Innovation vs Tradition (jet fighters)

I watched a fascinating documentary about the Messerschmitt 262 (the first operational fighter jet of WWII) and I came away with an unexpected appreciation of the roles of innovation and tradition in overall success. Given the extreme importance of innovation these days, especially in the world of business, it seems worthwhile to remember that there are limits and dangers to innovating.

And there are also dangers to clinging tenaciously to tradition and refusing to innovate.

As the documentary explains, although the Germans were the first to deploy a fully operational jet fighter, the Germans were not the only ones working on jet propulsion technology. The Brits started investigating it at roughly the same time. So if the Brits and Germans were both looking into the same technology at around the same time, why did the Germans get their fighter into operation well ahead of the Brits?

The Germans placed very high priority on innovation. They were constantly toying around with new stuff, and as soon as it appeared to work, they were eager to get it up and running and throw it at the front lines. This is why the ME-262 ended up in the skies over Europe well before the Allies had anything that could compete with it. In fact, the Germans often had more advanced and/or creative weaponry than the Allies; they also invented the first cruise missiles and used them against the Brits.

[There is an entire discussion to be had around using innovation wisely. Germany might have either won the war, or at least seriously hampered the Allied advance, if Hitler hadn’t been stupid enough to decide that the ME-262 should be a bomber, not a fighter. If all those aircraft had been deployed as fighters against the invading Allied air forces, the closing chapters of WWII might have looked quite different. Thank God Hitler was an idiot.]

The Brits, on the other hand, were somewhat less interested in innovation until it was rather too late. They were innovative, of course, but their pace of innovation paled in comparison to the Germans. At least with respect to jet propulsion. Their focus on tradition provided the Germans with the upper hand toward the end of the war.

Clearly we should all innovate, all the time, and hurl ourselves headlong into whatever is new and cutting edge, right?


Germany lost. Fascinating. How does that fit in? There are of course a plethora of historical factors that contributed to their ultimate downfall, but one factor relating to the ME-262 in particular highlights one of the downsides of rapid innovation; too much risk. Any time you develop something completely new there will always be something about it that doesn’t work quite as you’d expect. Here’s another example of an engineering marvel that had… um… “unexpected behaviors.”

Any time we humans push the boundaries of our current understanding, our current technological capabilities, you can expect some challenges to arise that nobody ever knew about before. And this is exactly what happened with the ME-262. While it was brilliantly fast and could easily outgun the Allies, after the initial shock wore off, the Allies discovered that the ME-262 had some problems and limitations that allowed the Allies to balance the playing field once again. While it was innovative, it had not been sufficiently proven; its limitations were not well understood.

Part way during this drama, the Americans entered the picture. They also became interested in the jet engine, but their approach was different from either the Brits or the Germans. As the documentary describes, their philosophy was to win the war with the weapons at hand, rather than attempting to win it through massive, unproven, leaps in technology. However, don’t let that lead you to conclude the Americans didn’t advance their technology. On the contrary, the Vought Corsair was a piston-powered fighter plane that was miles ahead of anything the Japanese had and it was instrumental in turning the tide in the Pacific war. Same goes for the P-51, P-38 and others. The Americans certainly did advance technology, but they advanced it in an evolutionary, not revolutionary, manner. All their fighters used piston engines; they never even tried to get a jet fighter to the front lines during the war.

[And, to be clear, the Brits did design the most magnificent fighter of all time, the Spitfire. R. J. Mitchell – the brains behind the Spitfire – came as close any human in history to creating the perfect melding of form and function. It was innovative beyond it’s time.]

The Americans weren’t going to send a fighter to the front lines unless there was a long history of reliability. They wanted to make sure they had swept out all the corners and addressed all the weaknesses before they handed the weapons to their soldiers. This philosophy makes it more likely that they will win wars and save their soldier’s lives. But behind the scenes, away from the front lines, innovation was the priority.

So when the Americans became interested in innovation it was not for any short-term goal of winning the war, right here, right now. They already had the tools for that, and could even use those “traditional” weapons against “innovative” weapons used by the Germans. Rather, they were interested in jet technology because they knew it would be needed down the road in order to maintain their military advantage for generations to come. Pearl Harbour had instilled in America the need to have a strong, competitive, and ever-ready military; they were not going to be caught flat footed a second time.

The Germans lost the war because they placed too much emphasis on innovation.

The Brits might have lost the war (but fortunately did not) because they did not place enough emphasis on innovation.

The Americans have been maintaining a long-term military advantage across the globe since WWII because they seem to have found the right balance between tradition and innovation. The weapons they send to the front lines are time tested and proven (tradition) but “back home” they are always working on the weapons of the future (innovation).

There are risks with placing too much emphasis on tradition. There are also risks with placing too much emphasis on innovation. Balance is the key, and it would seem to me that this principle has applications not only for the military, but for business, politics, economics, education and much more.

Do not cling too religiously to your traditions, but also do not be too eager to overturn them with whatever is new and exciting; cutting edge.  Some innovations are never going to work out so you’d better not put all your eggs in those particular baskets.