Old rules on new battlefields

Civil WarIt is easy to think we’re the first to live in such disruptive times. Not even close to true.

I recently visited a Civil War battlefield and had a great conversation with one of the reenactment actors who happened to be a history buff.  In our twenty minute conversation, he told me two remarkable, very non-modern stories of disruption and its consequence.

What struck me was not the technology involved in his tale, but the good old-fashioned human behavior that time and time again gets in the way of smart responses to disruption.

The mini ball

Sometime between the revolutionary war and the Civil war, a new type of ballistic was introduced.  It was called the mini ball and what made it unique was its effective range. It increased accurate shooting distance to 600 yards.  The solders fighting the battles of that day were trained to advance within 100 yards before engaging or charging.  It was a 100-yard strategy in a time of 600-yard ammunition.

Wasting ammunition

His second story was about rapid-fire weapons that became technologically feasible long before they were widely adopted by armies. Soldiers wanted the weapons but but quartermasters in the supply chain were convinced that anything firing at a rapid rate would waste ammunition. Supply officers were the gatekeepers who said, “You don’t need that.”

Old rules, new battlefield

General George CusterWe can see the silliness of those situations from the advantage of our day, but it made perfect sense at the time. Tactics and supply chains were stuck in old rules but armies were fighting on new battlefields.

Respect held people back. They admired leaders and from their quartermaster trainers to their senior officers. The ‘rules of thumb’ were created through generations of experience and were difficult to see past.

It takes a pretty clever individual to see new patterns emerge and to convince the tacticians and suppliers to change their ways. This is the fundamental reason startups succeed…they see the new battlefield and are first to change their rules to fit. They have little to no investment in the old rules and every incentive to redefine how the battle is fought.

The Indians under Sitting Bull that opposed General George Custer in 1876 changed the rules and we all know the result of that incident. Custer was a phenomenally successful general under the rules of the Civil War and spectacularly unsuccessful when the battlefield changed.


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Categories: Continuous Improvement, Disruption

Author:Tom Molyneux

A business process strategist with a focus on real-time event management.

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