I recently read To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild, a book about the First World War, and although I was trying to avoid reading another business book, it pointed to some things very relevant in the business world. When learning about the mistakes the British military leadership made in World War I that literally cost millions their lives, I saw the same mistakes many leaders make in the business community. The key problem is creating competencies and strategies based on history rather than focusing on what it now takes to win.
In World War I, the British and French suffered several defeats because they believed their past successes made them destined for victory. A lopsided victory in the Boer War, particularly the battle of Omdurman, gave the British a feeling of superiority. They felt their Maxim gun (the first recoil-operated machine gun), would always provide superiority. What they did not realize was that the weapon gave them superiority over poorly armed Arabs, Africans and Asians, and did not guarantee superiority against a well-armed enemy. This over-confidence, exemplified by John French, the first commander-in-chief of British forces in WWI, led to multiple infantry charges against well-armed Germans that cost millions of soldiers their lives.
The French also suffered a catastrophe due to over-confidence. At the beginning of the war, the French army proved incapable of containing the Germans flooding across the Belgian frontier. Additionally, in the southeast, a French offensive was disastrous. French prewar planning had centered on the mystique of the attack: great masses of men filled with élan rushing forward in shoulder-to-shoulder bayonet charges or thunderous cavalry assaults that would strike fear into German hearts. Furthermore, France’s troops went into battle in the highly visible blue coats and bright red trousers that had long made them the most flamboyantly dressed of Europe’s foot soldiers. This over confidence put the French, and the Allies, on the brink of defeat.
We have witnessed this same phenomenon repeatedly in the tech space. Research in Motion’s arrogance that Apple and others would not eat into Blackberry’s market share because it was so successful in the past, and Microsoft’s belief that the Surface would dominate the tablet market not because it was better but because it was a Microsoft product, are but two examples.
Not accepting change
While over-confidence often had disastrous results, even more damage was caused by strategy based on the past and not the present. General French, the first British commander in WWI whom I mentioned earlier, fought relentlessly to keep the lance as a cavalry weapon. In French’s mind, if the lance went, the next casualty could be the sword. In 1909, French won, and the lance was officially restored to the cavalry’s arsenal. No general was ready to acknowledge that the machine gun had upended warfare as it had been known for centuries. A single such gun emplacement could stave off hundreds, even thousands of attackers. Continue reading