‘We Found the Burning Boats!’

Murray Pratt Blog Leave a Comment

Boy, has it been a scary week for business metaphors.

There was a time you could stand up in the boardroom and cajole your fellow colleagues about holding onto old conventions, their old ways of thinking, and say something like this:

“We just need to ‘Burn the Boats’”.

That always elicits a strong reaction from people because it conjures up the image that they are actually standing in a boat while it is burning.

The saying actually references a signature event in history, when in 1519, the famed Spanish explorer, Hernan Cortes, landed in the New World – somewhere near modern day Mexico – with 600 sailors, 16 horses and 11 boats.

In order to remove the possibility – even the distraction – of going back to the Old World, he had the crew light the boats on fire, consigning them to the bottom of the ocean.

In doing so, not only did he create a wonderful metaphor that could be used by business people for centuries to come, but more importantly, he made an essential statement about ‘the journey forward’. With this profound act of leadership he was telling his crew that:

Either we make it here – or we don’t make it at all’.

(…if we can make it here, we can make it anywhere – it’s up to you – New World, New World!!)

He estimated that if his crew had a way out, then they might not be quite as committed to making a ‘good go of it’ in the New World. (Remember, when they arrived in Mexico there was no Dos Equis or deep sea Marlin fishing…but there was no timeshare either, so it sort of all evened out)

Years later we found the same thinking with the team of scientists who brought back Apollo 13 from its failed mission to the Moon.

 “Failure is not an option, they were told.

(You can decide whether it easy to land on the moon with three astronauts, or to land in Mexico with 600 sailors and 16 horses on 11 boats. As for me, it would really depend which boat had the horses!)

I find it so energizing and invigorating with all this ‘burn the boats’ and ‘failure is not an option’ stuff. But I am worried by reports that one of the sunken ships of Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, has been found off Omani Island in the Indian Ocean – some 513 years later! Wow….they give up searching for lost people after 6 weeks in some jurisdictions.

Now – I do feel that it was okay to search for lost ships. For instance, Sir John Franklin’s ships – his ships got crushed by arctic ice and his crew died tragically of starvation in the mid 1800s on an expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Franklin never told his team to disassemble his boats – or even burn them despite the cold. Now if you think of it…this guy had a very good reason to burn his ships. And for sure, Franklin wanted them to be found.

But, to the contrary, Cortes didn’t. He burned his boats not only because he didn’t want them to be seaworthy – he didn’t even want them to exist. And now some 500 or so years later when someone with the latest in sonar and deep sea diving technology comes along they will inevitably go searching for and find the charred timbers of his 11 boats…and a couple of horseshoes no doubt.

As a new president of a rapidly growing transportation software company, at the very least, I could count on standing up in the room and saying amazing things like – “Burn the Boats”.  Exhorting to my team, the fact that we are in the midst of a gigantic transformation of the transportation and technology industries. We are in a big ‘swirling ocean of change’ in which the traditional client server software model (think Old World) is moving to a  ‘Software as a Service’ (think New World) business model. We are heading into the bold new world of the future – mobilizing technologies, open systems, and the ‘Internet of Things’

Yep – it will all be so fine until some guy with too much time on his hands, and with the latest in deep ocean technology goes and finds Cortes boats – off the coast of Mexico…right where he had them burned.

(There were reports that a few of the sailors were blowing hard on the ships trying to stop the fire, but those reports were unconfirmed, at least at this time…perhaps in another 500 or so years they will confirm that as well)

And there would go my metaphor.

I guess I could always steal one of the metaphors that some of my former colleagues have shared in meetings that I have attended.

“We will burn that bridge when we get there”

To which I responded.

“Let’s just make sure we cross it first”

And, of course, my all time favorite

“There’s no use beating a dead horse to death”

Heck, as President, I could have my Department of Redundancy Department take care of that no problem.

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