Longbow learning

There was a period in the Middle Ages where the English decided they should be ruling France as well as England.

They had a decent claim. Royal marriages were mainly about alliances and land grabs, but they came with consequences because if one line runs out of heirs, then what had looked like a useful marriage of convenience a couple of generations ago, suddenly becomes the senior surviving line and if that line is also the line of the Kings of England, then they have their own army and might want to pop across the Channel and do something about it.

Despite England being smaller, poorer and less-populated, they did just that and managed to rule large parts of their continental neighbour for the best part of a century.

How did this happen?

This is where I really start to compromise historical accuracy for the sake of making a point about learning and development … but bear with me … the English had the longbow, a deadly weapon that could rain arrows on the heads of their enemy from a range of about 300-400 yards. This could decimate an army from a safe distance, or pierce armour if they got too close, meaning the enemy struggled to get near enough in sufficient numbers to do any serious damage.

It wasn’t an easy tactic to copy.

The longbow was a notoriously difficult weapon to use, and took years of practice to master. You couldn’t just pick one up and expect to be able to do anything useful with it, you might as well try to shoot an arrow with a tree trunk for all the luck you’d have with a longbow unless you’d spent years practising and building up the muscles. Archeologists unearthing skeletons of archers found that they showed enlarged arms and bony growths on shoulders, wrists and fingers – not easy things to replicate – and so the French couldn’t just copy the English tactics and make a few bows and get cracking, it required a whole long-term approach to hard-wire longbow skills into the population from an early age.

This led to England’s King Edward III making it mandatory for able-bodied men to practice archery on their days off:

… every man in the same county, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows … and so learn and practise archery.


This was (probably) the first L&D strategy in history.

It worked because it was aligned to organisational strategy, focused on a key success factor, and created a competitive advantage that could not be copied in the short-term, or even easily replicated over the medium- and longer-terms.

It got me thinking about what kinds of “longbow learning” might work in my organisation? What kind of long-term behavioural hard-wiring might we do that would lead to a competitive advantage that would be difficult to replicate?

I think the next organisational longbow will be the ability to use our brains skillfully so we can make better decisions and take better actions. It will be about using behavioural psychology to move beyond our biases, egos and limiting assumptions, to recognise that we are potential more than we are fixed, to think more long-term and see systems and not short-term tactical tick-boxes that need completing by COP … and therefore become far more skilled operators of the human brain.

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