How Hernan Cortez conquered the mighty Aztecs (Forcing the focus to multiply your impact)

Mythbusters conducted an experiment once. They took a cannon and shot a big iron ball from it at 50 miles per hour. But they fixed the cannon to the back of the truck, and the truck also moved at 50 miles per hour, but in the opposite direction. What do you think happened?

The big iron ball fell splat down in the same place without traveling a single centimeter. As un-intuitive as it sounds, the ball didn’t shoot ahead.

The truck moving in the opposite direction negated all the force of the powerful cannon. And that’s an important lesson to learn. When powerful forces move in opposite directions, nothing ends up happening. 

To become a force of productivity, you’ve got to get your entire team aligned and put their effort in the same direction. 

Dealing with two directions: the Hernan Cortez style

Hernan Cortez had directly disobeyed his boss: the mayor of Cuba – Diego Velazquez when he stole a few ships and landed in Mexico. Ahead was the Aztec empire. 6 million people. Against 630 Spaniards that Cortez had with him. Cortez had managed to build alliances with smaller tribes of Nahua and Totonac who were the enemies of the Aztecs.

But when Cortez’s team realized his crazy ambition and that he was thinking of marching towards the Aztec capital, half of them tried to mutiny. Going ahead led to war. Behind them was safety. 

At this time, Cortez did something that half the historians claim as bold, and the other half claim it as dumb. He sank his own ships! He left no path for him or his team to retreat.

With only one path left, the Spaniards managed to do the impossible. They marched forward. They built alliances and kept on fighting, until finally after 6 years they defeated the mighty Aztec empire!

You’ve got to sink your ship and commit to one path. Leaving options open just reduces the intensity. So how do you reduce the options to just one?

  1. Don’t work on what one thing you should do. Work on how to decide what one thing you should do. Set the rules and criteria that will help you make the decision.
  2. Don’t try to go from 10 options to 1. It’ll lead to a lot of resistance and team dissatisfaction. First cut down from 10 to 5. Then go from 5 to 3. And then settle on 1.
  3. Have the battle of options . Compare just two options at a time. Discard one and compare the winning option with just one more option. And play till the last standing option wins.

Dealing with multiple directions: the Jeff Bezos style

Jeff Bezos tells the story of how a huge company like Amazon makes quick decisions in his 2016 shareholder letter. There was a lot of disagreement on a particular project that Amazon Studios was contemplating to fund. Bezos thought that the project would be extremely complicated to produce. And it might not earn as much money in return. There were a lot of better options.

But the team thought that the project had huge potential to succeed. It was worth the challenge. And so, Bezos wrote back to them:  “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.”

Disagree and commit. That’s what the team needs to do. There will always be disagreements. In a room of ten smart people, you’ll always have twelve varying opinions on a worthy topic. But in the end, you’ve got to commit to stick to the one thing. 

The only way to get the whole team to disagree and commit is by building an atmosphere of trust. People need to know that even in failure, everyone will have each other’s back. Members on the edge can commit without firm belief only when they have faith in the team. 

Action Summary: How to get everyone on the same page?

  • Decide to have one page. You can’t have your team working for multiple purposes. One purpose. One direction. Double your energy and productivity by aligning people to one path.
  • Burn the other pages. First make the rules on what the ideal page should have. Then compare one page against another till you are left with just one.
  • Commit. Even if you disagree. Build an atmosphere of trust and loyalty.