Four Lessons from 1776 about Leveraging New Technology to Disrupt and Win
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain
When people ask me what my favorite business book on high tech entrepreneurship I tell them that it is “1776” by David McCullough. What could a history book about the revolutionary war have to offer anyone looking to survive this era of digital transformation? In a word – everything. It teaches the most important lessons about mastering innovation when the stakes could hardly have been higher.
Lesson1: Survival Requires Taking Risks on New Technology
The book is set in the neighborhood and town I live in – Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA in 1776. There is an absolute standoff – the British under the command of General Howe are on one side of the Charles River in Boston and the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington is on the other in Cambridge. Months drag on and neither side wants to risk engaging in battle. After a few months George Washington is impatient. He wants to attack and get it over with. As a Virginian he is somewhat uncomfortable with the nerdy little new Englanders that surround him. But these nerds with little or no battle experience convince Washington to delay his attack and wait to try a new technology.
Lesson2: Winners are often Innovators without Domain Expertise
One of Washington’s aides was Henry Knox who was a bookstore owner that had never served in the military. Knox liked reading books on warfare and during his reading came across a new way to deploy cannons. This new technology allowed people to stage and deploy a single cannon in just hours. The traditional method took weeks and no one was better at it than the British. The former bookstore owner convinced Washington that they could deploy the cannons in Dorchester Heights – an unguarded hill that overlooked Boston and Boston Harbor. If they could get the cannons positioned during a single evening the Americans could destroy the entire British Army and Fleet encamped in the city and harbor.
Lesson3: Competing Effectively Often Requires Using Technology you Don’t Own
They had only one problem – they didn’t have any cannons! But they didn’t let that stop them. Knox was dispatched to retrieve them from Fort Ticonderoga – a fort they had just captured from the British. And he was the embodiment of perseverance. During a brutal New England winter he dragged 21 cannons through the snow from Vermont to Cambridge. Here is a description of his endeavor:
“Reaching Ticonderoga on December 5, Knox commenced what came to be known as the noble train of artillery, hauling by ox-drawn sled 60 tons of cannon and other armaments across some 300 miles (480 km) of ice-covered rivers and snow-draped Berkshire Mountains to the Boston siege camps.
The region was lightly populated and Knox had to overcome difficulties hiring personnel and draft animals. On several occasions cannon crashed through the ice on river crossings, but the detail's men were always able to recover them. In the end, what Knox had expected to take just two weeks actually took more than six, and he was finally able to report the arrival of the weapons train to Washington on January 27, 1776. Called by historian Victor Brooks "one of the most stupendous feats of logistics" of the entire war, Knox's effort is commemorated by a series of plaques marking the Henry Knox Trail in New York and Massachusetts” (Wikipedia)
Lesson4: Gaining a Competitive Advantage Often Requires Leveraging Technology you Have Never Used
When the cannons reached Cambridge they dragged them again – this time to Dorchester Heights in the dead of night and used the new experimental technique they read about in books that had hardly ever been used by anyone. Let alone in such an epic battle as this. By the morning they had installed all the cannons.
When the British woke up in the morning they were stunned. They realized that their entire fleet could be destroyed. None of their cannons or weapons could reach the Americans and their cannons on the hill. Their world was changed overnight by a new obscure technology.
The British dispatched a messenger to Washington and it was agreed that the British could leave unscathed as long as they did not destroy the city of Boston during their retreat. Washington won a major victory over the British without firing a single shot! And he did it by using a new innovation that few had ever tried.
What does the battle of Dorchester Heights in 1776 have to do with today’s threat of digital disruption? When Digital Disruption hits there are victims and winners:
- Victims: PLAYED IT SAFE. Companies with legacy business models run by management that was NOT accustomed to change and didn’t thrive on innovation. (Think of the British and their old style cannon deployment)
- Winners: TOOK A RISK. Companies that realized that their competitive advantage could be crafted from new and innovative technologies. (Think of the Americans and their new cannon deployment)
Looking at the victims of digital you can clearly see that – “Business as Usual”, “Wait and See” and “Taking No Action” are the most dangerous choices of all as change continues to accelerate at an unprecedented pace.
Companies must be like the American Revolutionaries – they saw a new technology that would give them an unrivaled competitive advantage against the largest and most expert Army and Navy in the world. The fact that they a) had to take a risk b) lacked technology expertise c) didn’t own the technology and d) never used the technology didn’t stop them. And they won one of the most decisive battles in history literally overnight without bloodshed or destruction.
B2B Companies must learn from history. You must break attachments to older methods and embrace new technologies as soon as possible.
B2B Leadership must learn from George Washington who listened to an unproven innovator and took a risk.