Friday, June 24, 2011

The Fine Art of Burning Your Ships

I recently took a line of reasoning from Game Theory and applied it to change management; the take away being that in order to change the behaviour of others you must yourself be willing to change. But perhaps I stopped short. While willingness is in fact a necessary precondition for change, willingness in and of itself does not start change.

Action does

Action requires commitment beyond an action plan; it requires sealing off the way backwards, not simply pointing the way forwards: (6m41s excerpt from Open Yale, Game Theory Lecture 13 - Sequential games: moral hazard, incentives, and hungry lions):

When watching the clip it dawned on me that perhaps we have inadvertently been ignoring a key strategic, and maybe radical, option available to anyone with the authority to make a decision: burning the ships (i.e. making a decision that fundamentally alters how we perceive the way forward because there is no longer a way backwards).

But we tend to shy away from the notion because we prefer to think about change in terms of great leaders inspiring action or small groups collaborating. The result of which is usually the same: clamouring hopelessly about the slow pace.

Is it any wonder change is so slow? We chase it without the full benefit of all available tactics, or even a framework within which to do a cost-benefit analysis of those tactics?

In Practice

I've had the good fortune to spend most of my career in close proximity to senior decision makers within the public service, and can say with all honesty that very seldom have I seen any of them burn their ships in order to secure the way forward.

Yet our organizations are being challenged in some significant ways. We talk so much about the importance of leadership, but what I've learned is that but our leaders don't lack the competencies required to make tough decisions, they lack the means. When more advanced leadership tactics (e.g. burning your boats) are cast as indefensible they are effectively neutered as a viable options.

Burning your organization’s boats may never be a popular choice, but given the changing nature of the bureaucracy, we may find ourselves in a position where we either willingly burn our ships now to speed up the change, or we sit back on our laurels and have someone else burn them for us.

Personally, I'd rather work in an organization that is willing to practice the fine art of burning their ships; but regardless of who does the burning, we need to a whole lot better at dealing with what comes after they are laid asunder.

Editorial Note:

If game theory, collaboration, and organizational change appeal to you, I would suggest reading (in order):

  1. The Collaborator's Dilemma (by me)
  2. Thoughts at the Confluence of Game Theory and Inciting Action (also by me)
  3. Mutuality, Group Dynamics and the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma (by Chelsea Edgell)

The last of which ties in many of the ideas I wanted to get at in my original postings but didn't have the bandwidth to achieve. Chelsea's reflections about the iterated nature of collaboration, selecting an appropriate strategy for collaboration, and avoiding the tragedy of the commons are especially pertinent and worth investing the time in.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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