Big scary goal ahead? Burn your boats

Sometimes an ambitious goal requires you to cut off your own escape routes.

During the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519, the naval commander had his men destroy their boats when they landed on the enemy beach. This war tactic has been used many times but it meant the soldiers had to conquer the land – there was literally no turning back. Often it’s our own plan B nature that is the greatest barrier to achieving ambitious goals, conquer this first and then you have no choice but to succeed. [1st of 5 paragraphs]

At a company townhall one year I was up on stage with other managers and we were fielding questions from the audience of 100+ employees. Being the CIO at the time the IT related questions came my way and soon the topic turned to the workflow system that badly needed replacing. Someone from the back asked a very direct question about when this would be sorted out and when I answered I effectively burned my boats… [2/5]

Gripping the microphone tightly I stared out at the sea of expectant faces deeply frustrated by ageing and insufficient technology. The operations and call centre teams were tired of losing important customer queries; they wanted answers. More by instinct I boldly replied, “I publicly promise that by November this year we will have implemented a new workflow tool for the whole department.” …It was August. [3/5]

I learned a valuable lesson during the tough months that followed as we single-mindedly focused on delivering what I had promised to preserve our credibility as a team. Delay was no longer an option; we hadn’t hidden behind a calculated date on a conservative plan which was subject to risks…, scope…, blah blah blah. Perhaps somewhat foolishly I had gone beyond the point of no return on something that deeply mattered to 100 people – and now it mattered to us. [4/5]

Your goal might be getting to the gym early; burn your boats by phoning a friend and promise you will meet them there. Need to get that manuscript done and published – sign a book deal with non-negotiable timelines. Need to focus your team on a single goal – publicly promise it to 100 of their colleagues. However you burn your boats, conquering your own human psyche is the hardest part. The rest is a walk in the park… or a walk on the beach. [5/5]

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1 thought on “Big scary goal ahead? Burn your boats”

  1. Very true and awesome concept! Removing the “way out” option forces the team to commit fully, and there’s nothing like pressure and challenge to bring out the best in people. “The safety zone never made anyone bigger!”

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