Competitive Edge

During a visit to Stockholm to see an old friend, we had time to spare in the city on a bright, cold, winter’s day, so he took me to the wonderful Vasa Museum, where a restored 17th century Swedish warship is displayed. Well worth a visit. The story of the ship struck me as particularly relevant to the problems and risks of new product development.

During the 17th century Sweden went through an amazing transformation from a barely known, scarcely populated and poor country to a significant European power. Under the leadership of King Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden seized territories from Russia, Poland-Lithuania, and embroiled itself in the Thirty Years’ War, becoming the third largest country in Europe by the middle of that century.

With its empire based around the Baltic Sea its navy was of crucial importance in establishing and maintaining the empire. In 1625 Gustavus ordered four new ships which were to be larger than those the navy already had which were mostly single decked with lightweight guns. The grandest of these new ships was to be the Vasa. After a series of naval disasters he became impatient that the new ships should join the fleet quickly.

At the dockyard things were not going well either. There was a change of management just before the new ships were ordered, the shipyard ran into economic problems, then a year into construction the shipwright died and supervision was passed to his assistant.

Around this time naval warfare was going through a transition. The earlier tactic had been for the ships to loose off a few shots and then go into close combat to board the opposing vessel. Later this would change to the naval tactic known as “line of battle” in which two lines of opposing warships would manoeuvre to fire their biggest cannons at the opposition. In the first, advantage could be had by ease of boarding, number of men, and manoeuvrability. In the second; size, number and height of the cannons offered competitive edge in throwing as much munition at the enemy as conceivable from as far away as possible.

Gustavus’s frustration at the delay led him to have his Admiral apply pressure on the shipyard, and insisted that despite ordering two 41m ships and two 33m ships, the Vasa should be 37m. He also ordered 72, twenty-four pound cannons for the ship, so many as to require two gun decks. Although not the largest ship ever built, nor that with the most guns, she did have the greatest weight of cannon. In addition she was to carry 300 soldiers. In these changing times Vasa was to have significant competitive edge in both yesterday’s and tomorrow’s naval battles.

By 1627 the hull was complete enough to allow her to be floated, then in 1628 she was taken to the local naval station to be equipped. At this time the Admiral ordered a test of its stability. The standard test was to have 30 sailors run from one side of the ship to the other to see how much it rocked. After only 3 runs they had to abandon the test for fear that they would capsize her. In reply to the boatswain, Matsson’s, concerns the admiral replied, “The master shipbuilder surely has built ships before, so Matsson need have no worries of that kind”.

On August 10th, 1628, Captain Söfring Hansson had the Vasa set sail on her maiden voyage. In front a large crowd of local citizens and foreign ambassadors (invited to be shown the new might of Gustavus’s navy), and with her gun ports open to fire a salute, the ship set three sails and caught the wind. The Vasa heeled suddenly to port. They cast off the sheets and she righted herself slowly, but then another gust caught her. This time she went far enough over so that water flowed in through the lower gun ports, the ballast shifted and she sank unceremoniously in 32m of water, 120m from the shore and less than 2km into her maiden voyage.

When questions were asked about the design at the inquest the shipwright explained that he was only following the design of his dead predecessor and that he had simply followed the instructions of the king. The loss of the ship was a disaster for Sweden.

We’re often convinced that competitive edge would be ours if only we had that killer feature. In reality it is always a balance of many features and the successful product has to hit many targets simultaneously. It was not enough for the Vasa to be able to hurl the most ammunition at her enemy, or carry the most soldiers, or to be taller than most, she also had to be sea worthy. In her case the killer feature turned out to be a fatal one.

We all have to be mindful of those traps when designing new products; aware of our competition, aware of the changing nature of competition, aware of the fundamental and practical requirements of the product. As if creating new products was not risky enough, we also have to have the courage to tell our kingly masters when their knowledge of shipbuilding is insufficient for them to specify the design.

Kim, W. Chan. Blue Ocean Strategy: how to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant. 2005 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.