History’s Lessons on Competitive Innovation

History offers unexpected lessons on how to innovate at speed today.

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We might assume that history has little to teach us about navigating our current situation of technological disruption — Industry 4.0, the internet of things, 5G, AI, machine learning, genomics, robotics — as it intersects with societal and economic upheaval. In fact, the past does offer important lessons, albeit from a surprising source.

The 20th century was cursed with two world wars, showcasing the worst of people’s brutality, for sure, and also the best of their courage, selflessness, and perseverance. In concentrating on character traits, we risk missing meaningful lessons about how to innovate and invent in periods of stress and confusion. Both the wars and the interwar period were marked by great creativity, demonstrating why we should be concerned about innovation speed for lasting advantage and how to innovate at speed. A dynamic of rapid exploration and experimentation outperforms a more deliberative approach; this was true then and remains particularly relevant in today’s era of abrupt change.

The spring 1940 Battle of France was devastating for the Allies, culminating in an escape from Dunkirk and allowing Adolf Hitler to peacock in Paris in June. Some might guess that the Allies lost because they were outgunned at the outbreak of fighting, but in fact they had superiority in the quality and quantity of men and materiel in 1940.1 Others might mark the pivot point at the 1938 Munich Agreement when Britain and France believed that allowing the annexation of the Sudetenland would placate rather than embolden Germany. And it’s easy to dismiss the Maginot Line as an example of stupidity, but we’ll get to that.

In fact, France’s 1940 defeat was rooted in deficits of neither capital nor courage, but rather in deficits of curiosity and creativity relative to the German military. The Allies committed early regarding what to do and how and why to do it (focusing on the Maginot Line), whereas the Germans spent the 1920s experimenting with strategy and tactics, on their way to a disruptive innovation of their “business model” — culminating in blitzkrieg tactics.2

Today, comparing something to the Maginot Line is a dismissal of an effort that’s obviously wrongheaded.

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References

1. J. Holland, “The Rise of Germany, 1939-1941: The War in the West” (London: Transworld Publishers, 2015); and D.E. Johnson, “Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945” (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2003).

2. J.S. Corum, “The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform” (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1992).

3. Much of the following account was informed by Williamson Murray’s “Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

4. For example, chlorine gas from pressure cylinders was quickly countered with gas masks, which in turn were partly countered by chlorine artillery shells. Then came mustard gas, which was a partial counter to goggles and gas masks since it affected exposed skin. All parties achieved the same level of gas offense and defense — at great cost but with no net gain.

5. This assessment depends on the following sources: Corum, “The Roots of Blitzkrieg”; Holland, “The Rise of Germany”; and Murray, “Military Adaptation in War.”

6. For details, see Holland, “The Rise of Germany.”

7. They didn’t stop learning during World War II. After pummeling the Poles in 1939, the Germans paused to reassess their doctrine and tactics before turning their snarl westward; having been stymied by dug-in positions, they repurposed anti-aircraft guns as bunker busters.

8. Corum, “The Roots of Blitzkrieg.”

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