• Cloudway Partners

Burn The Ships!


Those of you who know me, or have heard me speak or have viewed one of my presentations have often heard me talk about "burning the ships." This anecdote is based on an old story, a variant of which I will share with you:

When Cortez came to the New World, in what is today Mexico, his soldiers did not want to fight. They were tired of the voyage, the natives were not friendly, and it was a strange land. Cortez, who wanted to conquer this new land, would have none of it. To motivate his men, he burned his ships to the waterline. They were faced with a stark choice: fight or drown. It wasn't much of a choice, and the rest is history (I offer no judgement on the outcome of that history).


Today, many "transformations" are a "dip a toe in the water" exercise, attempted with a small part of the business, or run off to the side as a kind of science experiment. These efforts rarely lead to major success beyond a small area, and almost never materialize into the grand, sweeping transformation their creators envisioned.


To be successful, a transformation must be big, it must be bold, and it must be embraced by the entire C-suite. It needs grass-roots support, it must have something for everyone, and the company's leaders can't be shy or apologetic about portraying the transformation as anything other than a major, enterprise-wide effort to change the company for the better.

There comes a point in the transformation when it reaches an inflection point. This point is when the visionary driving the effort realizes that the transformation is at the point where it must no longer allow itself to be able to turn back. This is when you must burn your ships. By that I mean the company must cut off all avenues to the old way of doing things. In practice, this is done by doing several key actions.


Publicly state, at the highest levels of the company, that the new technology and the transformation effort is the way of the future, the company's leadership is 100% behind it, and that everybody needs to get on board. This is often done at a company-wide town hall or annual leadership meeting.The old technology needs to be arrested. No more development on the old platform. I did this by outsourcing all maintenance on the old platform (an AS/400) to a partner, Fiserv, that managed it for us offshore, and reported directly to me. The remaining employees were offered Salesforce training. Those that declined were offered severance packages.Offer education and training to the business on the new platform. The draw for the business is that they will have far greater control of the technology the company uses, and far less reliance on IT. Once enough business users have been trained and start using the new platform, you will see a groundswell of support at rank-and-file levels of the company. In addition to creating a common platform and language for the company, an aura of inevitability and even anticipation will emerge.


Burning the ships is not an easy or simple task. I often hear executives say, "Oh, yeah, we did that a while ago." Which is to say they don't really understand and therefore haven't yet made the difficult decisions. Burning the ships starts a ticking clock. If done properly, you cut off the legacy system's oxygen. This is the same system that your company still depends on for its revenue, so it is not to be taken lightly. It is only a matter of time before you must either replace it with the new platform or something catastrophic will happen.


Burning the ships is a one-way activity. You can't roll it back, you can't undo it, you can't do it part way. Once put in motion, the outcome is binary: succeed or fail. And, most importantly, a burn-the-ships moment is independent of its sponsors. Once put in motion, even if the sponsors leave, the company can't go back. The realization by most people in the company of this fact is an indication that the burn-the-ships effort has been successful.

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