Burning The Ships; What Winners Do Differently

As the ships burned brightly against the days waning light, the placid resolve of the men turned to steel; their retreat lost for good. Although, it is more likely that Cortez scuttled his ships, the visual is much too effective to discard. Let the ships burn and find the success you have avoided.

So what does “Burn The Ships” mean? It means moving forward with every ounce of effort you have, and not looking back to one of the other “boats” that may have led to another outcome. This is a key attribute of winners. These individuals do not wonder if they have gotten it right; they forge ahead with absolute certainty, and let the cards play out.

Peyton Manning, who recently became the new quarterback/leader for the Denver Broncos, was asked how he knew, or would know, that he had made the right choice. In response, mr. Manning said “It is up to me to make it the right choice”. This sense of self definition of outcomes by action is the core reason that Peyton is the most coveted free agent ever, and the guy that went number two in the same draft is in jail. Both men hit the top of the scale with their talent. What sets them apart more than any one attribute is the willingness to burn the ships and conquer the world with an unyielding force of will.

In any aspect of your life you are required to make choices, or watch as they are made for you. This often befuddles many of us. The chance of failure steals our natural ability to choose. Watch a young child charge forward on impulse for just a minute, and you will realize that we were all born with the gift of decisive action. How that skill was tempered or lost is not important, that we all have the ability to burn the ships and let our actions define us is present in all of us. now we must rekindle the ability to react to our surroundings with a decisive forceful confidence.

First and foremost, always make the choices yourself. As hard as it may seem at the time, you are always better off taking the choice and making it your own. How you choose does not matter.The reason for this is, that no matter how much research and analysis you do on any given course of action you are going to whiff on some choices no matter what.

New Year's resolutions are a prime example of what can happen when the metaphorical ships are still anchored off shore. People single out all sorts of empires to topple, and then shortly after retreat from the fight. Even when you make a choice, it is your commitment to making it happen that will most influence your success.

To return to our sailing metaphor from a different angle; all sea going vessels whether they are meant to sail the seven seas or to Catalina island must be set on course. That course may end up leading to treasure or tragedy. The only knowing is in our actions.

We all need to burn the ships at the shores of our decisions so that we will only move in the direction of our next conquest without thought of retreat.

Recipe for Success

The secret to any success is the following formula (good product + better execution) * effort.  This equation was expressed recently in a brilliant little article about how Wolfgang Puck went from apprentice to global food dude. Wolfgang tells a simple story of dramatic success that is as much about effort as anything else, as with most of these story's, the willingness to out work your rivals is a powerful difference maker. Of course effort is worthless without proper direction, and that reduces down to a 3 stage progression, have a good product, have better execution, and repeat as necessary.

To dip further into the the three points of any great business, let’s start with what we mean by a good product. A product can be anything at all that can derive value in others, this is often quantified by sales, but other value metrics can apply. While Wolfgang has a focus on food experience. you can apply the concepts to technology, cars, or service - as just a few examples.

So for our purpose here a product is an agnostic devise to label what we want to do/sell. Whether it is good or bad is an equation of sustainable demand. The product must have enough demand potential to cover costs.

Often this is found by intuitive leap rather than hard numbers. How we arrive at a state of sustainable demand is not relevant. What matters is that a vision of a world where demand is possible exists.

In fact some would argue that the greater the leap from known parameters the better. Finding the blue ocean is never a short jump. Things that we now take for granted (iPod) would not exist if such leaps had not been taken. At the time no one could have proven the iPod would be a leading soldier of the music cultural revolution, and lead to the current Apple renaissance. And yet now many of us can not imagine a world with out these little digital music transports. To finish our point on this, a “good” product is anything that we think should exist, be it a small progression from the last point of knowledge, or a completely disruptive event.

Now that we have a serviceable product, no matter how fantastic it may seem (I can buy just one song that I want?) The next and most important part of our journey is execution.

Execution is why Spago is relevant almost 30 years after the fist plate was served. Apple is another fine example of this point. The list is a long one, iPod, iPhone, and now iPad, just to name a few of the products that either changed the market, or simply created a whole new one.

To punctuate this point, please raise your hand if you rock a Zune. Both the iPod and Zune are digital music players, which is a good product, but the execution, and by extension success, is miles apart. Of course some of the difference has to do with simply being late to the market on Microsoft's part.

Late is not always deadly. In fact, if you take the example of the iPhone, you can argue that better execution will mitigate these kind of advantages. Apple went to bat against mobile phone giants Nokia, Motorola, and RIM with a better execution of the idea of what a phone should give the customer. The advantage Apple found and executed in this market was being missed by the lockstep development model that had generally taken over the Mobile market.

When thinking in a linear progression, often opportunities that lay outside that thought line are missed. By thinking more laterally about what the mobile consumer would respond to, the iPhone was born. Apple introduced a touch screen large format phone, in a sea of keyboards and small screens, and by extension, caused a complete design paradigm shift in the market. Moral of the story is, the next step in a logical product progression may be off a cliff.

Now comes the really tricky part...repeat as necessary. If you make it this far in the cycle you have thought, executed, and reaped the rewards. Problem is, success tends to make one territorial and reluctant to kill the golden goose.

Microsoft is a good example of this ailment. While they have not completely failed, and I am not calling for the end of the empire quite yet, when was the last time they did something new and innovative? Their single competitive advantage is market share, which will decline over time as more agile and creative foes beat them to market with better executed products. In a bit of irony, they have become in many ways, a mirror of IBM when the two company's first started doing business. IBM managed to throw away the OS market to Microsoft, and still remain relevant.

The problem is that of self image, if you can only see yourself in a certain way then change will be difficult or impossible. For example IBM or International Business Machines, does not make any machines, once it’s bread and butter. If Microsoft is able to imagine a world of the possible that is beyond their current world view, and execute at the highest level, they will not only survive but actually grow their brand.

This is what must be the norm for growth to replace stagnation. Time is not kind to idea’s and company’s that are just one step further. This is not to say that only large seminal changes are to come from a reboot of the success cycle. The answer can be small changes, or none at all. But to truly keep the wolves of competition at bay, disruptive idea’s have to be able to flourish. Even if they endanger a prized product, because if you don’t, someone else will.

So there we have it, a simple and effective recipe for success. take a good product, mix with better execution, and serve with more effort than your competition.

Now repeat the process by asking these questions. Does the product still meet our definition of good? Do our good products now restrain our future? Is there a better execution to our products end? The better an organization gets at solving these questions the better the outcomes will be.

Success is at once as simple as the product cycle we discuss here, and as complex as the thousands of detail decisions needed to underpin the production. But if we maintain that all of the complexity must pass the test of good product, and best execution, our level of effort will define our outcome.

Good fundamentals and hard work will always bring the best results in whatever you try to accomplish.