A Culture of Experimentation is Crucial to Adaptability

We often think of certain key factors that shifted the course of the Second World War from the Nazi’s to the Allies favour. Fighting the war on two fronts, the costly battle of Stalingrad and the Russian winter, the deciphering of the enigma code and picking a fight with the US, to name a few.

However, one relatively unknown story is that of the Proximity Fuse.

In 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered the shutdown of all weapons development research programs expected to take longer than six months to reach completion.

The mistake would haunt Nazi Germany as the tide gradually turned against it in the Second World War. While German scientists were shackled to short-term targets, their Allied counterparts were given free rein to experiment with new weapon technologies for as long as they pleased.

So this meant that when defence scientist William Butement devised the idea of a fuse that would detonate a bomb based on it’s position, rather than based on time, he was encouraged to work with the idea further.

In 1944, a massive and unexpected German counteroffensive came at the Battle of Bulge and Allied troops were caught off-guard. The winter was one of the coldest in years and the Allied troops who had marched pretty much uninterrupted for the last few months, found themselves bunkered in, cut off from supplies and without cold-weather equipment. It had the potential of putting extending the war another year or worse still, giving the Germans a much-needed victory that could have then gone on to inspire them to move forward again.

But it was the proximity fuse that won the day.

Where the older German bombs were based on timers that meant they could go off too early or too late, the proximity fuse meant the Allies bombing was exponentially more impactive.

Shutting down experimentation was a costly miscalculation for Germany. Why? Because experimentation is the cornerstone of effective adaptation and innovation.

So what stops us from experimenting in our organisations? A number of things, including:

– A lack of appetite for risk
– A fear of failure
– Short term thinking
– Structures built to deal with a linear world, rather than a VUCA world
– Hierarchical leadership rather than devolved ways of working

The harsh reality is we have to adjust our ways of thinking and that can mean big changes in our organisation. If we don’t you could find yourself on the other end of a bomb with a proximity fuse. Something far more effective than what you are using to currently beat your opposition.

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