Burn the Boats – How to Energize Your Innovation Engine


  I don’t know about you, but it always amazes me to think       about what people are capable of when the stakes are high   and their backs are against the wall.

While I’m sure this is true across the world, we are acutely familiar with the countless examples from American history.  Since I am fascinated by military history, here are some examples:

After decades of isolation, when World War II broke out in Europe, the US Army totaled 190,000 soldiers. (It would grow to 8.3 million in 1945, a 44-fold increase.) When mobilization began in 1940, the Army had only 14,000 professional officers. The average age of majors—was nearly 48; in the The National Guard, nearly one-quarter of first lieutenants were over 40 years old, and the senior ranks were dominated by political hacks of certifiable military   incompetence. Not a single officer on duty in 1941 had commanded a unit as large as a division in World War I.   At the time of Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, only one American division was on a full war footing.

Some American coastal defense guns had not been test fired in 20 years, and the Army lacked enough antiaircraft guns to protect even a single American city. The senior British military officer in Washington told London that American  forces “are more unready for war than it is possible to imagine.”   In May 1940, the month that the German Blitzkrieg swept through the Low Countries and overran France, the U.S. Army owned a total of 464 tanks, mostly puny light tanks with the combat power of a coffee can.  http://www.fpri.org/footnotes/1415.200905.atkinson.usarmywwii.html

Yet, look what we did both militarily and industrially in the face of adversity.

Think about Col Joshua L. Chamberlain’s desperate bayonet charge as his 20th Maine regiment of 824 men defended Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg.  They had repulsed several consecutive headlong assaults from elements of Gen John B. Hood’s division, the 15th and 47th Alabama, who hammered up the hill into the Maine troops.  Chamberlain was wounded in the foot; his troops were out of ammunition, and in a position where they could not have survived another Confederate assault.  Yet they anchored the left of the entire Union army, and if they faltered, the confederates could have executed a flanking action that would likely have determined the outcome of the entire battle.   Chamberlain does the only thing he can think of – -and orders a bayonet charge causing his troops to rush down the hill sweeping the surprised Alabamans off the hill . . . an act many credit with saving that day (and possibly the battle) for the Union.

Think about Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s actions during the battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.  As depicted in the movie “We Were Soldiers”, Moore’s 450 man force faced a 3,000 man North Vietnamese Division that surrounded them.  They are assaulted continually for three days, having to call in massive air strikes at one point to stave off annihilation.  Before the fighting ended the 7th Cavalry experienced 200 casualties (killed or wounded), as compared with an estimated 1,839 for the enemy.  Says Moore: “no matter how bad a situation is, there is always one more thing you can do.”

Humans are remarkable in their ability to perform in crisis.

And so, in this Blog article, Phil McKinney argues that the same principles apply when getting your organization to achieve breakthrough innovation.  Here is the formula:

  • Make big promises.
  • Burn your boats.
  • Set yourself up in a place where you have few options and the stakes are high.
  • Focused energy and serious intent will push you to do your best work. You have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. (Better than the alternative).

What do you think of this strategy?  Take our Poll.

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4 Comments

Filed under Innovation

4 responses to “Burn the Boats – How to Energize Your Innovation Engine

  1. Hmm, innovation often comes from crisis and these are impressive examples of remarkable achievement in crisis conditions but would any any of those heroes put themselves and their charges in those predicaments by choice? Is it really the idea that managers should put their charges in crisis to achieve innovation?

  2. Perhaps crisis is not the goal — (I’m just arguing that humans have amazing resolve and resources in times of crisis . . . so how do we tap into that awesome power? How do we put people in situations where the only outcome they can see is a new order of things? Haven’t we faced situations where we said “come on guys, we have to come through on this . . . somehow!” or how about putting a team together in a room and saying — “I need you to stay at it until you have come up with a viable idea”? . . . or how about the simple pressure of an unmovable deadline?

    • I’m with you now. Yes, we’ve all been in those situations and often the solution comes from an idea or a spark of an idea from one of the newer members of the team, it could be that the idea had lain dormant for some time, not shared due to fear of rejection and only when the boss said “come on guys…” that the idea was aired. Maybe that resource could be tapped by introducing new minds to existing problems/solutions and encouraging free thought and (more importantly) fear-free sharing of ideas. Those new minds could belong to new employees or just by circulating staff periodically?

  3. I agree that deliberately creating a crisis to propel people to be innovative could be seen as manipulative. But, like many things, it depends how you do it.

    If you are on the same desert island when the boats are burned, that is very different than marooning them their on their own while you are sitting comfortably on the yacht.

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