jissen-specific terms. and that’s an important factor to me. you see, when i first learned about this, i had no idea that is was related specifically to jissen. it was explained more as a process that could apply to anything – including jissen. taido was only one of the many examples that uchida gave us when he described this process, which he told us was for “problem solving”.

my progress in taido has been heavily influenced by understanding this process, which i have attempted to apply consciously to my practice of taido since the early 90s. you will find it popping up in many forms all over this website, in the practice curriculum at the georgia tech taido club, and in every class i teach. i believe, as shukumine wrote, that this process is the central strategy of taido. the values we wish to achieve are outlined in the 5SRs, or more-formally in the 5jokun. the method to achieve them is right here.

of course, i don’t want to make it sound as if i believe this idea is unique to taido. while shukumine may well have made it up off the top of his head, he was certainly not the first person in all of history to do so. there have been many codified decision processes outlined in various systems of strategy. perhaps the most well known in the western world is “ooda” feedback loop, created by colonel john boyd, of the united states air force. it looks like this:

observe, orient, decide, act

boyd outlined this process in attempting to discover why american fighter pilots were more successful than their adversaries in the korean war, and it has since become a “classic”.

one interesting thing about ooda, is that it ends with action. presumably, if the action is successful, there is nothing else to be considered. however, the system is referred to as a feedback loop, which implies iterative application. so even though there are fewer steps referred to in the anagram “ooda”, the actual process includes cycling through multiple instances until we accomplish our desired outcome.

i could describe the ooda loop in detail here, but there is already a very nice article about it at wikipedia. the flow chart schematic in that article more clearly shows the looping feedback than i can describe it in words.

the ooda loop is currently popular among western combat schools and can be seen all over the internet. it is popular because it is effective and (can be) simple to understand – you can’t go wrong with an easy solution that gets the job done. if four steps is the most you can count on yourself to follow through with a particular process, i suggest you try to apply the ooda loop to situations that challenge you.

assess, plan, implement, evaluate

i recently read a manual of chaos magic that advocated the same basic process under the above terms. obviously, the premise is the same. if we look around, we can find similar processes in communications theory, military strategy, business plans, and self-help books. most strategic systems will offer some model of a decision process, and the vast majority will look something like the ones i am discussing here. some will be very specific (ie, unsoku, sotai, seiho, kimegi, gentai), and some may not have an explicit loop (such as ooda), but the general pattern remains the same:

see, think, try, practice, think, apply

that’s the “andy’s special recipe” version for this decision process – combining simple terms, explicit iteration, and a rhyming pneumonic. it applies equally to problem solving, strategizing, goal setting, fighting, training, teaching, cooking, dating, finding a job, doing a job, or playing music – i’ve used it for all of these and more. i find that wherever i consciously apply this process, my success is limited only by my degree of motivation to follow through with the process.

though i write my first step as “see“, perhaps it wold be more accurate to say that the goal is perception. we have many senses through which we can gather information (optical [sight], audial [hearing], olfactory [smell and taste], tactile [touch, pressure, and heat], vestibular [balance and direction], proprioceptive [movement, position, pain, electromagnetic], somatic [awareness of our involuntary internal processes], rhythmic [recognition of patterns and timing] – not to mention emotion and intuition), and all of them can be useful in making good decisions. in combat for example, our less-dominant senses are often more useful to us than sight. since the eyes are hardwired to the neocortex, our brains typically interpret sight through the filter of thought. by the time we can recognize and interpret a visual event, it if often too late to decide and respond.

my second step is “think“. of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean we have to stop and linguistically consider our course of action. this stage includes access of preprogrammed response patterns (such as returning a neighbor’s “good morning” without stopping to consider whether or not it really is all that good – it’s just “natural”), instincts and reflexes (such as flinching, tensing our shoulders, or bracing for impact), as well as careful consideration and weighing of pros and cons. sometimes this will be an intense outcome-based visualization exercise; sometimes it will be a sudden release of bile into our stomachs and the singular thought: “go!”.

try” means simply to give it a shot – get started. so many plans fail before they begin. if a journey of a thousand li begins with a single step, then getting a raise begins with finding out what your boss expects from you (only then can you attempt to deliver it). too often, we sabotage ourselves with self-defeating thoughts. this self-doubt prevents us from reaching our sincerest dreams. after we have made our plans, we have nothing to gain by sitting around, thinking they are pipe dreams. we must try, or we are simply living the lives that are handed to us by circumstance.

of course, that isn’t to say that merely trying will get us where we want to be. as the little green man said “there is no try, only do”. well, in order to turn our tries into dos, we’re going to have to practice. maybe our initial plans don’t work out. what do we do – scrap our dreams and go back to working at starbucks? get beaten to a pulp because goliath ducked the first stone? no. we practice. we try again. we figure out what went wrong and fix it.

admitting our mistakes and learning form them is a seriously important skill that our egos often get in the way of. we live in a society that values “competence”, so it can be tough to admit to ourselves that practice is necessary – we want to get it right the first time. however, this is not a realistic expectation for most of life’s challenges. we have to make mistakes willingly, with the knowledge that they allow us to refine our plans and try again with a better approach.

one of my favorite sayings is very appropriate here: it is a terrible plan that cannot be changed. i can even write it in latin for those of you who think wisdom has to sound intellectual: malum consilium quod mutari non potest. man, that makes my brain hurt; cogito sumere potum alterum.

the iteration “feedback loop” (in this case, “practice, think, apply/try, practice...”) ensures that we continually monitor the parameters of whatever “experiment” we happen to undertake. then we can make incremental adjustments and note any improvement or problem. this is similar to the japanese principle of kaizen – incremental permutations of a design that move ever-closer to “perfection”.

once we have practiced to the point of accomplishing our desired progress markers, we take a moment and “think” again. as i mentioned in a previous article, westerners don’t have a great track record with finishing things. looking back and tying up loose ends and making mental notes about the various outcomes associated with our actions is not only educational, but insurance against a lot of stupid mistakes that arise when we underestimate problems or opponents. this part of the process allows us to make sure that we have done what we set out to do and learn from the situation.

lastly, i have included application. some of the process examples above to not spell this part out, but i think that application of lessons learned is perhaps the most important part of the entire method, so i want to make sure to do it explicitly. we have to apply the results of our process again. then if a similar situation comes up, we will already have made a plan which has proven successful. while the previous plan may not be a perfect match for the current situation, it can serve as a helpful heuristic when making new plans. application means keeping a mental database of all our past processes and drawing on them to help create new ones.

stated again, in slightly different words, andy’s special recipe decision process is as follows:

perceive, think, try, correct, conclude, apply

my version of this process works very well for me, but it may not be a perfect fit for you. the whole point of this article is actually to get you to think about creating your own processes, and giving some guidelines that many people have found useful. in taido, we use “unsoku, sotai, seiho, kimegi, gentai“, but the arena in which you apply your process may require a little different way of looking at things. wherever you intend to use your process, it will be beneficial to include the following points, which are common ingredients to all of those outlined above:

  1. observation
  2. thinking/planning stage
  3. initiation
  4. conclusion
  5. iteration/reflection
  6. possible layers of feedback

in closing, i will present one final incarnation of the process map that has manifested in a very general sense in my life.

dream, plan, work, achieve, dream again

may you discover and achieve all your dreams through some well-designed process of your own.

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