I recently watched a documentary on the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Constantinople. It was a fascinating exploration of how relying on what made you great can blind you to weaknesses. Disruption is possible not from overpowering a strength, but by fresh technology and different thinking.
The fortress of Constantinople stood for over 1,100 years. It held a strategic location on the Golden Horn, the point between the Mediterranean Sea and the Bosporus straight. It guarded the connection between Europe and Asia.
The fortress was massive. Three sets of walls and a moat stood on the land side. The walls facing the Bosporus strait were protected from ship attack by an iron chain at the mouth of the river. Once raised, it became impassable to invasion. Constantinople had withstood at least 20 major siege attempts over a millennium. The walls were impregnable. The design was ingenious. Their rule was assumed.
In 1453, Mehmet II was the 21-year old sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople stood as the crown jewel, adjacent to his territory and blocking his regional expansion. Two previous Ottoman rulers had failed in their attempt to conquer the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Undeterred, Mehmet launched his attack.
The siege on the 1100-year-old stronghold lasted only 53 days. Mehmed II took advantage of two key strategies that ensured his success.
The first was technological innovation. Cannons had been invented relatively recently and Mehmet liberally made use of them. It was the first time the fortress had been attacked by such massive firepower. The cannons pummeled the walls, crushing the protective defense that created invasion points. But the army guarding the wall were still strong and fierce defenders. The cannons weren't enough.
The second strategy was innovative thinking. The Bosporus side of Constantinople was less defended. They had a small fleet of ships there and so concentrated their relatively thin force on the land side, trusting the thousand-year-old chain across the river to keep them safe from water-borne invasion.
The chain did its job. No ships came through the mouth of the river. Instead, Mehmed brought his ships more than a mile overland for a surprise attack. The second front forced Constantinople to move part of his already stretched army to defend the marine attack, while the Ottoman’s continued their relentless assault from land, as well.
It was too much. The city was sacked. The last vestiges of ancient Rome came to an end and the city became Istanbul, the seat of the Ottoman empire for the next 500 years.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes infinitely. The situation is different, but the lessons are the same. What can we learn from the fall of Constantinople?
The business behemoths are not invincible. Disruption is also not guaranteed. However, with the right combination of strategy, your attack force might just surprise the world.
What new technology can you rapidly adopt that may take a decade to fully integrate in a legacy company? What blind spots are fatal weaknesses, disguised by massive money or entrenched sales channels?
Where can you do the unexpected? Look for the assumptions. Those are weaknesses. Identify practices that are aged and tired. That’s your overland marine attack.
There was one more factor in Constantinople’s defeat. Mehmed had nothing to lose. He had inherited a kingdom, but he hadn’t internalized it yet. He was in expansion mode, not defensive mode. He was 21 years old, young, brash, and probably in need of a good mentor to tell him why his plan was unwise and imprudent. That mentor would be right. But also exactly wrong. Risk takes courage. Risk means willing to accept humiliating defeat. Constantinople was weak, but its defeat was by no means inevitable. There’s a good reason that you pay a hefty surcharge to rent a car if you’re under the age of 25 – your level of acceptable risk is not based on reason, experience, or a fully developed brain.
However, irrational courage to dive into an impossible situation and senselessly hope for victory, sometimes actually works.