There’s an old story of a great warrior who, upon reaching the shores of the land he is determined to conquer, orders the troops to burn the ships. It is the ultimate act of commitment to the mission ahead, and dramatically communicates to all that retreat is not an option.
“Burning the ships” is a favorite catch-phrase in leadership and management, perhaps most notably in Napoleon Hill‘s Think and Grow Rich. The only problem is…it’s a parable that’s open to misinterpretation.
What’s wrong, exactly, with having a Plan B?
In a recent article by Inc. Magazine entitled “8 Habits of Remarkably Successful People“, author Jeff Haden states that a habit of remarkably successful people is that “they don’t create back-up plans”. Perhaps what the author means to say is “burn the ships”. What he’s really saying is “burn the map”…and I couldn’t disagree more.
President Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable”. As one of our country’s greatest generals and statesmen, Ike understood the power of having a plan, and a backup plan, even when the course taken turned out to be neither. Planning for the worst is a practice highlighted by Dale Carnegie in How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, and more recently, by the keynote speaker we enjoyed at ASDA National Leadership Conference last week in Chicago.
Back-up planning consists of brainstorming all the potential wrenches that could be thrown into a plan. For each, outline the worst possible impacts it could have, and what your response to the problem would be. The benefits of this process is multi-faceted:
1) Potentials pitfalls in your plan that are identified early may be correctable.
2) Committing your plans to paper helps you elucidate your plans in greater detail (before you’re in the heat of moment when thinking can be clouded).
3) Lastly, and most importantly, it forces us to confront our fear face-to-face. The fear of failure is an internal obstacle, and is greater than any external obstacle we may encounter.
Contingencies are signs of true commitment to a cause. Back-up planning is powerful for accomplishing our goal…most notably for its ability to diffuse the fear that can paralyze us from acting and adapting. A back-up plan shows you’re prepare to regroup and re-approach the challenge until it’s overcome.
So, by all means–burn the ships and emblazon your vision for success! But don’t snuff out your odds by burning the map, too.