Burn The Boats to Implement Change

Burn The Boats to Implement Change

A survey in Forbes stated that only half of the companies surveyed thought their organizations adapted well to the introduction of new technologies. The topic resonated with me as it is something that I wrestled with for many years when I was on the leadership team of a Software as a Service firm, supporting clients to change their internal processes to implement the new software effectively.

Here are my insights about how to overcome the common pitfalls when implementing new technologies, but the same principles apply when implementing other significant operational changes in your organization:

The decision to change is the easy part

The decision to adopt new technology or change a core process typically comes from the business leader because they are looking to achieve better results. Fair enough. Making a decision to implement new technologies, processes, or management practices is the easy part.

Unfortunately, too many leaders make the decision and then leave it to the middle managers to implement the changes. This is a huge risk because your change initiatives “will succeed or fail in the middle” during the execution phase. Business execution is always the biggest challenge.

Sell the change

Change often requires people to leave behind the technology, processes, and behaviors they are familiar with. So they need to know, “Why should I support this change?” Leaders must provide clear reasons why the change is necessary, and paint a compelling picture of how things will be better after the change.

Lead by example

Senior leaders not driving the implementation from the top is the main cause of failure. “Leaders must lead”. That means not leaving it to middle management to implement and hope for the best. Leaders must demonstrate the same behaviors that they expect the rest of the team to imitate.

In my experience, the most successful change implementations are those where the senior leaders are actively involved, using the new tools or processes themselves, and modelling the new behaviors in a highly visible way. Employees will only engage with a new way of doing things to the extent they see their leaders doing it.

Dysfunctional managers will be your undoing

Everyone in the senior leadership team and middle management team needs to be fully aligned with any change initiative. Staff will quickly sense if there are some managers who are not on board. Conflicts at the management level will doom your change initiative at the start. 

Involve your key managers and influencers in the decision-making process where possible, or as soon as possible when planning the implementation and rollout of any change initiatives. I tell my clients, “Those who plan the fight, don’t fight the plan.”

But if they do fight the plan, you must have zero tolerance for any manager who tries to undermine the decision after it has been made. You must call them out, make an example of them, and let them know that undermining or resistant behavior will not be tolerated.

Closely manage the project

Clearly define the outcome you are looking for. Document your vision of what the ideal “end state” will look like when the change project is complete. Now scope out the critical tasks and milestones and have the project team meet every week to discuss progress toward the end state. Don’t be overly prescriptive about all the tasks upfront. Let people add their own ideas to engage their creativity and give them an active role in shaping the final outcome.

Knife and fork it

Be mindful that you don’t overwhelm people with too much change all at once. However, you can’t let up the pressure either. It is too easy to lose momentum in the early stages, and if you are not careful, people will quickly slip back into old habits and derail your change initiative.

I advise my clients to “Knife and Fork it”. My recommendation is to identify “The one thing” that needs to be done each week to keep the change process moving forward. Assign this task to the relevant person, and follow up to make sure it gets done.

Make it stick

Provide the right incentives. Praise and recognize people who adopt the new way and set the right example for the team. Refuse to let people fall back into the old way, otherwise, you are implicitly incentivizing them not to change. You need to demonstrate that you are serious.

Repeat yourself often

As Jeff Weiner (CEO of Linkedin) said, “As a senior executive, just because you said it, doesn’t make it so. You need to repeat yourself so often that you grow sick of hearing yourself say it, and only then will people begin to internalize the message.”

Once is not enough. You need to explain it again, several times over. Employees must clearly understand that the change is going to happen, and more importantly, there is “no going back” to the old way. A story I use to illustrate this concept is the “burn the boats” analogy (see below).

Burn the boats

In the 1500’s the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men landed on the coast of Mexico. The story goes that knowing they were heavily outnumbered by the soldiers in the Mayan empire, he ordered his men to “Burn the Boats”. There would be no going back. Cortez ensured that his men were left with no choice but to move forward, fight and be victorious.

He wasn’t the first to do this. It is said that Alexander the Great did the exact same thing before his Greek army invaded the vastly superior Persian empire.

I am not sharing this analogy to endorse these military invasions. The message I want you to take is that a decision to change requires a full commitment to the chosen course of action. Act, or do not act. Don’t do things halfway. Success is never guaranteed, but anything less than a full commitment is a recipe for mediocrity, or worse, failure. 

Think about the last change initiative you tried to implement in your organization. Did you burn the boats?


Until next time…