By Lt. Col. Toby Sernel
19th Operations Group, Deputy Commander
Several decades ago, the great Airpower strategist Colonel (retired) John Boyd developed the “OODA loop”–observe, orient, decide, act–as a continuous feedback mechanism focused on obtaining positive results. The most common example of the OODA loop at the tactical level would be the means by which a fighter pilot maneuvers in reaction to an enemy aircraft in order to shoot it down. However, we can apply feedback mechanisms such as the OODA loop much further than just combat operations.
All of us routinely apply feedback in our everyday lives. If I recognize that I’m driving too fast, I take my foot off of the accelerator or apply the brake. A football coach must adjust the offense when the playbook fails to result in touchdowns against the Crimson Tide. I would assert that we all use some sort of feedback process for every function of our daily routines. I would also say that we are good at feedback because it is a personal survival function. We wouldn’t be here today if we were not masters of feedback, especially the routine, informal types of feedback. We receive, provide, and process informal feedback every day on both the personal and interpersonal levels.
We consistently use feedback in our Air Force lives in the accomplishment of our unit mission, whether we are accomplishing everyday tasks, providing training, preparing for deployments, or career counseling. The list of tasks a unit must accomplish in order to stay healthy and maintain good order and discipline seems endless: fitness assessments, records management, PIMR, EPRs, PRFs, mentoring, career counseling, performance feedback, training requirements, just to name a few. Mentorship has been and remains a primary aspect of leadership. One important facet of mentorship is performance feedback. Performance feedback is very easy to overlook simply because there are not many controls over it. If you are lucky, you get a feedback notice from the personnel system requiring raters and ratees to document that a feedback session has been accomplished. And, of course, there is that date that we must put on performance reports documenting that the performance feedback sessions have been accomplished. Unfortunately, there is no oversight to ensure that leaders are providing effective performance feedback. Inspector general teams will not come to your unit and observe the quality of these sessions, and therefore it’s easy to let performance feedback to go the wayside. Fortunately, however, the Air Force has a formal performance feedback process to ensure that Airmen receive this form of mentorship. I would assess that we, as Airmen, are very good at providing routine, informal feedback ... “Lieutenant, you really screwed up that report” or “Airman, your uniform is a mess.” Formal performance feedback, on the other hand, requires raters to apply significant forethought and effort in order to be effective.
Air Force Instruction 36-2406, “Officer and Enlisted Evaluation Systems,” makes performance feedback easy. This AFI describes performance feedback as “private, formal communication” between a rater and a ratee to define duty performance expectations and to provide feedback on how well the ratee is meeting those expectations. Performance feedback is the responsibility of the rater, the ratee, the rater’s rater, and, ultimately, unit commanders. Essentially, performance feedback is everyone’s responsibility. Initial feedback sessions provide a great opportunity to establish expectations and provide career counseling. Midterm or follow-up feedback sessions provide the time to provide “course corrections” and guidance on how to improve performance well before a performance report closes. If you are not familiar with Chapter 2 of AFI 36-2406, I would recommend you take a few minutes to refresh yourself on these essential requirements.
Leaders, and I include every member of the Air Force as a leader, please make the most of performance feedback. If Airmen are truly our most precious commodity, they deserve our best efforts at constructive and effective performance feedback. The performance feedback OODA loop can provide positive results in our Airmen, which creates improved combat capability for the Air Force and our great nation.