Innovation Fatigue: How Britain Almost Lost the War Against HitlerBy
A book on World War II teaches a lesson for today on innovation. In Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Pulitzer-prize winning author Thomas E. Ricks (New York: Penguin, 2017), we learn about some of the reasons England struggled to defend itself effectively in dealing with Germany. A key problem discussed by Ricks was England’s poor state of preparation with inadequate machinery, feeble industrialization, weak supply chains, etc., that made it hard to fight a serious war and led to embarrassing disasters like the rapid loss of Singapore, their supposed fortress in southeast Asia. Close to home in Europe, Britain had a hard time just moving troops around — they often had to walk — and the Brits were amazed at how quickly their American cousins could mobilize when they came to the rescue. Why was England so poorly prepared?
England, as you will recall, was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, yet by the time of the War, they were awkwardly behind in many of the basic technologies they would need. How could this happen? Ricks comments are insightful:
Managed by family members more interested in reaping dividends than investing in new machinery and other gear, “British firms were unable to adopt modern, best-practice technology,” concluded business historian Alfred D. Chandler Jr. As a consequence, Britain’s brilliant university research generally did not make the transition into factories. Britain had led the first Industrial Revolution of coal and steam power, but generally sat out the “Second Industrial Revolution” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, built around oil, chemicals, metals, electricity, electronics, and light machinery, such as automobiles. By the end of the 1940s, it would have neither an empire nor an economy capable of competing with those of other major powers. As Correlli Barnett put it, the reality was that by the time World War II ended, the British “had already written the broad scenario for Britain’s postwar descent to the place of fifth in the free world as an industrial power, with manufacturing output only two fifths of West Germany’s.” Interestingly, Barnett was the keeper of the Churchill Archives at Cambridge University from 1977 to 1995. [Ricks, pp. 203-204]
Something similar happened in China, which once led the world in innovation and GDP, but from the Qing Dynasty until the late 20th Century, in part due to apathetic leaders unwilling to invest in or even open the doors to innovation and technology, China missed out on much of the Industrial Revolution. Only through massive reform and exerted effort in recent decades has China begun its return to a position of global leadership in innovation, IP creation, and economic growth.
In the paper industry, which I’ve been close to for many years, it’s clear that the American paper industry has largely fallen into the same trap that nearly cost Britain its freedom and did cost many lives unnecessarily. The American paper industry has largely failed to invest in new technology and relies heavily on antiquated paper machines and pulp mills that are decades behind what we have in Asia (China and Japan in particular). Their slower, less efficient machines and less efficient plantations put them at a distinct cost disadvantage. Instead of taking steps to compete better, the US industry too often tries to rely on protective legislation to raise tariffs on imported paper and make everyone in the nation pay much more for their paper than they should. The real problem is not Chinese competition, but American businessmen falling into the same pattern that nearly cost Britain the war: focusing on immediate profit and dividends while neglecting the future.
Each industry, whatever it is, needs to build for the future with investment in innovation and a willingness to boldly cope with the threats and opportunities of disruptive innovation. If your industry is dominated with leaders who feel like they can just milk their business as a cache cow with no need to invest in the future, that industry will fail.