Burn the ships Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2010

Last month I discussed the importance of having a vision for your organization because there are a lot of companies that don’t have one. The economy has wrecked the old ways that they did business and they are unsure what to do about it, so they keep doing things the way they’ve always done them.

That’s the worst thing you can do.

We are living in a new reality. Technology is taking over and we need to rethink everything that we do. The economy has changed and customers today want instant gratification. If you aren’t working toward solving customer problems in a timely manner — and timely is defined in days, not months — you will become irrelevant.

The first step to finding a new vision is to study your industry. Find the opportunities and think how your organization is set up to exploit them. If you can’t take advantage of them, then you need to change your organization so it can. Once you make the decision of what opportunities to pursue, you need to get buy-in, make your move and then live with the outcome.

When you are transforming a company, you have to move fast and not worry about making everyone happy.

There are two ways to lead: by consensus or by conviction. If you lead by consensus, you are more worried about poll numbers and if everyone likes what you are doing or not. If you are leading by conviction, you have studied the matter, made your decision and are moving on without looking back to worry about the “what ifs.”

Legend states that when Cortes led an expedition into Mexico, he burned his ships once everything was offloaded. He wanted his men to be focused on succeeding, not on the option of quitting and returning home empty-handed. He had a vision and the conviction to see it through.

You need to do the same thing with your vision. Reorganizing your company to meet new challenges — despite the protests — is your ship-burning ceremony. There’s no going back to the old ways because the old ways don’t have a future. Sure, there will be those that stubbornly cling to the old methods, but they’ll most likely be out of business sooner rather than later.

The need to change is best illustrated by IBM. The company started in the 1890s producing commercial scales and punch-card tabulators before moving into typewriters and other machines. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was already moving into computers. By the 1980s and 1990s, it was dominating the personal computer market. As the growth markets turned from hardware to software, IBM changed again to take advantage of the rapidly growing e-commerce segment. Today, the company is focused on providing all sorts of business consulting services, many of which are outside of traditional IT areas.

IBM burnt its ships many times. When it moved from simple punch-card tabulators to early computers, there were undoubtedly people who didn’t believe in that strategy. But where would the company be if it hadn’t made that move? What happened to all of IBM’s competitors who refused to change? Their only remains are small metal placards on the machines they used to make that now reside in museums. The placards are the tombstones in the cemetery of failed strategies.

If you want to avoid being the last maker of punch-card tabulators, you better study your industry and figure out what direction it’s going and then change your organization to be at the front of the pack. Once you set your vision, make the changes necessary to get you there.

But most importantly, don’t ever look back. Success isn’t in the past; it’s in the future. Burn the ships and move forward, no matter what.

It’s conviction, not consensus, that will get you there.