Burning Bridges

In life and relationships, I eschew burning bridges. However, with organizations, sometimes that is the difficult call leaders must make. The provenance of our often-used phrase, “burning a bridge,” likely comes from military strategy. If a leader wanted their troops fully-committed to the end goal, they would order the burning of a bridge once it was crossed. This leaves the unit no other option but to move forward, but is that always smart?

With deep appreciation for the valor attached to this move, how do you know when it is a good time to burn a bridge (literally and figuratively)? What happens if, in your zeal for victory, you ignore the fact that you are outnumbered and outflanked? Once in a while, leaders are forced to face this incredible decision and great leaders understand that with great power comes great responsibility. If your organization requires a transformation, then you must be willing to let go of the past and present.

Begin with the End in Mind

The decision to undergo a transformational change with your organization cannot be undone. In fact, the word decide comes from the Latin word decidere which literally means “to cut off” (de “off” + caedere “to cut”). Now, in modern Corporate America, decisions are routinely revisited and often reversed, but when it comes to an organizational transformation, I admonish you to take on the meaning as it was originally intended and make that decision final. And with that, comes a wholesale shift in the attitude that must be adopted to succeed.

“When leading a transformation, you must be very clear on where you want to go then have that vision pull you through the solution space.

When leading a transformation, you must be very clear on where you want to go and then have that vision pull you through the solution space. According to the late, great Dr. Stephen Covey, to be a highly effective person, one must “begin with the end in mind.” That is true of leadership in general but has a specific relevance to transformational efforts. When I was on a recent effort to help transform a business unit for a large multinational energy company, I worked with the entire top leadership team to create a clear and exciting picture of what the future will look like. We started this exercise very early in the project and anchored on that vision throughout the project to guide our organizational design. This is the proper way to run a transformation.

To make a good decision on whether your organization warrants a transformational effort, you must understand the difference between a few types of change: transactional, transitional, and transformational. Transactional changes are frequent, low-risk, and predictable. Getting an oil change for your car is transactional for most people. Transitional changes are less-frequent, higher-risk, and the outcome is less certain, but the nature of the change is anchored in the present. If your company sends you overseas for a couple of years, that might be a transitional change. Your life would definitely be different, but your job would be essentially the same. That’s much different from going overseas to join a new company — that would be transformational.

So before making your decision to embark on a transformational effort (which remember, cannot be undone), think hard about whether your desired future could be a modified version of where you are today. If so, then you can look forward to a relatively easier journey for you and your organization. But if not, then you are in transformation territory and you better have some good reasons for doing this.

It’s Not About You

“Once you have made your decision to take a transformational journey and have very good reasons for doing so, you need to think about why your workforce should care

Once you have made your decision to take a transformational journey and you have very good reasons for doing so, you need to think about why your workforce should care about joining you on this journey. Of course, your reasons make very good sense to you, but if you would like your newly transformed organization to actually be adopted by your people, you must come up with reasons that matter to them. This is a very critical step. Most transformations that fail, do so because the people did not like where they were going. And if you are like some leaders, you might be saying to yourself, “Too bad! It is my organization and I know what is best. Everyone will just have to deal with it.” Bad idea, and here’s why.

This isn’t the 1950s. People are not as loyal to their organization these days as they were back then. And in the wake (or maybe the midst) of numerous executive scandals, people do not trust organizational leaders the way they did back then. If you take an autocratic and dictatorial approach to an organizational transformation, you likely will not have any organization at all when the smoke clears. Furthermore, the people who do not leave will be entrenched in resistance unless you give them a reason to care. And as we discussed in a previous article, if your workforce is stuck in resistance then they are not exploring solutions. And if they are not exploring solutions that they can eventually commit to, then your desired future will not be sustainable.

So, it is imperative that you explore compelling reasons why your workforce will hate the future if we do nothing and why they will love the future after we transform. Most people are happy with today, nonchalant about the future, and detest changing. One of my primary objectives when helping leaders with transformations is flipping that narrative. We want the workforce to be worried about today, excited about tomorrow, and (at least) unaffected by the journey from here to there. On the project I referenced earlier, the case for change started with financial objectives but was quickly augmented (i.e., compellified!) with workforce flexibility and career development opportunities. It was hard to get our individual contributors excited about a better bottom line, but when we started talking about more exposure to different areas of the business, they woke up and started listening.

Conclusion

The right time to burn a bridge with your organization is when its fundamental design does not work anymore. This could be a result of unbridled organic growth, a violent disruption in your operating environment, or any one of a variety of reasons that warrant a significant strategic shift. Once you make this decision, there is no turning back. If you are a leader contemplating a transformation, start today with a tabula rasa. Envision your new future and design your organization to realize that future. Then partner with your change manager or consultant on understanding why your workforce will love this future. Once you are all set with a clear picture of the future, think about today and all the reasons why your workforce will hate it if you do not embark on this transformational journey to the new future. This is how to get your workforce excited about the change. Now isn’t that a bit more pleasant than being chased down by people with torches and pitchforks?