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What the past can teach us about innovating for the future

As a lover of history and an innovation professional, something that often crosses my mind is the lessons that can be learned today from events that happened hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.

So many of history’s greatest innovation successes are the result of an individual, or group of individuals, thinking outside the box, breaking the rules and challenging the status quo. There are of course many examples of the gamble failing to pay off – Eve eating the apple in the garden of Eden for example – but on those rare occasions where the gamble pays off, the impact is often long lasting and far reaching. The Battle of Leuctra (371BCE) is a good example.

Without getting bogged down in details, the Battle of Leuctra was fought between the Theban general Epaminondas and the Spartan King Cleombrotus. The secret to the Theban success was Epaminondas being willing to challenge the status quo of traditional Greek hoplite warfare and change his formation, moving from ranks 8-to-12 men deep to 50-men-deep. The added weight on the Theban side allowed them to push the Spartan right flank and shatter it.

By taking the chance and innovating, Epaminondas not only destroyed the image of Spartan invincibility, but he also changed the way that Greek armies fought battles in the future.

The same applies in business. Upsetting the status quo, and challenging the business-as-usual mindset can often lead to hugely successful results. Just look at Elon Musk and Tesla, constantly challenging and changing what we perceive the automotive industry to be and leading the pack as a result.

If we fast forward a couple of hundred years, putting ourselves into the days of Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes, we can see how the inability to adapt and innovate can be detrimental to one’s success.

Genghis Khan was raised in a culture that prided archery and horsemanship above all other martial skills. The Mongols mostly fought as light-armed horsemen, and under Genghis Khan’s leadership, were trained to loose volleys of arrows en masse to thin enemy ranks and damage morale before heavy horsemen could charge into the weakened force with lance and sword. Because the Mongols were virtually always outnumbered, usually by a sizeable margin, the preservation of lives was critical to their success.

Their strengths lay in speed, iron discipline and their ability to strike from a distance with super-human-like levels of accuracy and precision. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why the Mongols developed a love of deception and trickery – where winning through deviousness was much more praised than brilliant strategy. Their famous feigned retreat tactic is a perfect example of this thinking.

When the fighting got thick, the Mongols would imperceptibly begin to break off and panic, streaming away in small numbers until eventually, the whole army would break, giving the appearance of a route and causing the enemy army to break formation and chase them down, their blood up and their tempers high. After leading the enemy for a distance, the Mongols would subtly increase the gap between the armies, regroup and reorder into ranks before turning around and decimating the pursuing army who by now would be tired, strung out and fully exposed. I’m sure you can imagine the results.

The people of Europe had heard of the Mongols long before they encountered them, as they were both effectively fighting in the same theatre of war, albeit at different ends. While the Mongols were laying low the Khwarezmian empire, the soldiers of Europe were engaged in their own holy war against Islam: The Crusades. However, it wasn’t until Mongol forces began probing into Russia and Hungary that the threat became real.

When the Mongols finally entered Europe, the people they encountered could only watch in horror as the lightly armed steppe horsemen danced around their heavily armoured counterparts, destroying army after army with impunity, using completely alien stratagems and tactics. To the European psyche, this Eastern approach to war was cowardly and without honour; to the Mongols it was logical.

The inability of the Europeans to adapt to the way Mongol way of war lead to defeat after defeat after defeat, with countless lives lost and many key European cities being either sacked or destroyed including Budapest, Kiev and Moscow. Had it not been for the death of Genghis’ son, and then Gurkhan, Ögedai Khan, it is almost undeniable that the Mongols would have added most, if not all, of Europe to their growing empire.

The Mongols make the list here because the tactics they used, and success they enjoyed, are still applicable to business today. The Europeans were defeated time and again because they constantly expected the Mongols to fight on their terms and refused to adapt to the Mongol approach. We can see the same thing happening today with the explosive growth of companies like Uber and Airbnb, both of whom have drastically reimagined what the industries they play in could be. They approached transport and accommodation with the mentality that ‘just because it is like that, doesn’t mean it should be like that’, with the end results being monumental growth and recognition worldwide while their competitors scramble to adjust and adapt to these new rules.

It is also adaptability that brings me to the 95th Rifles, AKA the Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort’s Own).

To understand the 95th Rifles, it is important to understand the European approach to warfare in the 1700s and 1800s. The Rifle Brigade was formed in a time when warfare was fought by large bodies of men who would march to within 80 feet of each other in smartly dressed ranks before an officer would give the order to “present arms” and “fire” into the enemy soldiers. Once one force had fired, they would begin the laborious process of loading their 50-to-60-inch muzzle-loading muskets while the enemy force began the process of returning fire. It was a very polite form of warfare, practiced by straight-backed gentlemen-soldiers in beautifully tailored uniforms with drawn swords and gleaming boots.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, most, if not all, armies had some form of light troops. For the French, it was the voltigeurs, for the Prussians and Austrians, it was the jägers, for Portugal, the caçadores. The list goes on. Light troops were trained to fight in loose formation, ahead of the main force, and were tasked with disrupting the enemy army as they marched into battle. England also had light troops, but with the introduction of the 95th rifles, they introduced something different to the battlefield.

Typically, light armies would be armed with smooth-bore muskets similar to what regular line infantry would carry. The 95th, on the other hand, were armed with rifles, notably the Baker rifle. Introduced by master gunsmith Ezekiel Baker in 1800, the Baker rifle was accurate up to 900 feet (270 metres) due to the barrels rifling and was much shorter than the 58.5 inch Brown Bess musket used by the British, measuring in at just 43 3/4 inches.

Soldiers of the 95th were chosen for their ability to think on the fly and were taught to work largely outside the mould of traditional military doctrine of the day. Their rifles had a longer range and could thus be used to pick off officers as enemy troops approached, causing confusion in the ranks and disrupting enemy formations.

In terms of light infantry tactics, the 95th weren’t a huge step forward. As I said, most militaries had some form of light troops. But the reason they make the list of historical innovations is that they are an improvement on an existing product. The Rifles represent a range of small improvements that resulted in a different, highly effective, military unit that many other armies weren’t prepared for. They were taught to shoot differently, armed with more accurate, better ranged, weapons and dressed in green to make them harder to see. They are the perfect example of a successful innovation that is based not on enormous steps forward but rather small, incremental changes.

So much of what makes an innovation great is the ability to let an idea to grow and develop beyond the scope of the original problem; to bend the rules and experiment with new things, to test, challenge and push that which we believe to be impractical or unachievable, and ultimately to take the chance on something new as opposed to redressing something old. Otherwise, we end up like the Vizzini from The Princess Bride (1987), unable to adapt to change and conceive the “inconceivable“.

This was originally published on LinkedIn

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