Small innovations that make lasting change


This week will be fairly quick, because I'm touring Civil War battlefields with my daughters, the younger of whom will soon launch into a senior thesis on some aspect of the war, and I have a long drive to Vicksburg in my immediate future. But I wanted to pass on one observation that surprised me, despite my having read dozens of books on the war over the years: Seemingly small innovations can make all the difference.

We've all heard that the generals fight the last war, and that certainly showed in early tactics in the Civil War, when the lines of infantrymen firing and reloading in turn would have looked familiar to George Washington. But the generals gradually learned the value of entrenchments, and here's where small differences mattered.

When Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant attacked the Confederates at Cold Harbor as he finally closed in on the Confederate capital of Richmond, VA, in mid-1864, he had success on the first day, when the Confederates had only had time to dig the sort of shallow trenches that were common early in the war. Emboldened, Grant ordered an overwhelming assault by his 108,000-man army the next day. His commanders couldn't bring their troops to bear in time, but Grant went ahead with the attack the morning of the day after that. By this point, though, the Confederates had time to build the better trenches that had evolved during the war, and going from two-feet deep to four-feet deep made all the difference. (Many of these trenches were so sturdy that they're readily visible more than 150 years later.) Grant's forces suffered 3,000 to 7,000 casualties in no time—the chaos made the number unusually hard to count—while throwing themselves against what turned out to be impenetrable barriers. One Confederate soldier who had been at the center of the attack wrote that it ended so fast that he barely knew anything had happened.

Mark Twain once said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." And, in my experience, the same is true of innovation. I know a guy who almost invented the iPad (his startup was 10 years early) and almost founded eBay (his auction site took delivery of goods and shipped them, rather than just facilitating transactions, as eBay did).  

The only way to increase your odds of finding lightning, not a lightning bug, is to experiment relentlessly, with as many possible combinations as you can. All sorts of small things—product features, user experience, etc.—can mean the difference between success and failure.

Until next week, here's wishing you a four-foot-deep trench, not a two-foot-deep one, as you innovate in this season of great change in the insurance world.


Paul Carroll,

Paul Carroll

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Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is the editor-in-chief of Insurance Thought Leadership.

He is also co-author of A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the Future We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050 and Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn From the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and the author of a best-seller on IBM, published in 1993.

Carroll spent 17 years at the Wall Street Journal as an editor and reporter; he was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. He later was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.