Profile of a Royal Navy Innovator: Or where is our Jacky Fisher?

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By Scott Bowden

Sir John Arbuthnot (Jacky) Fisher, 1841-1920.

At the end of the 19th century, the Royal Navy was the most powerful and well-respected naval force in the world. For the previous 100 years, numerous attempts to challenge the Royal Navy’s supremacy at sea had failed and had left Great Britain with an empire that stretched across the entire globe. An organization as successful as Royal Navy was unlikely to encourage innovation. After all, the Royal Navy has reached its position of prominence by doing things they way they had been done for nearly a century, led by constant references to the success of Admiral Lord Nelson.

Yet it was in this environment that arose one of the most innovative figures in the history of the Royal Navy, Jacky Fisher. Fisher joined the Royal Navy penniless at age 13 and worked his way through the ranks to reach the position of First Sea Lord from 1904 to 1910 and again from 1914 to 1915. In his 50 years of service, Fisher was a constant proponent of transformation. Among his list of innovations were the following:

-Improved naval gunnery (range and accuracy)
-New tactics and strategy (long range, high-speed) to replace the Nelsonian-inspired close-in combat approach
-Realistic exercises during peacetime to ensure readiness for war
-Torpedo warfare (offensive and defensive)
-Use of Submarines (most of his peers wanted to ignore them)
-The first all big gun Battleship (the Dreadnought class)
-The Destroyer (to protect battleships)
-Turbines to replace reciprocating engines
-Oil fuel rather than coal
-Improved rations for sailors to improve morale

Fisher’s innovation stemmed from a number of interesting qualities, including abundant energy, great ambition, self-confidence, and intense patriotism. His favorite activity was pacing back and forth in a small, flat area so that he could think through an idea or argument without worry about each step. He awoke daily between 4 and 5AM and kept a notebook beside his bed so that he did not lose any ideas that struck him overnight. He exuded a great deal of passion in promoting his ideas and sought to outwit anyone who blocked his path. He feared no one in the Admiralty and promoted others based on merit, not seniority, to ensure that the best people reached positions of prominence. Fisher had a tremendous appetite for work and was sometimes seen walking around the Admiralty wearing a sign that read “I HAVE NO WORK TO DO” or “BRING ME SOMETHING TO SIGN.”

Fisher’s greatest innovation was the Dreadnought class of Battleship which transformed the way warships were designed from that point forward around the world. Fisher recognized that the victor in warship encounters in the future would be the one with the larger number of guns firing larger shells at greater range with the greatest speed. A ship with the exceptional speed gives its captain the ability to select the time and place for battle. The ship would sacrifice the great weight of armor for higher speed and bigger guns. The Dreadnought design demonstrated several innovations:

-Uniform big gun armament (the ship only had to stock one type of shell; guns had interchangeable parts; gunners could calibrate their guns more easily by watching uniform shell splashes)
-Turret design to allow more guns to be aimed forward at fleeing ships and avoid broadsides
-Raised turrets above the main deck (reduced spray and flooding by the sea)
-Turbine, oil-fueled engines for greater speed
-No horizontal access to bulkheads to make the hull more watertight
-Officer quarters co-located with their battle stations rather than aft as was tradition

Although a Naval design committee rejected some of Fisher’s ideas for the ship, the ship that went to sea trails in 1905 spawned a revolution in naval warfare. One detractor of the Dreadnought argued that these new ships should not be built because that would not fit into the existing drydocks. To this Fisher replied that the “docks and harbors exist for our ships, not the ships for the docks.” Interestingly, although Fisher was adamant in his warship design, he conceded that the ship should go to sea for full trials before the Navy built any more like it. The trials were a great success and forced other countries to try to keep up with the innovations of the Royal Navy.

Despite his assertiveness concerning his own ideas, Fisher was quite open to the thoughts of others. Even when he had reached the most senior positions in the Royal Navy, he always made himself available to others. He stimulated innovation by offering cups as prizes for essays on tactics and strategy. He set up a large table in the Admiralty House and invited officers to stop by anytime to think through tactics. One young lieutenant took him through a plan that so innovative that within one week Fisher had ordered all his captains to practice the plan at sea. Fisher seemed to prefer talking to younger officers rather than the typical seniority-ridden hierarchy of the Royal Navy. This sent a clear message through the Admiralty that those with good ideas would be recognized no matter what their background, just as had been the case with Fisher’s own career. Perhaps the most salient reflection on Fisher’s impact on the Royal Navy was written by Captain Maurice Hankey of the Royal Marines:

Before [Fisher’s] arrival, the topics and arguments of the officer’s messes . . . were mainly confined to such matters as the cleaning of paint and brasswork, the getting out of torpedo nets and anchors and similar trivialities. After a year of Fisher’s regime, these were forgotten and replaced by incessant controversies on tactics, strategy, gunnery, torpedo warfare, blockade, etc. It was a veritable renaissance and affected every officer in the Navy.

What can practitioners of innovation learn from Sir Jacky Fisher?

1. Innovation can and must occur within even the most successful environments. Moreover, it is precisely in these types of environments that innovation is so important. Had the Royal Navy not heeded the advice of Jacky Fisher, the outcome of the war at sea in the First World War might have been different. Innovation in a crisis situation is important, but innovation is also critical when an organization is at the pinnacle of its performance.

2. Innovation comes in all shapes and forms even though the application may not be immediately apparent. Once should not dismiss an innovation simply because it rests in the early stages of its development. An innovation may have limited current application but in the near future those applications can increase exponentially. The submarine was just such a technology, and Fisher’s innovation was to see it for its future potential. Moreover, the concept for Fisher’s most lasting legacy, the Dreadnought Battleship, came from an Italian designer who published the specifications in Jane’s Fighting Ships. He was willing to part with the design because the Italian government viewed it as too large and expensive.

3. Innovation can overcome even the most stifling bureaucracy. Fisher never settled for the “accepted” answers as to why the Royal Navy worked as it did. He constantly challenged orthodoxy and pushed to ensure his ideas gained traction. If the Royal Navy of the early 20th century can change, so can any organization.

4. Sometimes part of the way there is good enough—an innovator must be prepared to change to meet the terrain as needed. Fisher’s struggle to change the orthodoxy of the Royal Navy eventually ran into a firm impediment in the form of allocation of funding for new warship construction. Fisher molded his ideas into a proposal that met his overall objectives by building battleships instead of battlecruisers, which forced the German Navy to respond in kind.

5. Innovators in large organizations must have an intense passion for their work. Fisher was as passionate for change as any entrepreneur is about his or her idea. Thus was due to his tirelessness and zeal for his country. In the case of his promotion of the submarine as a weapon, Fisher’s high energy level overcame all the bureaucratic inertia that that tried to deem the submarine as an un-British weapon.

6. Innovation does not have to equal perfection. Fisher’s design for the Dreadnought battleship was revolutionary but had a weakness in term of its thin armor which could be exploited by combat at close range. Moreover, Fisher had to accept some compromises in his design to gain approval from the Naval committee.


One Reply to “Profile of a Royal Navy Innovator: Or where is our Jacky Fisher?”

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