Insight article

Burning bridges

Over 15 years of working with Executives around the world on their strategic narratives, we’ve had plenty debate about the ‘burning bridge’: the emotional hook that demands people take action before they get burned. In theory, it’s the ultimate form of motivation. But in the carrot-or-stick story of the world, where the pressures of constant change or increasingly mammoth global issues make most of us drag our feet in mutinous bewilderment, it’s tough for any leader to galvanise a community into decisive action.

It was therefore great to welcome Anita Krishnan to The Storytellers from Harvard University who studied under Marshall Ganz, a great catalyst of grassroots social movements that achieved real change, from American civil rights to the United Farm Workers fight for decent working conditions. It was from these models that Marshall went on to devise the organising model that would see Barack Obama win his 2008 presidential campaign. He’s got a very informative YouTube video you can view here.

His starting point is this: ‘strategy without motivation is just theory’. Strategy sets out the rational, logical ‘how’ – but our motivation requires an emotional ‘why’. Regardless of how advanced we think we are, our operating systems are still firmly connected to our animal forefathers. We like emotional autopilot, which means sticking to established – and once-efficient – habits. It’s like we’re still grazing on the Savannah. Our surveillance system is constantly on the lookout for signs of danger that will trigger our anxiety, and stimulate the adrenaline to take action. Hence that ‘burning platform’.

But, as Marshall points out, we all know that our instinctive response to danger is flight, fight or freeze. Hardly productive conditions for strategy execution. Yet we see them all too often within organisations preparing to change. The so called cynics who are up for a fight or the ‘passive aggressives’ who seem to be on board but silently do nothing. In this ‘Catch 22’ it seems that the very thing we need to motivate action is also inhibiting it.

Marshall’s solution is to balance the threat with positive, galvanising emotions. His first is hope: a theme that he used to great effect in the Obama campaign. Hope, he quotes, is the belief in the plausibility of the possible. In business, no one can ultimately predict success, but I’ve had the privilege of working with many leaders who leave you feeling that success is possible, even in the most challenging circumstances.

Next is solidarity, that feeling that we’re in it together, and together we can make it happen. Playing to our identity is a powerful driver. I love that moment in the film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ when Al Gore sets out the massive challenge of climate change and then turns to his fellow Americans and reminds them that massive challenges is what we do best (along with emotive images of putting a man on the moon etc.)

But arguably the most galvanising emotion comes in the form of a truly unpronounceable acronym: YCMAD. Try it out on yourself. Think of a burning bridge you need to address and reflect on how you feel. Then add the words: ‘but you can make a difference’. Of course it only works if you can! Again we see this in the environmental debate. Create the motivation without the means and you get nodding heads from people who still drive their cars and fly on their holidays. Show them they can make a difference to ocean pollution by avoiding plastic bags and you get positive action.

It’s a leader’s job to balance these emotions and empower people to act. Luckily, as Marshall points out, this is exactly what makes the narrative form so powerful as a tool to educate, inspire and connect people, even – and especially – in the face of overwhelm and fear. Obama’s closing words remind us always to strive for the audacity of hope. Stories are where we learn how.

Marcus Hayes

Marcus Hayes

Co-founder and Director