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.
“The introduction of the Machine Gun,” declared a memo from French’s headquarters to the Ministry of Munitions two months after the battle, “has not, in the opinion of the General Staff, altered the universally accepted principle that superior numbers of bayonets closing with the enemy is what finally turns the scale.”
This focus on the past and lack of preparation was evident from the start of the First World War. Massive French bayonet charges stalled in the face of German machine-gun and point-blank artillery fire that left shattered body parts littering the battlefield. In less than a month, nearly 300,000 French soldiers would be dead or wounded.
The British were equally ill-prepared for a new type of warfare. In their introduction to trench warfare, the British made all kinds of mistakes: they did not have enough spades, for instance, and sometimes had to dig with pitchforks taken from Belgian barns.
The mistakes were made by both sides, however, as the Germans also were largely living in the past. As Hochschild writes, “masses of them advanced head-on into British rifle and machine-gun fire, young officer cadets walking to their deaths with flowers in their helmets, singing patriotic songs. Astonished British soldiers looking through their binoculars saw German troops advancing with arms linked, wearing caps with what appeared to be the badges distinct to university students.”
Allied commanders also failed to accept that chemical warfare would change the war. Allied commanders around Ypres had had ample warning that a gas attack was coming: from an intercepted German message requisitioning 20,000 gas masks; from a deserter who, more than a week before the assault, brought one of the masks with him; and from captured German soldiers who told of masses of gas canisters lined up near their trenches. But according to Hochschild, “they made not the slightest preparations, reluctant yet again to acknowledge that warfare could take a radically new direction. This inability to grasp the changes in warfare led to the gruesome death of hundreds of thousands.
Finally, the navy was not immune to having blinders on about how the war has changed things. The mighty guns of the behemoth dreadnoughts that Britain had invested so many billions in building, and their tens of thousands of sailors, were useless against the real naval threat from Germany, the submarine.
At first these examples seem unique to the military and gross negligence of commanders, but you actually see the same thinking repeatedly by leaders in the corporate and tech environment. When free-to-play games started changing the way people consumed game content, leaders at companies like THQ and Midway stuck to the lance and bayonet. When Google introduced better search algorithms, Yahoo employed human editors to curate search results. When people started switching from desktop PCs to laptops, Gateway lowered the price of its desktop units.
The lesson from the First World War
When reading about World War I, the lesson I saw repeatedly was that you needed to understand the current environment and plan for what the future battlefield will look like rather than relying on what worked for you in the past. You must constantly evolve your capabilities (in the military’s case, by building tanks and planes; in business by adding data scientists) so you can best compete in the future. Do not let the past guide you but look at what you need to do to win in the future.
- Based on military experiences in WWI, it becomes clear that it is important to focus on what it will take to win in business in the future than what it took in the past.
- You need to avoid becoming over-confident based on your past successes; they will not necessarily help you succeed in the future.
- You need to have the right tools and people to succeed in business, not simply the ones that facilitated victory last year or last week.