Burn the Boats
By John Greco
Originally published on May 3, 2012
Re-posted with permission from johnponders blog
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.
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.
Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking more closely at a recent post from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.
In a recent post, John talked about the importance of “selling problems,” and he wasn’t referencing issues that sales teams experience. He literally meant taking your organization’s problems / challenges and selling them as things that must be solved.
A few weeks ago, I attended Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Midwest Regional Conference as an exhibitor and trainer. One of the sessions I presented was “Transformation: Driving Lasting Change at Your Club“. In that training, I shared with participants a six stage process for leading change that I learned at a change leadership training offered by Linkage Inc.
Here are the six stages to that change model:
- Make the case for change
- Enlist stakeholders to develop vision & strategy
- Communicate the vision and strategy
- Remove barriers
- Set milestones & acknowledge progress
- Reinforce the change
If you click over and read John’s post and then click back here to the six stage change model, you will see the first three stages all deal with “selling the problem”.
Well, there is always that little thing called strategy development that if done incorrectly can lead your organization down a path towards bigger problems.
Let’s look at a real world example that many non-profit organizations deal with at one time or another. This is the issue of fundraising efficiency and productivity. Here is how I’ve seen this change initiative unfold too many times:
- The agency needs to do better with its fundraising program.
- The executive director sells the problem to the board. Facts, figures and charts all demonstrate the need.
- The executive director and board members sell the problem to donors, who generous agree to help with their pocketbooks.
- All of stakeholders agree that the strategy needs to be increased organizational capacity in the area of fundraising. The solution? Hire a fundraising professional! (or more fundraising professionals as the case may be)
- The new fundraising professional joins the team, and the problem doesn’t get better (in fact it sometimes gets a little worse).
Huh? What happened?
In many instances, I’ve seen the executive director take a victory lap and then wash their hands of their fundraising responsibilities. The board does a similar celebration and then disengages from the resource development program. Board members think: “Phew! Thank goodness we hired that person to do all of our fundraising. Now I can focus on other things.”
Oooops! Maybe the problem was deeper and more complex.
When leading change, the first order of business for the non-profit executive director is “selling the problem”. As John points out in his example, if you can make this a self-discovery process for key stakeholders, it will be that much more powerful.
Immediately, after you secure engagement, strategy and vision development becomes critical because selling the right problem with the wrong solutions will get you nowhere fast.
I don’t mean to imply that the aforementioned strategy of hiring a fundraising professional is a wrong solution. However, understanding cause-and-effect is important and anticipating potential scenarios will help you avoid some heartache. Additionally, understanding the entire problem and being comprehensive in your strategy development is key.
Has your agency ever solved a problem without engaging key stakeholders in what the problem was in the first place? What was the result? Have you ever solved a problem and found yourself surprised that the solution didn’t solve the problem? What did you do? How did you correct course and change your change initiative? If you are a fundraising professional who has gone through what I just described, please share how you re-engaged your boss and the board and got things on track. Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and examples.
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC