MIT Professor Eric von Hippel is the author of Democratizing Innovation, a book I should have read when it was first published seven years ago. The purpose of this blog post, however, is to share some thoughts on “Gunfire at Sea: A Case Study in Innovation” (PDF), which Eric recently instructed me to read. Authored by Elting Morison in 1968, this piece is definitely required reading for anyone engaged in disruptive innovation, particularly in the humanitarian space. Morison was one of the most distinguished historians of the last century and the founder of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS). The Boston Globe called him “an educator and industrial historian who believed that technology could only be harnessed to serve human beings when scientists and poets could meet with mutual understanding.”
Morison details in intriguing fashion the challenges of using light artillery at sea in the late 1,800’s to illustrate how new technologies and new forms of power collide and indeed, “bombard the fixed structure of our habits of mind and behavior.” The first major innovative disruption in naval gunfire technology is the result of one person’s acute observation. Admiral Sir Percy Scott happened to watched his men during target practice one day while the ship they were on was pitching and rolling acutely due to heavy weather. The resulting accuracy of the shots was dismal save for one man who was doing something slightly different to account for the swaying. Scott observed this positive deviance carefully and cobbled existing to technology to render the strategy easier to repeat and replicate. Within a year, his gun crews were remarkable accurate.
Note that Scott was not responsible for the invention of the basic instruments he cobbled together to scale the positive deviance he observed. Scott’s contribution, rather, was a mashup of existing technology made possible thanks to mechanical ingenuity and a keen eye for behavioral processes. As for the personality of the innovator, Scott possessed “a savage indignation directed ordinarily at the inelastic intelligence of all constituted authority, especially the British Admiralty.” Chance also plays a role in this story. “Fortune (in this case, the unaware gun pointer) indeed favors the prepared mind, but even fortune and the prepared mind need a favorable environment before they can conspire to produce sudden change. No intelligence can proceed very far above the threshold of existing data or the binding combinations of existing data.”
Whilst stationed in China several years later, Admiral Scott crosses paths with William Sims, an American Junior Officer of similar temperament. Sims’s efforts to reform the naval service are perhaps best told in his own words: “I am perfectly willing that those holding views differing from mine should continue to live, but with every fibre of my being I loathe indirection and shiftiness, and where it occurs in high place, and is used to save face at the expense of the vital interests of our great service (in which silly people place such a child-like trust), I want that man’s blood and I will have it no matter what it costs me personally.” Sims built on Scott’s inventions and made further modifications, resulting in new records in accuracy. “These elements were brought into successful combination by minds not interested in the instruments for themselves but in what they could do with them.”
“Sure of the usefulness of his gunnery methods, Sims then turned to the task of educating the Navy at large.” And this is where the fun really begins. His first strategy was to relay in writing the results of his methods “with a mass of factual data.” Sims authored over a dozen detailed data-driven reports on innovations in naval gunfire strage which he sent from his China Station to the powers that be in Washington DC. At first, there was no response from DC. Sims thus decided to change his tone by using deliberately shocking language in subsequent reports. Writes Sims: “I therefore made up my mind I would give these later papers such a form that they would be dangerous documents to leave neglected in the files.” Sims also decided to share his reports with other officers in the fleet to force a response from the men in Washington.
The response, however, was not exactly what Sims had hoped. Washington’s opinion was that American technology was generally as good as the British, which implied that the trouble was with the men operating the technology, which thus meant that ship officers ought to conduct more training. What probably annoyed Sims most, however, was Washington’s comments vis-a-vis the new records in accuracy that Sims claimed to have achieved. Headquarters simply waived these off as impossible. So while the first reaction was dead silence, DC’s second strategy was to try and “meet Sims’s claims by logical, rational rebuttal.”
I agree with the author, Elting Morison, that this second stage reaction, “the apparent resort to reason,” is the “most entertaining and instructive in our investigation of the responses to innovation.” That said, the third stage, name-calling, can be just as entertaining for some, and Sims took the argumentum ad hominem as evidence that “he was being attacked by shifty, dishonest men who were the victims, as he said, of insufferable conceit and ignorance.” He thus took the extraordinary step of writing directly to the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, to inform him of the remarkable achievements in accuracy that he and Admiral Scott had achieved. “Roosevelt, who always liked to respond to such appeals when he conveniently could, brought Sims back from China late in 1902 and installed him as Inspector of Target Practice […]. And when he left, after many spirited encounters […], he was universally acclaimed as ‘the man who taught us how to shoot.'”
What fascinates Morison in this story is the concerted resistance triggered by Sims’s innovation. Why so much resistance? Morison identifies three main sources: “honest disbelief in the dramatic but substantiated claims of the new process; protection of the existing devices and instruments with which they identified themselves; and maintenance of the existing society with which they were identified.” He argues that the latter explanation is the most important, i.e., resistance due to the “fixed structure of our habits of mind and behavior” and the fact that relatively small innovations in gunfire accuracy could quite conceivably unravel the entire fabric of naval doctrine. Indeed,
“From changes in gunnery flowed an extraordinary complex of changes: in shipboard routines, ship design, and fleet tactics. There was, too, a social change. In the days when gunnery was taken lightly, the gunnery officer was taken lightly. After 1903, he became one of the most significant and powerful members of a ship’s company, and this shift of emphasis nat- urally was shortly reflected in promotion lists. Each one of these changes provoked a dislocation in the naval society, and with man’s troubled foresight and natural indisposition to break up classic forms, the men in Washington withstood the Sims onslaught as long as they could. It is very significant that they withstood it until an agent from outside, outside and above, who was not clearly identified with the naval society, entered to force change.”
The resistance to change thus “springs from the normal human instinct to protect oneself, and more especially, one’s way of life.” Interestingly, the deadlock between those who sought change and those who sought to retain things as they were was broken only by an appeal to superior force, a force removed from and unidentified with the mores, conventions, devices of the society. This seems to me a very important point.” The appeal to Roosevelt suggests perhaps that no organization “should or can undertake to reform itself. It must seek assistance from outside.”
I am absolutely intrigued by what these insights might imply vis-a-vis innovation (and resistance to innovation) in the humanitarian sector. Whether it be the result of combining existing technologies to produce open-source crisis mapping platforms or the use of new information management processes such as crowdsourcing, is concerted resistance to such innovation in the humanitarian space inevitable as well? Do we have a Roosevelt equivalent, i..e, an external and somewhat independent actor who might disrupt the resistance? I can definitely trace the same stages of resistance to innovations in humanitarian technology as those identified by Morison: (1) dead silence; (2) reasoned dismissal; and (3) name-calling. But as Morison himself is compelled to ask: “How then can we find the means to accept with less pain to ourselves and less damage to our social organization the dislocations in our society that are produced by innovation?”
This question, or rather Morison’s insights in tackling this question are profound and have important implications vis-a-vis innovation in the humanitarian space. Morison hones in on the imperative of “identification” in innovation:
“It cannot have escaped notice that some men identified themselves with their creations- sights, gun, gear, and so forth-and thus obtained a presumed satisfaction from the thing itself, a satisfaction that prevented them from thinking too closely on either the use or the defects of the thing; that others identified themselves with a settled way of life they had inherited or accepted with minor modification and thus found their satisfaction in attempting to maintain that way of life unchanged; and that still others identified themselves as rebellious spirits, men of the insurgent cast of mind, and thus obtained a satisfaction from the act of revolt itself.”
This purely personal identification is a powerful barrier to innovation. So can this identifying process be tampered in order to facilitate change that is ultima-tely in everyone’s interest? Morison recommends that we “spend some time and thought on the possibility of enlarging the sphere of our identifications from the part to the whole.” In addition, he suggests an emphasis on process rather than product. If we take this advice to heart, what specific changes should we seek to make in the humanitarian technology space? How do we enlarge the sphere of our identifications and in doing so focus on processes rather than products? There’s no doubt that these are major challenges in and of themselves, but ignoring them may very well mean that important innovations in life-saving technologies and processes will go un-adopted by large humanitarian organiza-tions for many years to come.