Burn the Ships

April 11, 2014 By Paul Wagorn

Burn the ships

Open Innovation, loosely defined as seeking solutions outside your company, can help a company dramatically increase its technology and product pipeline, but it is not without its challenges.  In this article, we explore a major obstacle that can impede the success of an open innovation based project, and how to remedy it.


I have seen and been involved with hundreds of open innovation projects.  Many of these projects succeed, and help the company push through major obstacles to be able to release a disruptive new product or technology.  But some fail – and one of the biggest reasons for failure is a lack of full commitment from the stakeholders in the project.

In 1519, the Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando Cortez decided that he wanted to seize the treasure that the Aztecs had been hoarding.  He took 500 soldiers and 100 sailors and landed his 11 ships on the shores of the Yucatan.  Despite the large army under his command, he was still vastly outnumbered by a huge and powerful empire that had been around for 600 years.

Some of his men were unconvinced of success, and being loyal to Cuba, they tried to seize some ships to escape to there.  Cortez got wind of the plot, and captured the ringleaders.   He wanted to make sure that the remainder of his men were completely committed to his mission and quest for riches, so he did something that seemed completely insane to his people:  Cortez gave the order to scuttle his own ships.

His men resisted, wondering how they would even get home, and his answer was:  “If we are going home, we are going home in their ships!”

The path forward was clear for Cortez – All or nothing, 100% commitment.  The option of failure was gone – Conquer as heroes, or die.

The ships were sunk – He kept a single ship to send back the “royal fifth” (the king of Spain claimed 20% of all treasures).  By doing this, the level of commitment of the men was raised to an extreme level, much higher than anyone could have imagined.

Incredibly, they succeeded in this unlikely feat.  In six hundred years, no one else had been able to conquer the Aztecs and plunder their riches.  They were able to do it simply because there was no choice, no fallback – the ships were gone, the only alternative was death.

The lesson is this:

Retreat is easy when you let yourself have the option.

Ponder that for a while – I certainly did.

This story of the Spanish Conquistador beating the odds is really a story about commitment. Commitment is critical to success – Nothing of significance can be achieved without it. By focusing on commitment, we forge our own future.

This very same element is essential to success in open innovation.

Open Innovation is hard.  There are always going to be people at your company who are, at best unconvinced.  At worst, they actually want it to fail.

Think about your technical people – if open innovation succeeds, what does it say about them?  That someone else could solve the problem where they couldn’t?  That they really aren’t the best in the world?

Think about your legal people – open innovation can be frightening.  What are the risks?  What haven’t we thought of?  There certainly isn’t a template contract for this thing that this radical business unit wants to do.

As I stated in the first paragraph, a common thread that I see in failed open innovation projects is that at least one stakeholder is convinced right from the outset that it will fail.  All it takes is one.  It could be the legal department, or the technical people, or a manager.  It could be you.

When failure is an option, there is a lack of commitment.  Although you are not conquering the Aztecs, open innovation projects can still be challenging – it takes vision, leadership, buy-in and most of all commitment from ALL of the stakeholders to make it through.

Many people think that Cortez actually burned his ships – he didn’t – he sank them. This is a misconception that has made its way into history due to a reference made by the Spanish writer Cervantes de Salazar in 1546.  I think that people cling to the idea because it’s evocative; nevertheless, the message is still the same:

You need to burn the ships.

If you want your open innovation endeavor to be successful, you need to remove the lifeline.  To do this, you need to do these two scary, but important things:

  1. Do not continue to work on the project internally while the OI project is underway.  If you do, then you are giving yourselves a fallback, and that can dramatically reduce the commitment from the stakeholders.  The OI project doesn’t have to work because your people “might still come up with something”.
  2. Make the OI project your “final answer”.  Decide at the outset that if it fails, the project will be scrapped.  This ensures that everyone needs the project to be successful.  Your technical people fail if the OI project fails – this flips the tables, because without this, your technical people have a way to prove that they really are the best.  Take that ammunition away, and directly connect their own success with the success of the OI project.

By removing failure as an option, you are only left with success.  Most importantly, you disarm the people who can co-opt your project: the naysayers, the not-invented-here proponents and the individuals in your organization who may be driven by ego to never be shown up.

As I said above – open innovation can be hard business, but if you purposefully construct the right environment, you’ll be aligning everyone’s goals.  And when everyone’s goals are aligned, you can sometimes come home with bags of treasure where others before you have failed.

The results speak for themselves.  At IdeaConnection, we have seen an 80% increase in success when the stakeholders back it with this kind of commitment.


Paul is the President of IdeaConnection, one of the world’s leading Open Innovation service companies, helping solve difficult problems for some of the largest companies in the world.

Paul can be reached at 1-877-525-6671 x105 or at www.IdeaConnection.com

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What Date did this happen?
Posted by Jackson on April 19, 2017

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