Burning shipIt’s said that Cortéz, upon reaching the New World, directed his men to burn the ships behind them.  It’s a powerful image.

If you’re unfamiliar with this as a business concept, the idea is that at times you need to be fully committed to moving forward, having no option for retreat.

It flies directly in the face of contingency planning.  Which I’m a fan of.

So the real question is:  When is it appropriate to have irreversible commitment, to only look forward?

When it’s based on a principle which you refuse to negotiate.

A great example is your commitment to your kids.  Believe me, that’s not something you can backtrack on.  There may be times when they frustrate you, even when you doubt your decision.  But that doesn’t change your full 100% love and commitment to them.

In the business world, you also have non-negotiable principles.  Like running your company in an honest, legal, and ethical manner.  Divergence from that foundation must be treated as a top priority, never swept under the rug.

Here’s the test for you.  Complete this sentence:

I’d rather shut down this business than ___________________.

Those are the deep principles.  Some examples might be:

  • … sacrifice my health.
  • … have employees who are dragging everyone down.
  • … be dishonest with my customers.
  • … deliver a shoddy product.

But you have to be honest with yourself.  If your real goal is to be very patient with employee failures, then don’t declare that you won’t tolerate failure.  (Yes, this is a very real example – I had to face this myself.)

If your real goal is to believe that the customer is right only 98% of the time and the other 2% are jerks, then don’t declare your principles are to always satisfy customers no matter what.  Your team will get extremely frustrated with what to do about that 2%.

Be honest with yourself.

Be honest with your employees.

Be honest with the market.

And don’t sacrifice those non-negotiable principles.  Burn the ships and only move forward.