Lessons of war

By Vijay Ramachandran Mar 26th 2012
Lessons of war

Innovation within businesses is fraught with difficulty. True, game-changing innovation brings with it the risk of catastrophic failure. How many companies are willing to take the plunge, then?

Innovation is a much abused word. And, when the going gets tough out comes the mantra — innovate. It’s funny how recession rhymes with innovation, so much so that a Google search for the twin terms will yield a staggering 30 million results. I’ll confess that took me by surprise.

Most organizations know instinctively that when dealing with tough times, one needs to change strategy and look to do different things in order to survive and prosper.

What also amazed me more, was that a bulk of the articles that I came across were the ‘don’t-stop-innovating-just-because-money’s-short’ kind. I buy that that navigating the hows of innovation may still mystify companies but the whys can hardly be in question.

As far as I can tell, adversity and not prosperity breeds the best form of innovation.

Take World War II, for instance. The effects of the war had far-reaching implications for most of the world. Over 60 million lives were lost, millions of refugees were left homeless, the European and British economies collapsed, and most of Europe’s industrial infrastructure was destroyed. were rationed.

Still, in a situation that can only be described as dire, the Allies and Axis powers pulled off many technological miracles. Both sides were short on everything — money for sure, but low timelines were typical (after all the option was being run over). Yet, in six years of conflict, the crucible of war spewed out radar, sonar, microwaves, antibiotics, jet engines, computers, alternative fuels, and I’m not even bringing up weaponry.

Let me tell you the story of synthetic rubber. By mid-1942 Japan controlled all of the Far East and China, and with them nearly all of the world’s supply of natural rubber.

The Allies were desperate for rubber. Without it tires, boots, planes, and almost any thing that their armies required wasn’t possible. So, the United States launched a major effort to figure out new ways to make synthetic rubber. A large team of chemists from many institutions worked almost non-stop till they succeeded in synthesizing a co-polymer of butadiene and styrene, that was dubbed GRS (Government Rubber Styrene). By 1944, over 50 factories in the US were churning out GRS by the ton — more than twice that of the world’s natural rubber production before the beginning of the war.

What I find more fascinating than even the specific innovations that a world at war create, are the lessons that the process holds for us. Each breakthrough product or process required a certain combination of things to achieve. To begin with, an environment favoring experimentation that not only expected but also rewarded failure. Secondly, tight timelines from R&D to deployment, thus requiring quick innovation,  rapid prototyping and continuous improvement. Third, efficiently co-ordinating information, ideas and people with apt levels of security and sharing to improve collaboration.

So how can we apply these lessons to our businesses? I believe at its essence lies an attitude and belief that all hurdles can and will be overcome. Next, setting extremely tight deadlines, since lost time cannot be replaced. Being first to market is more important than perfection—anything can always be improved. And, finally, getting cross-functional groups working for a shared purpose (there’s nothing like a bit of friendly competition to push rapid innovation).

Innovation within businesses is fraught with difficulty. True, game-changing innovation brings with it the risk of catastrophic failure. How many companies are willing to take the plunge, then?

For answers, just look at the four organizations that feature in our cover story this month (Page 28). Each took a decidedly different path to change their fortunes, one that was in keeping with their unique business imperatives

There are lessons in them for all of us.

Vijay Ramachandran is the Editor-in-Chief of ChannelWorld. Contact him at vijay_ramachandran@idgindia.com

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