The purpose of this article is to present the “Water Cannon” model of creative thinking, examine its distinctive features and extract insights that under-resourced societies and businesses can benefit from as they wrestle to overcome disproportionate challenges.
A Magnificent Dilemma – The Bar Lev Line
Following Israel’s momentous victory in the six-day war, the Israeli military genius produced what was once considered the symbol of military perfection: the impregnable Bar Lev line. A massive, artificial sand barrier spanning 160 km (99 miles) that stretched from north to south along the eastern bank of the Suez canal. The sand rampart, which was supported by a concrete wall varied in height between 20–25 meters (66–82 ft) and was inclined at an angle of 75–80 degrees preventing any armored or amphibious unit from landing on the east bank of the Suez Canal.
Conventional Wisdom: The Dead End
Considering the size and reinforcement of the obstacle, Egyptian military and their soviet advisers correctly calculated that it would take either an atomic bomb or an equivalent firepower to breach the sand wall. The problem was that acquiring such massive firepower was simply way beyond Egypt’s capabilities.
Calling on 7000 years of Cultural Heritage
The Egyptians had no other place to resort to except the genius they accumulated over 7000 years of civilization. The rest of the story is captured in the picture at the top. Instead of fire, the Egyptians used water. Water from the Suez canal was their ammunition and high-pressure water pumps their cannons.
Characteristics of Water Cannon thinking and Insights
1. Water vs. Fire
The Water Cannon model of thinking produced a solution that was based on an approach that seemed counter intuitive to the prevailing thinking and established rules of the game. While the latter called for firepower, the solution was found in water.
Insight: Sometimes the best answer to a problem lies in doing totally the opposite of conventional wisdom. So, don’t shut it down if it sounded crazy (because it will) and especially never before exploring the full rational behind it.
2. Night and Day
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) calculated it would take the Egyptians at least 24 hours to blast their way into the sand barrier using explosives. It took less than five for the Egyptians army to slice their way through using high-pressure water pumps. They cut a whole (60) passages in the body of the “impregnable” barrier turning it into a giant piece of Swiss cheese.
Insight: Water Cannon creativity has the potential of disrupting the existing state of affairs like night and day in terms of speed and magnitude.
3. Dirt Cheap
When we compare the complexity of acquiring atomic capabilities or equivalent firepower in terms of time, cost and effort with that of acquiring four hundred fifty high-pressure irrigation water pumps, and knowing that the cost to construct the Bar Lev line was three hundred million dollars (1970s dollars), we can see that the Egyptians accomplished mission with incredible efficiency.
Insight: Water Cannon solutions have the capacity of achieving the seemingly impossible with dirt cheap resources.
4. The File and Rank
The idea of using water cannons came from a young, middle-rank officer but within less than twelve hours it had made its way to the senior echelon commanders and in a matter of a few days put to test.
Insight: Water Cannon solutions exist in every organization but are buried by the bureaucracy, the arrogance and complacency of our business cultures. So, empower, embrace and enable them.
5. True Out-of-Box
Displacing mountains of sands was the same fundamental challenge that engineers operating in the two distinctly different military and civilian contexts of breaching the Bar Lev line and constructing the Aswan dam faced and had to develop solutions for.
Baqi Z. Youssef, a middle-rank officer in the Egyptian Corps of Engineers, who had worked at the Aswan dam and used water jetting techniques to displace humongous amounts of sands, imported the concept from “outside the military box” to provide an incredibly simple solution to what seemed a highly intricate dilemma.
Insight: This sort of true “out of box” or disruptive thinking can only emerge from experiences gained from outside the field of practice. Different industries, cultures and disciplines invent different methods to deal with more or less similar challenges. It is the breadth of experiences and diversity of exposures rather than specialization that has the strongest potential of producing true out-of-box solutions. So, whether you’re learning or hiring, reach out beyond the boundaries of your field of practice and geography.
6. Beating the Clock
The Bar Lev line was essentially designed to serve as a “stop line” to permit Israeli forces enough time to mobilize the reserves and launch a crushing counter attack. The Suez Canal was 120 – 220 meters (590-720 ft) wide and approximately 18 m (59 ft) deep; a unique barrier that Moshe Dayan, Israel’s then Defense Minister, described as “one of the best anti-tank ditches in the world”. Adding to that the 20 m high sand barrier, the Israelis were confident that the Egyptians may be able to achieve, at best, just a few penetrations and that they, the Israelis, will still be able to outpace the Egyptians in the build up of a superior firepower at the frontline.
The Water Cannon technique set in motion completely different dynamics and produced a whole new reality than what the Israelis had conceived. The total duration of the Egyptian initial assault was just ten hours – a whole thirty eight hours less than the time estimated by the IDF. The Egyptians where way ahead of the game. 100,000 soldiers and 1000 tanks had made the crossing in the first day of the battle and entrenched in their defending positions waiting for the Israeli counterattack. The Israelis were still operating according to a much slower clock. Their counter attack, which came on day two according to schedule, soon realized that the plan was made obsolete and out of sync with the dynamics on the ground.
Insight: Perhaps the most critical factor in any form of rivalry lies in outpacing the competition. How to seize the initiative, get ahead of the game and create new dynamics that let cause competition to lag behind in a desperate rally where their fate depends on whether they are able to catch up. Every rivalry involves some sort of race between two sets of “systems”, each behaving according to a given pace and creating its own dynamics and outcomes. Water Cannon thinking is about bringing a different tempo that has the capacity of turning the tide and outpacing, overtaking and overwhelming the competition.
Water Cannon in Diplomacy
Five years following the Yom Kippur war, the Water Cannon approach was deployed once again, but this time by Egyptian diplomacy. When the door of the presidential jetliner opened, neither the senior Israeli officials that gathered at Ben Gurion airport nor the public fixated around TV screens were quiet certain if it was indeed the Egyptian president Sadat who will appear or his paratroopers.
In the reception line was Gen. Mordechal Gur, the Israeli chief of staff, who had warned that President Sadat’s offer to visit might be a bluff and that Egypt was preparing for war. Sadat waggled a finger at him and said with a big smile: “I fooled you.”
The impact was so powerful that the Washington Post reported: “the population here has been quasi-unanimous in its expression of public support for Sadat’s grand gesture. Not even the parents of young men who have died in wars against the Egyptians have expressed hostility to the visit”.
This time the diplomatic Water Cannon cut through the emotional wall of hatred and mistrust that was built and reinforced over thirty years of military conflict, and opened the passage for the two opposing sides to face each other once again but this time around the negotiation table rather than in the battlefield, setting in motion a whole new momentum for the entire Middle-East.
Today, literally every single Egyptian institution faces as significant challenges as their military institution did with the Bar Lev line. Short of resources, the negative momentum seems overwhelming and the associated challenges seem insurmountable. More than ever, modern-day Egyptians need to reach out to the genius embedded in their near and far history, and write a future that is commensurate with their fascinating past.