Fantastic Case Study of Innovation



"The more things change, the more they remain the same." - Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr

This is perhaps one of the best case studies of innovation I’ve come across.

Elting E. Morison, in 1950, recounted the introduction of a single technological change - continuous-aim firing for ships - in the United States Navy. The case study is so good because Elting discusses almost every dimension of the innovation: who introduced the idea, who resisted it, what points of friction or tension in the social structure are created by the innovation, and why.

I’ll share my highlighted notes and comments (which will be in brackets “[ ]”). But I highly recommend that you read the whole thing yourself.

Before 1898 guns mounted on unstable, rolling ships were highly inaccurate. For example during the Spanish-American War 9,500 shots were fired by the U.S. Navy, at varying but close ranges, and only 121 had found their mark. The U.S. would win, but the 1.3% accuracy rate was a horrible number.

The Problem

There is in every pointer what is called a “firing interval” - the time lag between his impulse to fire the gun and the translation of this impulse into the act of pressing the firing button. A pointer, because of this reaction time, could not wait to fire the gun until the exact moment when the roll of the ship brought the sights onto the target; he had to will to fire a little before, while the sights were off the target. Since the firing interval was an individual matter, varying obviously from man to man, each pointer had to estimate, from long practice, his own interval and compensate for it accordingly.

Together these things conspired to make gunfire at sea relatively uncertain and ineffective. The pointer, on a moving platform, estimating range and firing interval, shooting while his sight was off the target, became in a sense an individual artist.

Innovation Origination

A British officer Admiral Sir Percy Scott, captain of H.M.S. Syclla in 1898, would develop continuous-aim firing.

Here is how Percy Scott came up with the idea:

For the previous two or three years he had given much thought, independently and almost alone in the British Navy, to means of improving gunnery. One rough day, when the ship, at target practice, was pitching and rolling violently, he walked up and down the gun deck watching his gun crews. Because of the heavy weather they were making very bad scores. Scott noticed, however, that one pointer was appreciably more accurate than the rest. He watched this man with care and saw, after a time, that he was unconsciously working his elevating gear back and forth in a partially successful effort to compensate for the roll of the vessel. It flashed through Scott’s mind at that moment that there was the sovereign remedy for the problems of inaccurate fire. What one man could do partially and unconsciously, perhaps all men could be trained to do consciously and completely.

[Again another example of a creative idea coming at once in a flash. This is the process, to which Elting describes HERE, to harness the huge horsepower of the subconscious.]

Acting on this assumption, Scott did three things:
  1. Changed the gear ratio on all of the Scylla’s guns. Previously the gears were used only to set the gun in a fixed position. Now a gunner could easily elevate and depress the gun to follow a target throughout the roll.
  2. He rerigged his telescopes so that they would not be influenced by the recoil of the gun.
  3. He rigged a small target at the mouth of the gun, which was moved up and down by a crank to simulate a moving target.
...pointers now became trained technicians, fairly uniform in their capacity to shoot. The effect was immediately felt. Within a year the Scylla established records that were remarkable.

Using this new system the accuracy rate of the Syclla would improve dramatically. How good were the results? Elting said:

You must take my word for it that this changed naval gunnery from an art to a science, and that gunnery accuracy in the British and our Navy increased about 3,000 per cent in six years.

In 1899 five ships of the North Atlantic Squadron fired five minutes each at a lightship hulk at the conventional range of 1600 yards. After twenty-five minutes of banging away two hits had been made on the sails of the elderly vessel. Six years later one naval gunner made 15 hits in one minute at a target 75 x 25 feet at the same range; half of them hit in bull’s eve 50 inches square.

Technology Introduction

On the China Station Scott met up with an American junior officer, William S. Sims. Sims had little of the mechanical ingenuity of Percy Scott, but the two were drawn together by temperamental similarities that are worth noticing here. Sims had the same intolerance for what is called spit-and-polish and the same contempt for bureaucratic inertia as his British brother officer.

From Scott in 1900 Sims learned all there was to know about continuous-aim firing… After a few months’ training, his experimental batteries began making remarkable records at target practice.

Sure of the usefulness of his gunnery methods, Sims then turned to the task of educating the Navy at large. In 13 great official reports he documented the case for continuous-aim firing, supporting his arguments at every turn with a mass of factual data.

  1. Sims continually cited the records established by Scott’s ships, the Syclla and the H.M.S Terrible and supported these with the accumulating data from his own tests on an American ship.
  2. Sims described the mechanisms used and the training procedures instituted by Scott and himself to obtain these records.
  3. Sims explained that our [the general Navy’s] own mechanisms were not generally adequate without modification to meet the demands placed on them by continuous-aim firing.

Sims: “I am perfectly willing that those holding views different 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 childlike trust, I want that man’s blood and I will have it no matter what it costs me personally.”

[Sims sounded and acted like a fanatic. Not satisfied until the world transformed to how he saw it.]

Responses From U.S. Navy

First stage: no response… the reports were simply filed away and forgotten.

Second stage: rebuttal… In Sims later reports, he changed his tone. He used deliberately shocking language.

  • Gets attention: Sims sent copies of his reports to other officers in the fleet. Aware, as a reult, that Sims’ gunnery claims were being circulated and talked about, the men in Washington were then stirred to action. They responded - notably through the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance… as follows (emphasis mine):
    1. Our equipment was in general as good as the British.

    2. Since our equipment was as good, the trouble must be with the men, but the gun pointer and the training of gun pointers were the responsibility of the officers of the ships.

    3. And most significant - continuous-aim firing was impossible.

    Experiments had revealed that five men at work on the elevating gear of a six-inch gun could not produce the power necessary to compensate for a roll of five degrees in ten seconds. These experiments and calculations demonstrated beyond peradventure or doubt that Scott’s system of gunfire was not possible.

    They were wrong at important points:

    1. While there was little difference between the standard British equipment and the standard U.S. equipment, the instruments on Scott’s own ships the Syclla and the Terrible, were far better than the standard equipment on our ships.
    2. All the men could not be trained in continuous-aim firing until equipment was improved throughout the fleet.
    3. The experiments with the elevating gear had been ingeniously contrived at the Washington Navy Yard - on solid ground.

    Third stage: name calling… Sims was told in official endorsements on his reports that there were others quite as sincere and loyal as he and far less difficult; he was dismissed as a crack-brain egotist; he was called a deliberate falsifier of evidence.

    “No society can reform itself” - Alfred Thayer Mahan

    [That's why it is necessary to continue to bring in fresh eyes. That is why intelligent fanatics often come from backgrounds that are not associated with the industry they eventually dominate. They aren't trying to preserve any particular tradition of making their product or service because they don't know them.]

    Accordingly, he took the extraordinary step of writing the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, to inform him of the remarkable records of Scott’s ships, of the inadequacy of our own gunnery routines and records, and of the refusal of the Navy Department to act.

    Navy Response to Change

    Here was a reform that greatly and demonstrably increased the fighting effectiveness of a service that maintains itself almost exclusively to fight… Why should virtually all the rulers of a society so resolutely seek to reject a change that so markedly improved its chances for survival in any contest with competing societies?
    1. The source of reform was an obscure officer 8000 miles away.
    2. Sims was criticizing gear and machinery designed by the very men in the bureaus to whom he was sending his criticisms.
    3. Sims was seeking to introduce what he claimed were improvements in a field where improvements appeared unnecessary.

    The opposition, where it occurs, of the soldier and the sailor to such change springs from the normal human instinct to protect oneself and more especially one’s way of life. Military organizations are societies built around and upon the prevailing weapon systems. Intuitively and quite correctly the military man feels that a change in weapon portends a change in the arrangements of his society.

    The years after 1902 proved how right, in their terms, the opposition was. 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 naturally 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… It is very significant that they [Washington] withstood [Sims] until an agent from outside [President] - outside and above - who was not clearly identified with the naval society, entered to force change.

    Why Resistance to Positive Innovation

    A primary source of conflict and tension in our case study appears to lie in this great word I have used so often in the summary - the word, identification.

    Case study - the men involved were the victims of severely limited identifications. They were presumably all part of a society dedicated to the process of national defense, yet they persisted in aligning themselves with separate parts of that process - with the existing instruments of defense, with the existing customs of the society, or with the act of rebellion against the customs of the society.

    So these limited identifications brought men into conflict with each other, and the conflict prevented them from arriving at a common acceptance of a change that presumably, as men interested in our total national defense, they would all find desirable.

    The possibility that any group that exists for any purpose - the family, the factory, the educational institution - might begin by defining for itself its grand object, and see to it that that grand object is communicated to every member of the group… It might serve as a unifying agent against the disruptive local allegiances of the inevitable smaller elements that compose any group.

    Adaptive Society

    [Elting's thoughts are exactly in-line with the conclusion we came to in our first book [Intelligent Fanatics Project]

    If we are to survive in good health we must become an “adaptive society.” By the word “adaptive” is mean the ability to extract the fullest possible returns from the opportunities at hand.

    “Adaptive” also means the kind of resilience that will enable us to accept fully and easily the best promises of changing circumstances without losing our sense of continuity or our essential integrity.

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