Thursday, August 22, 2019

Understanding innovation

Paul Kennedy’s Engineers of Victory is one of the best books on innovation I’ve ever read. Which is extraordinary, really, given that it is a book about World War Two and was written 70 years after the critical events it narrates.

The book grew out of an insight by Kennedy a historian who has devoted his career to the study of grand strategy and geopolitics:

Grand strategists, leaders and professors alike, take a lot of things for granted
When the subject is WWII, what they usually take for granted is the back-story of many of the key technologies that contributed to the Allied victory. To cite one example:

Where did this centimetric radar come from? In many accounts of the war, it simply 'pops up'.
These sorts of blind spots create a bias in our narratives and our historical understanding. They tempt us to over-emphasize command decisions in strategic affairs and to understate the role of organizational culture.

Closing the air gap did not happen because some great person decreed it

The improvements did not arrive according to a grand incremental plan from Max Horton's office; rather, they entered the Royal Navy's tool kit episodically, and some of these newer systems took months before they properly fitted in the whole. Yet the commander of a U-boat that had been sent south in late March 1943 to wreak havoc off Freetown would have been completely disconcerted by what he saw when he arrived back at his base in Brest in July.
This last point serves also as a useful reminder that these vital innovations were not just a question of inventing new weapons; these weapons had to be deployed and used effectively. That meant that organizational learning, training and doctrine all came into play.

The book’s subtitle is The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War. Kennedy does not limit himself to the inventors. Weapons, like intelligence, counts for little until it is put to use by the men at the point of the spear. He reminds us that one definition of engineer is "a person who carries through an enterprise through skillful or artful contrivance."

New weapons for old" is apt to become a very popular cry. The success of some new devices has led to a new form of escapism which runs somewhat thus-- "Our present equipment doesn't work very well; training is bad, supply is poor, spare parts non-existent. let's have an entirely new gadget!" ... In general, one might conclude that relatively too much scientific effort has been expended hitherto in the production of new devices and too little in the proper use of what we have got.
Patrick Blackett, "Scientists at the Operational Level"
While the British could not match the US in industrial production, during the war they were the undisputed champions of “artful contrivance.” On land, sea, and air they came up with new weapons and new methods that contributed to the final victory.

Part of this was cultural:

It was not surprising that a society brought up on H. G. Wells and Jules Verne novels, the Boy's Own Weekly, and Amateur Mechanics should now produce vast numbers of citizen-based concoctions intended to help beat Hitler.
A key ingredient was leadership. The British were blessed to have Churchill as their war-leader.

The plain fact is that there probably was never another war leader with his talent-spotting skills and his capacity to inspire and encourage.
WSC was the first Prime Minister to appoint a science adviser. He was a devoted reader of H. G. Wells and had a biography right out of Boy’s Own Weekly. In the First World War he had been the driving force behind the development of the tank (a weapon that had appeared in a Wells book in 1903).

Churchill understood that sometimes a leader must prod an organization to get the right men in place and to move the culture in the right direction. He forced the army to find a place for MG Percy Hobart a pioneer in tank warfare and a man with an enormous capacity for artful contrivance.
I am not at all impressed by the prejudice against him in certain quarters. Such prejudices attach frequently to persons of strong personality and original view... We are now at war, fighting for our lives, and we cannot afford to confine Army appointments to officers who have excited no hostile comment in their careers.
Hobart amply repaid Churchill for his confidence. He trained three outstanding armoured divisions and created a series of specialized weapons to defeat Rommel’s beach defenses at Normandy.

Kennedy’s account underlines the fact that G.K. Chesterton wrote the first rule of innovation:

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.
Starting from zero, the US Marine Corps created and perfected amphibious warfare. It was neither a short journey nor an easy one. Allan Millett describes their first attempt to put doctrine into practice:

The Navy's coxswains did not reach the right beach at the proper time; the unloading of supplies was chaotic; the naval bombardment was inadequate; and the Navy's landing boats were clearly unsuitable for both troops and equipment. The exercise, however, identified enough errors to keep the Corps busy for fifteen years.
(A. Millett Semper Fidelis on USMC amphious exercises in 1923-24)
Try-fail-learn-improve-try again. When you succeed, keep learning and keep improving. The Marines and the Navy kept at it all through the 1920s and 1930s. They also kept to this cycle throughout the war in the Pacific:

Tarawa II: Learning and doing


No comments: