Innovation Lessons from the Vietnam War

After a recent trip to Singapore where our team ran its first and successful Lemonade Stand program, empowering Singaporean children with the basics and an awareness of the importance of entrepreneurship, I took the opportunity to make my way over to Vietnam for 3 days of what I hoped would be some much needed rest and recuperation after what has been an incredibly big year for the team here at Collective Campus.

After some initial deliberation, my Vietnamese city of choice was Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as I prefer to call it, not because of any political affinity like many locals who call it Saigon because they oppose the socialist regime, but because — let’s face it — Saigon simply sounds way more exotic and cooler.

And for those of you who’ve been to Saigon, you’ll know that rest and recuperation is a difficult proposition amidst a sea of honking motorcycles where crossing the road is akin to playing a human version of the iconic 80s arcade game, Frogger, kinda like the much loved George Costanza did in an episode of Seinfeld.

Nonetheless, I found some respite consuming Vietnam’s culinary delicacies, visiting its waterways, bartering with vendors in its bustling markets, sipping an Old Fashioned at the recently opened Glow rooftop bar and learned a little more about its history.

On the latter point, I took a day trip to Cu Chi, which took about an hour by speedboat along the Saigon River. Cu Chi, a rural region, was the headquarters of the People’s Army of Vietnam, or the “VietCong” as they were known to the Americans and Allied Forces (codename ‘Victor Charlie’). For the purposes of this post, I’ll simply refer to them as the Nth Vietnamese, even though their numbers comprised of fighters from both the north and the south. And their mission? To unite north and south Vietnam under the banner of socialism.

Cu Chi is now famous for its sophisticated network of underground tunnels which span over 250km, sit several metres deep and were used during the Vietnam war to harbor Nth Vietnamese fighters and civilians of the Cu Chi region.

The ingenuity of these tunnels as well as the surrounding booby-traps that the Nth Vietnamese had built was absolutely fascinating and in many cases humbling.

For example:

· The tunnels, which were too small for most larger framed American soldiers, required most people to crawl and squat their way through.

· They were built by nothing more than a small hand shovel by no more than 3 people at a time (one to dig, one to collect the dirt and the other to dispose of the dirt either in the river or in bomb craters).

· They comprised of different rooms where people could actually stand up, including living and sleeping quarters, a hospital, a kitchen and war rooms where fighters could shoot at unsuspecting enemy soldiers.

· Hollowed out bamboo trunks were used for ventilation from the surface, positioned to avoid the torrential rains of the region

· Smoke from the underground kitchen was released via diagonally placed bamboo trunks onto the surface more than 30m from the kitchen site in order to avoid detection by Allied forces

· Underground toilets, essentially a hole in the ground, were covered by ash from the kitchen to eliminate the stench and risk of infection and was later used as fertilizer in the rice fields, which fighters and civilians plowed in the evening, in order to keep the fighters fed. They fought by day and plowed by night.

· Booby traps were set up all over Cu Chi, on land and inside the tunnels — some send chills down my spine at the mere thought of them. For example, what looked like just another innocent step on a leafy ground turned out to be a well disguised trap door. One step onto this surface and you would fall head over heels onto a number of what the locals call, punji sticks, or sharpened bamboo spears.

· And while many booby trips were indeed designed to kill, many more were designed to mame. Why? Because an injured soldier needs taking care of and usually puts two other soldiers temporarily out of action, puts stress on the army’s hospital and demoralizes fellow soldiers at camp who witness the ugliness that awaits them in the battlefield.

· The North Vietnamese slept in hammocks inside the tunnels to escape the hunger of the mosquitoes.

· The entry to the tunnels was disguised by trap doors covered in leaves, whilst landmines would often be set up near the entry to detract would be intruders.

· When sniffer dogs were sent to find the landmines, they would find nothing more than chili laced tunnel entrances masking the scent of the Nth Vietnamese. Furthermore, the North Vietnamese washed in American soap and used the clothing of killed soldiers to trick the dogs, effectively leaving them untraceable.

· The North Vietnamese knew that candles consume oxygen so the tunnels were free of candles and pitch black in most parts, except for in standing areas.

· And if you’re thinking that Allied forces could simply blow up the tunnels or flush them out with water or gas, you might be pleased to know that these were in fact the two main Allied responses to dealing with the tunnel openings, but in both cases they proved ineffective due to the design of the tunnels and its use of trap doors and air filtration systems.

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These are just some of the fascinating aspects of Cu Chi that I uncovered upon my brief visit and again, like last week’s musings about ubiquitous internet access in the developing world and how Governments of such countries are far more likely to invest in such technology because they stand to gain much more in the short term is akin to startups investing in and exploring technologies that large organisations with expensive but often old infrastructure either won’t explore or do so halfheartedly — this week, I again draw parallels, but this time we’re talking about perhaps the number one thing that distinguishes successful innovators and entrepreneurs from the rest– that number one thing? MINDSET, and a resilient one at that.

The North Vietnamese fighters were vastly outgunned in terms of firepower and resources, however what the American and allied forces didn’t take into account was their impenetrable mindset. Throughout the war, the North Vietnamese demonstrated resilience, tenacity, an unbreakable work ethic and absolute refusal to give up, all amidst a backdrop of desperation and insufferable living conditions. The tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin amongst other things.

Despite the might of the Allied and South Vietnam forces, the North Vietnamese eventually withstood the pressure to win the war, despite suffering the loss of over 3 million lives, including 2 million civilians, effectively united north and south Vietnam.

Fortunately today, Vietnam is a far cry from the repressive regimes of other communist nations such as North Korea. Vietnam today operates at the cross-section of capitalism and communism, a place where red and yellow hammer and sickle flags somewhat ironically fly at the front of Starbucks cafés, a place where hardwork is rewarded and GDP growth rates have consistently hovered around 6% over the past few years with no signs of letting up soon.

The Allied Forces underestimated the under-resourced North Vietnamese, just like Borders underestimated Amazon, Blockbuster underestimated Netflix (and refused to buy it for just $50M) and Kodak underestimated digital.

So large organisations with the vast resources and figurative firepower at their disposal shouldn’t underestimate is what an environment of scarce resources, paired with an incredibly strong mindset can do.

As Peter Diamandis of the X-Prize often says, today’s landscape favours small, cross functional teams with a relentless focus on solving customer problems through rapid experimentation.

What successful startups lack in resources, they make up for in resilience, tenacity, grit and a hardcore work ethic. They are willing to put ego aside and hear that they’re wrong. They are willing to fundamentally change their business models countless times to get to being right. They are willing to live off the clichéd but no less true ramen noodle diet and sacrifice their quality of life in order to find product market fit and realise their dreams. They sacrifice for a greater cause, they do things that most employees at large companies won’t because the element of scarcity and urgency simply isn’t there.

“If this doesn’t work — don’t worry about it — we’ll still get paid next week and then we can move on to testing something else.”

This liberty simply doesn’t exist in startup land where the reality is our ideas don’t work, we don’t get paid.

It’s not enough to simply run a hackathon or an idea jam, throw some beanbags around the office, set up a foosball table and ask people to wear their favourite hoodie on a Friday to tick the innovation checkbox. And while I encourage it, it’s still not enough to just train people in design thinking and the lean startup and give them some funding to try new things.

Perhaps more than anything, large companies need to think about how they too can create a culture and environment of scarcity, or urgency and of desperation in order to foster the same behaviors and therefore breakthroughs that have come out of places like Silicon Valley in the past 10 years.

Large organisations need to find a way to create an environment that truly supports behaviours that lead to breakthroughs, or they need to partner with the startups that think this way and look for mutual wins. Hoping to disrupt the disruptors without creating an environment that brings the best out your people is likely to fall short.

Most of mankind’s greatest achievements have been against a backdrop of desperation and tough times. The moon landing at the height of the Cold War comes to mind.

As the famous latin saying goes, Per Aspera Ad Astra — Through Hardship To The Stars. Without hardship, we’re unlikely to even make it to orbit, and Elon Musk and the team at SpaceX know all about that one!

Perhaps it’s worth remembering that things worth doing are usually far from easy.

December 5, 2016




Steve Glaveski


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