Burn the ships! True change needs full commitment

Burn the ships! True change needs full commitment

by BRIAN NORUSIS, Vice President, e-Builder

I am often asked by business executives, what is the most important thing I need to do to guarantee adoption after a software implementation. The answer is simple… burn the ships!

In the 1540’s, Cortez sailed across the Atlantic and through the Caribbean Sea and, after six months, landed three ships with 300 men on the Yucatan Peninsula. The mission was a bold one – defeat the Aztecs, raid their gold and bring it home to Spain. After disembarking, the men stood on the beach, tired from the long journey. Cortez stood in front of them, and without saying anything, burned their three ships on the emerald green water. The men were horrified, speechless as the watched their vessels home disappear in front of their eyes. In those moments, they knew that the only path home was through victory.

It is a wonderful analogy that I have told many times pertaining to software adoption. I have seen many projects fail simply because the old way of doing business was still allowed.  There are two aspects of human nature that drives this decision:

  1. Fear of Failure – Part of our fight-or-flight instinct as human beings is that we are pre-programmed to never back ourselves into a corner. We develop elaborate contingency and mitigation plans to ensure that this never happens. We convince ourselves, as leaders, that it is the right thing to do to maximize the probability of success. The problem is that it demonstrates a lack of confidence in the (chosen) solution to those whom we lead.  Unfortunately, if the leader is not confident, then no one else will be confident either;
  2. Fear of Change – Human beings don’t actually fear change – they thrive on it.  However, they do fear the process of change and the self-doubt that accompanies the process of change.  Change means more work. Change means making mistakes. So, with the old (comfortable) way of doing business still in place, it is always human nature to revert back to what is comfortable. 

Parallel paths and mitigation plans are not necessarily, bad but the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure can occur as a result, as the fear of failure and fear of change set in. The only time they should be considered is with a timeline that definitively results in the old way of doing business no longer being accessible, and that is well understood by everyone involved.

It is amazing what we can accomplish when failure is not an option, and burning the ships is the symbolic way leaders can maximize the probability of successful adoption of any change. So, good luck... and burn the ships!


The author is e-Builder's VP of professional services, dedicated to ensuring successful implementations of all its products. He has over 15 years of software integration experience, implementing solutions for clients around the world. Before joining e-Builder, he was responsible for key enterprise-wide software implementation at Alltel Communications, the nation's fifth largest wireless company. 

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