Napoleon and the Innovator’s Dilemma

napoleonI recently finished reading the well-regarded biography of Napoleon by Andrew Roberts and I’m just beginning to work with a major business innovation initiative at one of our clients. These tie together for the unlikely reason that Napoleon’s later campaigns – from the defeat in Russia in 1812 to the final defeat at Waterloo – are excellent illustrations of the more subtle barriers to innovation.   For those of you who might not be familiar with Napoleon’s history, after the French revolution, he quickly worked his way up the ranks of the French military by being one of the better officers defending the French Republic against efforts by the major European monarchies to restore the French king. As he rose to the top of the French military, he invented a wide variety of highly innovative military organizational schemes and strategies that became the foundation of his early military successes but also, when he held onto them too long, led directly to his ultimate defeat.   One of his key innovations was the “corps” system in which large bodies of troops under “marshals” could quickly either mass together in the center of a battle or envelop their opponent. Under his central direction, his army was able to move significantly faster and more effectively than his opponents, provoking large scale battles in relatively limited geographies that he would win through better organization and leadership. In particular, he won many victories over much larger and often better equipped Austrian and Russian armies (the “Allies).   However, as a decade of war continued, the “market” conditions changed drastically and, in great part because of his reliance on the methodologies of his previous successes he neither recognized nor adapted to the changes. For example:  

  • Not adapting as competition changes tactics: When Napoleon began to move east from Prussia and Poland toward Russia, his model was to fight large scale battles in limited spaces so he kept trying to lure the Russians into a major battle in a small area. However, the Russians, having learned that they needed to avoid these types of situations with Napoleon kept retreating, drawing him into vast Russian regions and delaying fighting until the winter. Napoleon knew the dangers of pursuing the Russians toward Moscow and of getting caught in the winter (this is well documented), but his mental model required him to fight large battles in limited regions and he couldn’t stop himself from trying to make that happen. His rigidity in adhering to a previously successful innovation led to losing 500,000 soldiers in a little over 2 months.
  • Clinging to past success: At the zenith of his empire, he had conquered and garrisoned with 10’s of thousands of soldiers many European cities such as Dresden and Hamburg. He was extremely proud of the fact that these were formally part of his empire. As he retreated from Russia, and with a new round warfare beginning, he was unwilling to give up these prizes even though desperately short of troops and the garrisons were needed as part of active battles. His clinging to past successes, even when they were no longer viable, contributed to his defeat at Leipzig
  • Letting your ego lead: During a critical battle at Leipzig, he changed his strategy of concentrating troops but for the wrong reasons – really reasons of ego. He made a decision to allocate a substantial portion of his army to capturing Berlin mainly because he was mad at the Prussians for switching sides to go against him. Berlin was militarily irrelevant to the crucial battle, but because of ego, Napoleon made decisions that undermined his success. Ego got in the way of adaptation.
  • Sticking with outdated methods: In the battle at Leipzig, his adversaries, the “Allies” had figured out that they could not be successful battling Napoleon directly in the center of the battle, which was Napoleon’s model so they retreated in the center and concentrated on attacking the sides of his army. Because of the centralized command structure, and Napoleon’s belief that this was the wrong way to fight a battle, he didn’t react to changed tactics and was ultimately routed. The “competition” found a counter-positioning that was effective in destroying his primary strategy which he rejected as impossible.
  • Insular decision making: In all these cases, overtime, Napoleon had either lost through death in battle or came to distrust most of his advisors. He was surrounded by weak subordinates or duplicitous advisors with personal agendas, often in conflict with Napoleons. As a result, he gradually became isolated from any perspectives that suggested anything different from his perceived realty (See “Why Smart Executives Fail” by Sydney Finkelstein). Insular decision making further reinforced his reliance on his past models of success.
  In each of these cases, the very success that made Napoleon so good was the reason he failed, which is a central premise of the Innovator’s Dilemma.   So what can an organization do differently? The big problem in innovation is that hidden, very subtle perspectives drive behaviors that limit the ability to adapt and innovate. Here are some ideas on how to manage these limitations:  
  • Rely on analysis, not instinct: If the environment looks even remotely different, rely more on formal analysis than past experience or instinct. It is the embedded instinct based on past success that gets you into trouble (like Napoleon in Russia)
  • Question all assumptions: Consciously ask if the underlying assumptions of the current business model are correct. It is also the hidden, unquestioned assumptions that govern much of behavior and limit innovation
  • Seek contrarian opinions: Systematically seek out contrarian views and most critically, assume that they are correct and that you are wrong until proven otherwise
  In order to do this, the leader needs a tremendous amount of self-confidence and self-awareness. It is hard to put aside everything that has made you successful and, in effect, start again. Napoleon was not able to put his past aside, but that is what you need to do to be truly innovative.          ]]>

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