4 Lessons from Military History for Business Innovation




The US military possess lessons on leadership, logistics, training, and leader development.  In addition to those areas, there are numerous lessons for business on how to understand, apply, and take caution from military lessons in innovation, testing, design, and development.


Here are four lessons from military history for business innovation: 


  1. A Realization That Prototypes Without Sufficient Testing Can Lead to Failure.  During the Normandy landings in June 1944, the famed “D-Day” landings, were set to free Europe from Nazi Germany.  There were both negative and positive innovation examples.  Two negative examples of innovation stand out due to their failures in testing under real world conditions.  Airborne parachute forces were issued a new “leg bag” for soldiers to carry critical supplies that attached to their parachute harness and then hung off their legs.  The beach landing forces had a “swimmable” tank that was supposed to provide critical firepower on the beaches to allow infantry forces to quickly and decisively win in beach landing assault’s.  However, both the “swimmable” tanks and the airborne leg bags were last minute good ideas that were never sufficiently tested.  Because of a lack of testing, the leg bags ripped off in the dark during the parachute drops and the “swimming” tanks sank in the rough waves and heavy seas during the beach landings.  A few weeks later, innovative mechanics and engineers created steel “teeth” to attach to the front of tanks to allow the tanks to cut through the thick trees and dirt of the Normandy hedgerows.  The engineers and mechanics created several prototypes and tested them thoroughly before issuing them to frontline troops.   These tanks with their steel teeth were highly effective in cutting weeks off the fighting in the Normandy hedgerows.  Testing and prototype analysis are critical aspects of innovation.

  2. Sometimes the Old Ways Still Work – Caution for Development for Development Sake.  The US Military’s heavy machine gun, the M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun, has maintained essentially the same design and operational characteristics since the early 1930’s.  There have probably been hundreds of proposed designs to the US Military how to create and field a “better” heavy machine gun.  What stops the development and fielding of a new heavy machine gun is that the old one still works very well.  The M2 .50 caliber machine gun has served in combat through World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and countless other small engagements.  The military’s lesson of the M2 is a great one for business and manufacturing.  Are we making something new to solve either existing or emerging problems or a competitor’s new entrant.  Or, are we trying to make something new that does not need to be new?  Oh yes, the M2 machine gun remains in service across the globe today.

  3. A Lesson from The Special Forces - Progressive Training & Cross Training to Develop Skill Excellence Across the Organization.  Military training in all services and in all military occupational specialties starts with learning the basics and then advancing your knowledge in your specific field.  Business leaders need to take the lead from the Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, and focus on intense training and cross training to create highly trained and well-rounded teams.  In the Special Forces, everyone learns how to perform everyone else’s role, learn the most critical tasks by heart, and how to perform the tasks well under the most adverse conditions.  The reason the Special Forces undergo this arduous training is that combat requirements, like the orders from your best customer, never comes at you evenly.  In the Special Forces, the medial sergeant may need to operate a machine gun on patrol and the communications sergeant may need to help a village dig a well.  Businesses who focus intensely on cross training their teams in different tasks and abilities will be able to, like the Special Forces, create a higher level of performance and capabilities than other teams of greater size.  

  4. Are You Listening to The Quiet Voices on Your Team?  In late 1944, the US Army sat in well prepared positions along the Nazi German frontier waiting for the winter weather to become spring so they could continue the invasion of Germany and end the war.  Even though senior Army leaders believed all was quiet and well, junior officers and sergeants were capturing well rested, highly trained, and newly equipped German infantry forces that were diagraming and investigating the US Army positions along the quiet front lines.  Dutifully, the quiet junior leaders were reporting these indicators that a major Nazi German attack was imminent, and their reports were routinely disregarded, because the senior leaders wanted to believe that all was well, and Germany was defeated.  In mid-December 1944, a major Nazi German attack began that became the Battle of the Bulge that caused tens of thousands of US Army soldiers to retreat, major equipment losses, and thousands of killed and injured soldiers.  Leaders need to listen to the quiet voices on their team discussing the competition, new innovations, and possible customer departures.  Sometimes what we believe to be true and what is true are not the same.  Listening to those closest to the action and to the customers are a good way to stay on top of developments.


The military lessons for business are effective, timeless, and easy to implement.  These military lessons focus on well led, high morale, and highly effective teams that will perform to greater levels of efficiency and quality.  Follow the lead of the military and test prototypes realistically, retain the old ideas that still work, cross train your teams to build capability, and listen to the quiet voices on your team.


Share your greatest learning from the military for business. 


Related information: 

  1. USAA Leaving the Military Resources Page
  2. The Misadventures of a U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant
  3. Business Lessons from a Military Mission - The Black Hawk Down Raid
  4. Business Lessons from the Defense of Little Round Top



About Chad:

Chad Storlie is a Retired US Army Officer, the author of Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and has published over 320 articles in over 170 publications on military veterans, career advancement, business, leadership, strategy, education, financial planning, and national security topics.  Chad excels as an author, mentor, speaker, and teacher showing business leaders and military veterans how military skills make lives, careers, and businesses better.  Chad is an adjunct Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota – Carlson School of Management.  Chad has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.  Follow Chad @CombatToCorp and www.CombatToCorporate.com