Douglas Haig was the Commander of the British troops on the Western Front between 1915 and 1918.
He was also a cavalry officer. So he knew the quickest way to win a battle was with a decisive thrust by mounted troops, who could move fast, get in behind the enemy and capture ground quickly for the infantry to consolidate.
That was the prevailing military orthodoxy. That’s what he’d been taught at Sandhurst. That was the way battles had been fought and won for the last 300 years.
So, when military designers approached him in 1915 with a prototype for a ‘land ship’ – an armoured vehicle with caterpillar tracks and guns – he couldn’t see the point. The new weapon was mechanically unreliable, difficult to manoeuvre and nowhere near as fast as a galloping horse.
But, as the war on the Western front continued to be a bloody stalemate, Haig was frustrated. He needed to find a way of breaking through the well-entrenched German lines, so he could deploy his cavalry and win the battle.
So he contacted the designers and told them to send everything they had – at the time, around 50 vehicles (which, by now, were being referred to as ‘tanks’, in a bid to persuade enemy spies they were just for transporting water).
By the time they got to the front, only 32 of the 50 tanks were still working, but Haig threw them straight into battle. It was a qualified success – only nine made it as far as the German trenches. But they did some damage, so he persevered.
Over the next two years, the technology improved. The tanks got quicker and more manoeuvrable. By 1918, they were an established weapon: over 500 of them took part in the decisive battles of the hundred-day offensive that eventually broke the German lines and ended the war.
What’s interesting is the conclusion both sides drew about the tank as a weapon after the war ended.
The British still saw it as a tactical solution to a specific problem (breaking through a defensive line).
Whereas the Germans, having experienced tanks from the sharp end, realised they were a devastating new way of fighting wars – and re-designed their whole military strategy around them.
22 years later, their Panzers came back to Northern France and ran straight through the French and British armies, who didn’t know what hit them.
You see the same thing in business all the time.
Some companies embrace innovation as a way to completely transform the way they work and the experience they offer their customers.
And some see it as a way to keep doing the same things that worked last time, only a bit quicker and cheaper.
Like the British army in 1939, they’re still fighting the last war.