Monthly Archives: September 2012

The complicated path from innovation to acceptance

One of my favorite essays is Elting Morison’s Gunfire at Sea: A Case Study of Innovation, from his book Men, Machines and Modern Times (1950, MIT Press, PDF here). In it, he details the story of Captain Percy, US Navy, who by making changes to the sights and elevation mechanisms of the cannons on his ship increased the accuracy by about 3000%, which should be considered relevant. Subsequently, his innovation took a long time to be accepted throughout the Navy, for reasons having to do with the innovator himself (he was a rather controversial figure), the rate of innovation (simply too good to be believed) and the fact that the innovation went against certain organizational and cultural norms (no news there, I am afraid.) One of his conclusions is that no military service should be allowed to reform itself, a point I think we can extend far beyond the military.

But this well told and well documented story is not the only reason this essay is one I keep coming back to. I also like (and frequently retell) the introductory story, which goes like this:

In the early days of the last war [i.e., WWI] when armaments of all kinds were in short supply, the British, I am told, made use of a venerable field piece that had come down to them from previous generations.  The honorable past of this light artillery stretched back, in fact, to the Boer War.  In the days of uncertainty after the fall of France, these guns, hitched to trucks, served as useful mobile units in the coast defense.  But it was felt that the rapidity of fire could be increased.  A time-motion expert was, therefore, called in to suggest ways to simplify the firing procedures.  He watched one of the gun crews of five men at practice in the field for some time.  Puzzled by certain aspects of the procedures, he took some slow-motion pictures of the soldiers performing the loading, aiming, and firing routines.

When he ran these pictures over once or twice, he noticed something that appeared odd to him.  A moment before the firing, two members of the gun crew ceased all activity and came to attention for a three-second interval extending throughout the discharge of the gun.  He summoned an old colonel of artillery, showed him the pictures and pointed out his strange behavior.  What, he asked the colonel, did it mean.  The colonel, too, was puzzled.  He asked to see the pictures again.  “Ah,” he said when the performance was over, “I have it.  They are holding the horses.”

And there you have it – people just don’t want change (unless it is more of the same). Let me illustrate this with the following story, from back in the 80s when I ran user support for the Norwegian Business School:

One user came running up to the IT department’s help desk informing us that “the printer has gone”. The printer in question was an IBM mainframe printer, roughly the size of a large freezer, and was situated, all by itself, in a small (about 2 x 3 meters) dedicated room, like this:

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The help desk person consulted his terminal, which after a few keystrokes reported the printer as present and ready. Still, the user maintained that the printer was no longer there. An investigation was launched, and a small investigation party, consisting of the user and two or three incongruous IT people set out for the printer room. After a few minutes, the IT people returned, reporting that a) IBM’s service personnel had been there and serviced the printer, and b) for reasons unknown, they had changed its position thusly (and note, the printer and a few cases of paper were the only things in this room):

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This episode proved to me that Morison definitely was right – most people cannot handle change, and get rather upset when things are in any way out of the normal.

Furthermore, most people do not think about why the world is the way it is, but that is the subject of another essay.

May the change be with you – mostly, it is good…

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