How a real-life Top Gun can help change leaders make maverick business decisions

"You don't have time to think up there. If you think, you're dead." - Maverick, Top Gun

Delivering change can often feel like a military operation. So who better to put things in perspective than our new Principal Consultant, Charlie Grant.

Charlie started his working life in the UK armed forces, so he knows a thing or two about managing the unexpected. In this article, he talks about how a blockbuster from 1986 shaped his views on delivering complex business change in 2022.

Charlie, it’s over to you.


“During my early years as a junior officer in the British Army, Top Gun was universally regarded as one of the best (albeit cheesy) military films, ever.

With its fast jets and seat-of-the-pants action, it was a common point of reference for myself and other young officers as we learnt our profession; often quoting lines from the films and drawing (largely inaccurate) parallels between the high-octane high jinks of Maverick, than our more mundane military experiences.

There is a scene in the original film where Maverick, when explaining the rationale of his unorthodox yet successful sortie, gives one of the more memorable lines: “You don’t have time to think up there. If you think, you’re dead.”. Whilst some parts of the film use a hefty dose of artistic license, there are a few elements that draw upon sound military science and thinking. 


Live footage of a change leader managing risks, issues and trade-offs


For instance, in this scene, Maverick’s success against the simulated enemy was likely as a result of his superior ‘decision-action loop’. In other words, his ability to make sense of the situation, thus making better decisions, to inform his actions, all quicker and better than his opponent, ultimately led him to mission success (if not praise of his civilian instructor!). 

What is possibly less well known is that the classic military decision-action loop taught to most Western militaries was developed by a real-life ‘Top Gun’, the American Air Force Colonel John Boyd. Perhaps better known as the OODA loop, Boyd’s process of Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA)  drew upon combined thinking from disciplines as diverse as fighter aviation, strategy, science, early complexity thinking, and the Toyota Production System/Lean.

Over the years, the OODA loop has percolated far beyond the military and is now a key concept in many high-performing organisations, as they look to assure better outcomes. 

The four stages can briefly be summarised as: 

  1. Observe: Receiving input from a variety of sources such as management information, colleagues, customers etc. to gain an awareness of the environment.
  2. Orient: Analysing and making sense of the observation, cognisant of biases and heuristics (such as genetic heritage, cultural traditions and previous experiences), as well as the ability to analyse and synthesize based upon new information and previous experiences.
  3. Decide: Determining the best course of action in light of the orientation. Boyd considered these decisions as hypotheses, implying they should be revisited and updated considering subsequent action and information
  4. Act: Executing the chosen course of action.



So how can you, as a leader, channel your inner Maverick and apply the OODA loop in your own context and the principles more widely across your organisation?


The first and perhaps simplest way is to be aware of decision making and the supporting processes in your organisation. For example, is decision making efficient and effective; drawing upon the principles of Boyd’s loop? Are you running ‘Observe – Act’ loops whereby everything is reactive? Or does your organisation have a bureaucratic governance process that stifles rather than enables effective decision making?

This reflective appraisal can also be applied all the way to the individual level. As a leader, are you aware of your ‘decision-action’ cycle and where any of your potential blind spots are? Can you be helping others increase their awareness? Only by conducting an honest appraisal of how you and your organisation make decisions can you identify the improvements that may be required.


In military terms, Initiative is the ability to dictate the course of events, to decide and act before the competition gains an advantage. Boyd considered a key element of achieving Initiative is Tempo; which is the rate of activity of operations relative to a competitor (i.e. achieving OODA loops quicker). In other words, organisations that decide and act fastest should gain and hold an advantage. Is your organisation configured to operate at Tempo in order to gain competitive initiative? Remember, Tempo is not about doing things faster for speed’s sake; it is about being faster relative to your competition.

Often we see that organisations that have ‘gone Agile’ mistake speed as the end goal of agility, when – in fact – speed is just the enabler. Similarly, application of OODA is practical and is ultimately about action. Too often we see organisations investing too much much time in perfecting their plan and suffering ‘analysis paralysis’. Often a perfect plan – made and executed too late – will fail, whereas an imperfect one made before your competitors can act will succeed.

Agile methods can be useful to enable OODA-based tempo through shortening planning cycles and taking an empirical or hypothesis based approach. Fast feedback loops, continuous planning, and the ability to adjust and improve as a result of lessons learned and better situational awareness are some ways that tempo can be achieved. 

“Boyd’s OODA loop remains as relevant as ever given the ever-increasing pace of change and the need to achieve competitive advantage.” 


Invest in Orientation

Col. Boyd considered the ‘Orient’ stage to be the most important, as it sets the conditions for the decision. Indeed, it was Boyd’s opinion that effective orientation could actually overcome other disadvantages such as incomplete information or fewer resources.

Effective orientation needs to:

See things as they are, not as we would like it to be. This means being aware of our biases and heuristics and applying critical analysis, diversity of thought and robust mental models to overcome these. Further military techniques, such as Red Teaming, are now becoming more widespread

Anticipate their actions, and their reaction to our actions. Use of techniques, derived from the military, such as Wargaming or Scenario Planning can aid to robustly consider and evaluate the various courses of action at your disposal, as well as their pros and cons.

Develop creative and innovative solutions. Originating from the 1960s, and made popular by firms like Ideo, Design Thinking has gained mainstream recognition as a codified means to innovate and enhance creativity. This ubiquity has democratised innovation with teams of all shapes and sizes able to apply their philosophy and tools. Indeed, it is not hard to overlay design thinking’s iterative model of innovation (Inspiration – Ideation – Implementation) and that of the OODA loop, and see how they can be mutually reinforcing. 

Continually revise & update in light of what is experienced and learned. The ability to successfully orient is predicated upon the ability to create a feedback loop resulting from what is observed and understood. Personally, developing a Growth Mindset in yourself and others is a way in which one can inculcate the positive attitude and behaviours necessary. Organisationally, fostering a continuous learning culture will systemise and embed this as part of how you do business.

Watching the recent Top Gun sequel (released 36 years since the original!), I enjoyed seeing Tom Cruise reprises his role as Maverick. Without dropping any spoilers, Maverick again showcases his superior ‘decision-action loop’ against the enemy achieving mission success. Similarly, Boyd’s OODA loop too remains as relevant as ever given the ever-increasing pace of change and the need to achieve competitive advantage. 

As change experts, one of the ways we help organisations achieve more effective outcomes is through leveraging our experience and tools to help shorten, and make more effective, their ‘decision-action loops’. “ 

To discuss OODA loops, Top Gun, or how we can help your teams navigate change, let’s talk.

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