Successful companies understand that experimentation is crucial to adaptability.
In 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered the shutdown of all weapons development research programs expected to take longer than six months to reach completion. It was a costly miscalculation for Germany. Why? Because experimentation is the cornerstone of effective adaptation.
The mistake would haunt Nazi Germany as the tide gradually turned against it in the Second World War. While German scientists were shackled to short-term targets, their Allied counterparts were given free rein to experiment with new weapon technologies for as long as they pleased. When defense scientist William Butement came up with an idea to develop a proximity fuse, for example, he was encouraged to delve deeper.
A proximity fuse is a useful piece of gadgetry if you’re in the middle of a shooting war. A bomb fitted with the fuse’s radar technology will only detonate when it’s sufficiently close to its targets. Older bomb types, on the other hand, used standard timers that often exploded long before – or after – they’d reached their targets. Needless to say, the bombs with the proximity fuses did the most damage.
Crafting the perfect proximity fuse took time and dedication, and it was only after years of experimentation with prototypes that the finished article was ready for deployment. It came just in the nick of time. In 1944, a German counteroffensive caught the Allies off-guard and the outcome of the Battle of the Bulge hung in the balance. Lucky that they had the perfect weapon to beat back the onslaught: artillery units equipped with lethally accurate proximity fuse shells.
Experimentation also has its uses in the metaphorical war between businesses. Take Apple, a company that has long been synonymous with a culture of experimentation. When its new products meet a negative reception, it shelves them and gets to work on a superior alternative. You may or may not remember Apple’s first handheld computer – the clunky, error-prone Newton. The Newton crashed and burned and Apple responded by going back to the drawing board. The result? Its designers used the prototype to develop the iPod, iPhone and iPad.