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  • Thomas Thurston

Innovation is a Battlefield

Updated: Apr 3

Innovation is a lot like British naval warfare in the late 1800s.  Imagine yourself at sea pointing a crude artillery gun at a target around 1,600 yards away.  You raise the gun barrel by turning a small wheel.  You look through an open sight (like a rifle) and wait for the roll of the ship to bring the target into view. Pushing a firing button at just the right time, you’re lucky to hit the target two or three times every half hour.[i]

In warfare and innovation most shots fail.  Still, you can’t miss too many times before rivals get the upper hand and sink you.  Loss can be catastrophic.  Despite the clear advantages of anything that might improve your performance, it’s all too common for innovation to be staunchly resisted by those who – ironically – would benefit most from it.    

Case in point, in 1900 an American junior officer, William S. Sims, met British Admiral Sir Percy Scott.  Scott had a reputation for remarkable accuracy in naval artillery.  He used a number of innovations such as guns that could be easily elevated and depressed to follow a target throughout the roll of a ship at sea (rather than a gun with a more fixed position).  He modified his telescopes so they wouldn’t be shifted by a gun’s recoil.  He also he put a small target at the mouth of the gun that could be moved with a crank to simulate realistic conditions for target practice.

Learning all he could from Scott about this innovative new “continuous-aim firing,” the American – Sims – spent months training and modifying his own equipment until he too set remarkable records in target practice.

Determined to spread what he’d learned within the US Navy, Sims authored 13 official reports documenting his success with continuous-aim firing.  His arguments were supported by masses of copious facts.  He cited the records of Scott’s ships with accumulating data from his own tests.  He explained the technical mechanisms and training procedures in detail.  He articulated where existing mechanisms were inadequate and how modifications could be made.

The Navy’s first response was… no response.  Silence.  His reports were filed away, forgotten and half eaten by cockroaches (literally).

This sent Sims into despair.  How could they ignore him?  Lives were at stake.  The benefits were so clear.  The costs of failure so high.  He grew seriously ill.  He wrote more reports, adding even more data and changing his tone from official to downright angry.  He sent copies to other officers in the fleet and began to create a stir.

Finally, Washington responded.  The Bureau of Ordinance (responsible for the equipment used in gunnery practice) replied that their equipment was as good as the British (from whom Sims learned continuous-aim firing).  Secondly, since their equipment was as good as the British, the trouble must have been with the men – who were not their responsibility, being the jurisdiction of ship officers.  Thirdly, continuous-aim firing was impossible.  The Navy had experimented with it themselves and the trials hadn’t worked.  End of story.

As you may imagine, Sims did not go gentle into that good night.  He’d proven that it worked.  The tests done by the Navy were critically flawed.  He was using continuous-aim firing with success at the same time he was being told it couldn’t be done.  The world was upside down.

Next Washington began attacking his character.  He was accused of being difficult (which he almost certainly was at this point), nutty and a dishonest evidence falsifier.

This was the last straw, giving Sims the audacity to write President Theodore Roosevelt himself.  Fortunately for Sims, Roosevelt paid attention and ultimately made Sims Inspector of Target Practice.  Sims was later heralded in the Navy as “the man who taught us how to shoot.”[ii]  The Navy improved its aim.

The story of Sims and continuous-aim firing seems absurd.  Why didn’t the Navy embrace any improvements that could materially enhance its performance?  Why had it been so reluctant, even hostile, before being all but forced to comply by fiat from the President himself?

As absurd as it seems, Sims’s tale is all too common in the world of innovation.  People love to talk about innovation.  Trumpet its virtues.  From Presidents to CEOs to economists to my dry cleaner, everyone uses “innovation” as the new feel-good filler word.  When in doubt, say “innovation” and people will nod in Pavlovian approval.  Yet another word for innovation is “change.”  The introduction of something new.  Unlike “innovation,” “change” doesn’t automatically get red carpet treatment.  While some embrace change, particularly if it’s positive and beneficial, there are others who resist it – even if it’s positive and beneficial. In almost cliché fashion, inherent conflict arises between those who’re vested in the need to change (Sims), and those who’re vested in the status quo (Navy). 

Accepting Sim’s changes required shifts in the daily protocols, habits and social structures of US naval warfare.  Gunnery officers, formerly low on the totem pole, became among the most prestigious members on a ship.  New routines, ship designs and fleet tactics had to be deployed.  Men in Washington had to admit their previous solutions had been sub-optimal and that an innovation of British origin… my goodness… had proven superior.[iii]

We’ve seen similar reactions in the field of predictive reduction – the science of business predictions. On the one hand, the use of empirical and quantitative methods have proven, time and time again, to be more effective at answering a variety of “holy grail” business questions such as whether a business will survive or fail.  For most, the benefits of such innovations are so obvious – so profound – there’s boundless enthusiasm.  Curiously for others, the more they learn the more they shut down. The more proof of benefit is offered, the more they retreat. Innovation can threaten too much change – even for the better – than they’re ready to accept.  Regardless of your innovation’s promise, keep in mind that even the most positive change is rarely a benign act. It can be a battlefield.

[i] Facts and insights for this blog were drawn from Morison, From Men, Machines and Modern Times, MIT Press (1966). See also Christensen, Gunfire at Sea: A Case Study of Innovation (Abridged); Innovation and the General Manager, p. 159 – 168, McGraw-Hill (1999).

[ii] Christensen, Gunfire at Sea: A Case Study of Innovation (Abridged); Innovation and the General Manager, p. 159 – 168, McGraw-Hill (1999).

[iii] Christensen, Gunfire at Sea: A Case Study of Innovation (Abridged); Innovation and the General Manager, p. 159 – 168, McGraw-Hill (1999).


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