Back in 1504, Hernán Cortés landed in the modern-day Dominican Republic. After some years of establishing himself there, he won favor with the governor of then Hispaniola. Per the request of the governor in 1519, he was to lead an expedition force into modern-day Mexico as the mainland was thought to have a plethora of silver & gold. The expedition force of 500 men, 100 sailors, a few horses, cannons, along with 11 ships were to secure the interior for colonization.
After Cortés saw some initial success, the governor was worried that he would lose control of the expedition and attempted to relieve Cortés of his command. But he wanted to explore more inland, so that’s exactly what he did. By doing so he had gone rogue, going back was no longer a viable option.
The problem was that not all of Cortés’s men wanted to follow him inland, there were even talks of mutiny. So he did the only thing he thought he could, after removing their supplies from the ships, he ordered them to be set ablaze.
To prevent mutiny, he had all 11 of their ships set on fire. Leaving the men with only one realistic option, to forge ahead together.
Needless to say, this example is crazy, selfish, and far more extreme than anything most of us will face on any given day.
We can bring this ancient idea into the modern day in situations where people are stuck within a trap of inertia (the status quo), where there isn’t enough momentum to drive a change.
Not by completely taking an old option away, but by helping others realize and bare more of the true costs of inaction.
Example: Car manufacturers don’t stop making replacement parts for older vehicles until a reasonable amount of time has passed, then they stop making as many. When they do so prices for those parts increases, naturally encouraging consumers to get the latest model. They don’t force a change, but they sure as heck won’t bear the cost of subsidizing older parts. That cost gets passed down to consumers, making them less likely to stick with their current car.
Doing nothing is easy, bodies at rest tend to stay at rest. When a situation is resulting in the status quo being more costly than taking action. Inaction needs to be highlighted (surfacing the cost of inaction), discouraged, or in more extreme cases taken off the table.
“Burning the Ships” is about reframing someone's perspective from “Action vs Inaction” to “Which action should I take?”.