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4 Innovation Lessons From The History Of Warfare

2015 March 25
by Greg Satell

What do the Hydrogen bomb, the Minuteman missile and precision guided weapons all have in common? They all provided crucial financing for technology that we now carry around in our pockets.  It is a curious fact of modern society that civilian life, in large part, is powered by the technology of war.

Even today, national security budgets continue to play a big part in technology.  While politicians argue about green energy, the military is moving ahead full throttle.  DARPA, the agency which brought us the Internet, helped invent self driving cars.  The CIA even has its own venture fund.

Many believe that the enormous impact the military has on technology is a moral dilemma and they may be right.  Leaving that aside, however, we can also learn a great deal about innovation by studying the history of war.  In War Made New, Max Boot gives us the chance to do just that and it does indeed deliver great insights for anyone interested in innovation.

1. When A New Technology First Appears, We Have No Idea What To Do With It

We tend to think that technology is determinant.  Steam power set off the first industrial revolution.  Electricity and the internal combustion engine powered the second one. Personal computing led to word processors and spreadsheets and changed how offices work. 3D printing and associated technologies are now creating a new industrial revolution.

Yet one of the things that makes innovation so devilishly tricky is that when a new technology arises, nobody is quite sure what to do with it, even the inventor (and in some cases especially the inventor).  So what often happens is that the new technology is either framed in the context of old problems or gets thrown off track by an early success.

Boot gives a particularly salient example of the latter in an event involving an obscure sea battle between Austria and Italy in 1866.  While the gun battle was a draw, an Austrian vessel sank the Italian flagship by ramming it with a craft built from iron.  For decades after it was thought that ramming was the new “killer app” of naval warfare with iron ships.

It took a while to realize that the dominant strategy would be to build enormous capital ships with devastating firepower, something that was not possible with wooden fleets.  Just as it took decades to grasp that musket lines were the best way to fight with that technology and that repeating rifles favored decentralized combat formations.

2. Second Movers Are Often Smarter

We’re taught in school about how the Germans developed the Blitzkrieg to devastating effect during the opening battles of World War II.  However, what is considerably less well known is that tank warfare was actually invented by the British who, unfortunately, were unwilling to commit to the new technology.

The story of how that happened is telling.  Winston Churchill, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, urged the Navy to build “steel plated landships” on the chassis of tractors during World War I.  Yet in battle, the poorly engineered machines broke down and the development of mechanized warfare stalled in British military affairs.

The Germans, on the other hand, experienced none of the same frustrations and saw great possibilities in combining mobile units with air power and radios.  The result was a completely new kind of warfare that led to incredible successes early in the war.  If not for the unparalleled industrial capacity of the US, the allies would have never caught up.

First movers are often considered to have advantages because they have a head start. However, their perspective on the new technology is often biased by early, unreliable versions and a lack of complementary technologies.  Second movers, on the other hand, can see new possibilities that weren’t viable in the early days.

3. Push Decision Making Downward

Another advantage that Germany had in World War II was their command structure.  While the Allies were highly centralized, authority was far more distributed in the German army. This allowed them to improvise on the ground in order to make the best use of new technologies.

Planners often assume that, because they are less affected by the fog of war, they can make better judgments.  Yet it is those on the ground that can see problems and opportunities that the higher ups will miss.  As noted above, new technology hardly ever works the way we think it will and it is the front line personnel who find that out first.

So it wasn’t just tanks and airplanes that made the Blitzkrieg so effective, radios played an important role as well, which the Germans deployed on almost every tank in their arsenal. That allowed the Axis forces to make adjustments on the fly and react quickly to unforeseen events.

Today, most militaries operate by the doctrine of commander’s intent, in which the lower ranks are given specific objectives and figure out how to achieve them on their own.  The corporate world, unfortunately, hasn’t quite caught up.

4. Quantity Has Its Own Quality

Despite their advantages in technology, planning, doctrine and the professionalism of its troops, the Germans lost the war.  Yet the reason wasn’t a failure in strategy or execution, but rather a different technology that was perfected in the United States—the assembly line.

When we think about heroes of World War II, great generals like Eisenhower and Patton come to mind, yet Henry Ford was no less important.  Boot notes that as early as 1942, America was outproducing all of its enemies combined.  This proved to be the decisive advantage that determined the outcome of the war.

As Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao note in their book, Scaling Up Excellence, many promising young companies who focus on coming up with the “next big thing” often fail to scale it sufficiently.  On the other hand, efficient operators can often capitalize on innovations developed elsewhere.  A product can only sell if you get it to market.

Also, as I’ve pointed out before, this has been a big part of Apple’s success under Tim Cook. The company is rarely first to market with new products and features, but its ability to develop and ship new products on a truly massive scale is unparalleled in its industry and possibly any other.

Cincinnatus Reborn

Many would say that it’s an indictment of our society that we devote so much effort and resource to warfare.  We spend more on developing better ways of killing each other than on figuring out how to heal the sick, feed the hungry or anything else.  While we cut budgets for an Ebola vaccine, enormous cost overruns in the Joint Strike Fighter program go unhindered.

Yet that’s not quite right.  Since ancient times warfare has been an integral part of making a society successful.  The simple fact is that humanity has become less violent in our time. Poverty and sickness have also been significantly diminished.  We are, in so many ways, better off than we ever have been.

And a big part of the reason why is that, much like the the great Roman leader Cincinnatus, we have been able to transform victory in battle to prosperity in peace.  Decisions made when life and death hang in the balance take on a certain clarity that others do not and, at least in that sense, warfare can be instructive.

Still, it is regretful that we can so eagerly muster massive resources to build more efficient technology to kill and destroy, yet so often fail to adequately fund more peaceful programs. Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from the wars of the past is that we should fight less of them.

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. March 29, 2015

    I just love your posts!
    I have also shamelessly (but with attribution) used your ideas, linked and shared, often.

  2. March 29, 2015

    Thanks Allen. Talent imitates, genius steals:-)

  3. Bob Carter permalink
    April 2, 2015

    I red your article in Ukrainian “New Time” (Russian translation).
    Thanks for valuable facts about military history. Your general thesis about war’s place in modern times, however, isn’t covered at all (not to count few vague statements). It’s sad.

  4. April 3, 2015

    Thanks Bob. (Although I think a better translation for Novaya Vremya would be “New Era.”)

    – Greg

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