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A long while ago, a great warrior faced a situation which made it necessary for him to make a decision which insured his success on the battlefield. He was about to send his armies against a powerful foe, whose men outnumbered his own. He loaded his soldiers into boats, sailed to the enemy’s country, unloaded soldiers and equipment, then gave the order to burn the ships that had carried them. Addressing his men before the first battle, he said, “You see the boats going up in smoke. That means that we cannot leave these shores alive unless we win! We now have no choice—we win, or we perish! They won.

— Napoleon Hill, in Think and Grow Rich


This story is likely familiar; it is often attributed, incorrectly, to Cortez, and it is usually used to compellingly explore the topic of motivation.

You will probably not be surprised to learn that I’m going to go somewhere else with it.  I want to talk about change, and what my profession curiously calls change management.

There are two basic theories of change.  One of them is flawed.

One holds that change begins with our knowledge and attitudes.  Leaders who hold this theory of change implement initiatives that are training intensive, zeroing in on changing our attitudes.  The more we know, the more we understand, the more we will adjust our attitudes.  Attitudinal change, then, leads us to change our behavior, and as we all change, the organization changes.

Behind door number two we have the theory that says just the opposite — we change our attitudes in response to a change in our behaviors; and we change our behaviors in response to changes in our environment.

I would like to believe that I change my behavior based on different perspectives that I’ve received through learning new and different things.  I would like to believe that I don’t need to be “forced” into changing.

What do you think?

I’ll bet you, like me, would like to think the first theory of change is right, but, in fact, it is exactly backward.

Initiatives based on the first theory of change will take forever to produce meaningful change, if at all.  Odds are, it won’t produce a tipping point for the organization before it crosses the frustration threshold of its leaders.

Burning the boats is way more effective.

We change our behaviors because we have to; and we have to because something around us, outside of us, has changed.

I liked hamburgers as a kid, but good gosh no cheese; I wouldn’t eat cheeseburgers, period.  Until one day, when I didn’t have an option.  I love cheeseburgers now …

What do you think was more responsible for a reduction in smoking: the public service announcements and surgeon general’s warning or the banning of smoking in restaurants, bars, and other public places?

The surprising truth is that we don’t change when we have control and can make choices; we change when we don’t have control and we have limited choices.

Effective leaders don’t try and change their people. They know that they simply do not control their people… And the more they try and directly change our attitudes, the more we push back, dig in, and resist.

Instead, they burn the boats!  They redesign the structure; rewrite organizational policies; reengineer processes, integrate technology and tools, update the incentives, clarify the measurements…

Instead of changing us, they change what carries us, what affects us; they change what we depend on; they change what is all around us.

They burn the boats.


Adapted from Managing Change: Cases and Concepts.  Todd Jick.

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