Napoleon and innovation culture

Napoleon Bonaparte was a great military innovator. He not only conquered a huge part of Europe but also disrupted the art of warfare for many decades. Nowadays, he could consult companies on how to foster innovation culture in their teams.

Napoleon was an outstanding leader, strategic and tactical genius, innovator. Moreover, he was an enabler of innovation culture in army and his approach can be successfully applied to the business world.

However, before we deep dive into the case study of Napoleon, let’s clarify what we mean by innovation and innovation culture.

Lovely definitions

What is innovation?

The simplest, yet powerful definition:

Innovation is an idea that works.

There are two important parts of it:

  1. idea… – a thought, concept or plan.
  2. …that works – practical implementation of this idea with a successful outcome.

What is a successful outcome? Well, it can mean different things for different organisations.

  1. Generating additional revenue for a car manufacturer.
  2. Reducing churn for a SaaS provider.
  3. Increasing user engagement for a social website.
  4. Defeating enemy for a military unit.

As you can see this definition of innovation can be applied to various organisation types – business, political or military. That’s why I like it so much.

What makes an innovation culture?

Innovation culture fosters innovation.

Innovation culture is an environment supporting creation and verification of ideas towards goal.

Innovation culture is not about tools and technology.
Not about money you spend on R&D.
It is about people and leadership.

Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.
Steve Jobs

Apple is a good example of an company with innovation culture. But innovation is not only limited to tech companies. 200 years earlier there was another innovative organisation disrupting status quo in Europe.

Napoleonic business case

It’s year 1806. Napoleon leads series of successful campaigns in Europe against four coalitions including Britain, Prussia and Russia and many other super-powers of these times. In August, Frederick William III, the Prussian king, decides to go to war against Napoleon independently. Both armies meet near Jena and Auerstedt.

Prussian army


Centralised, disciplined and plan-driven Prussian army.

The Prussian army fighting against Napoleon was:

  • centralised,
  • plan-driven,
  • highly disciplined,
  • with authoritarian leadership,
  • focused on control,
  • with little transparency in decision making.

It was following Command and control doctrine where top management makes detailed plans which are executed by commanders and soldiers. No place for innovation or flexibility – just following orders, discipline and control.  Soldiers were treated as “replaceable parts in the machine”.

Pretty similar to global corporations of our times, where as an employee you participate in well-described processes, follow orders coming from the top and have very limited autonomy.

Napoleon’s army


Napoleon’s army can represent an innovation culture.

On the other side we have The Grande Armee, led by Napoleon with:

  • autonomous corps,
  • independent commanders (leaders),
  • flexibility,
  • decentralisation,
  • focus on effectiveness over control,
  • highly motivated soldiers.

Commanders in Napoleonic armies were expected to make independent decisions based on their best judgement and experience towards defined strategic goal. 

Napoleon’s army was much more like a startup with clear vision and strong team. Able to react fast to changing conditions and leverage emerging opportunities.

The battle

Slag bij Jena getekend op bevel van Napoleon 14 oktober 1806

The Grande Armee crushed Prussian forces in twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt, regardless the fact that Prussian army was nearly two times bigger than French (120,500 vs 67,000).

Prussians may had a good initial idea but it wasn’t enough. Napoleonic forces were better at innovating. Each unit understood the goal and shaped its own plan to achieve it, according to their experience and current situation on the battlefield. Some of these ideas turned out to work, some not – but overall the French army was more effective in eliminating enemies.


Over the next decades after Napoleonic wars, Prussian army had been completely modernised. The new order that was introduced was called Mission Command. It combined centralized intent with decentralized execution and promoted freedom, speed and initiative, within defined constraints.

In Mission Command top management is setting out clear, high-level target with a time-frame and then letting teams to choose a way to achieve it. This approach can be successfully implemented even in larger organisations.

Let’s check out what Helmuth von Moltke, new Chief of the General Staff of Prussian Army, learnt from Napoleonic wars and decided to implement in the army:

No plan survives contact with enemy.
Helmuth von Moltke

Doesn’t sound like a 50-pages business plan or strategy document? It is just a huge collection of unverified hypotheses. Action plan should be crafted over time. Each single hypothesis should be tested in practice and become input to the strategy.

In war, circumstances change very rapidly, and it is rare indeed for directions which cover a long period of time in a lot of detail to be fully carried out.
Helmuth von Moltke

Much planning means making a lots of assumptions, which are very likely to turn wrong. Especially under huge uncertainty (as in the battlefield or in startups world). The best thing is to declare the direction and craft its details in the battle.

Not commanding more than is strictly necessary, nor planning beyond the circumstances you can foresee.
Helmuth von Moltke

To be innovative you need a strong leaders able to solve problems on their own.


Innovation culture is about right management style and the right people. It is not a one-man game.

If your organisation resembles more Prussian army than Napoleon’s you can benefit from implementing Mission Command approach. It will create the right environment for leaders to grow. However, you will also need to build strong leadership: promote ownership and initiative, empower existing leaders and keep searching for new talents within and outside your organisation. The second part is extremely challenging even in startups where the management style is pretty good, but teams tend to be more junior.

Let’s sum up:

  1. Do not rely on too detailed plan.
    It won’t survive first contact with customer anyway. Setup clear high-level target (intent), define timeframe and constraints, inspire your team leaders and let them choose their way.
  2. Strong leadership.
    Promote freedom and initiative among your leaders. Make them feel owners of their respective areas. Make sure they understand the goal and are capable of achieving it.
  3. Search for leaders on every level of your company.
    Invest in development of your future and existing leaders.
  4. Let people fail.
    But expect them to fail cheap, learn from mistakes and make adjustments.
  5. Trust rather than control.
    However, at the same time challenge your people and expect results.
  6. Keep your teammates motivated.
    Define clear goals. Inspire them with your long-term vision. Inspire and celebrate successes.
  7. Turn ideas into innovations.
    Encourage people to not only generate only but also to verify them in practice.

Article was inspired, among others, by Lean Enterprise book.