“We’re gonna need that”

Considerations for corporate leaders when faced with disruptive competition

In the Pirates of the Caribbean movie “Curse of the Black Pearl” there is a scene where the heroes are aboard the HMS Interceptor and are being chased down by the aggressive Capt. Barbosa aboard the faster Black Pearl.

Faced with how to respond, a plan is made to race the Interceptor to the shoals ahead because their ship can operate in shallower water than the Pearl.

A command decision is made to lighten the ship for both speed and displacement. The order is given, “Anything that we can afford to lose, see that it’s lost.”

The crew begins jettisoning all manner of cargo and anything that doesn’t immediately aid them in their flight.

But Will Turner looks back to the Pearl and sees they are deploying oars that will certainly result in the Pearl overtaking the Interceptor before it reaches the safety of the shoals. As he’s making this observation a sailor nearby is about to push a heavy deck cannon overboard. Will stops him and says,

Realizing their flight is not enough, Will demands, “We have to make a stand. We have to fight. Load the guns.”

The Captain realizing they’ve thrown their cannon balls overboard asks, “With what?”

Will replies, “Anything. Everything. Anything we have left.”

In the end, with a clever tactical maneuver and the firing of silverware, our heroes escape.

It’s a great story. But it’s one that is being played out in many organizations today. And some, I fear, will not be as fortunate as those aboard the Interceptor.

Large, historically dominant corporations are being threatened by faster and more agile upstarts. Like the Interceptor, they’ve survived on being the fastest ship around. But not any longer. Executives in board rooms are looking over their shoulders at the approaching competition and making some the same decisions from our story.

Perhaps they can speed up by lightening their load. So, orders are given, and well-meaning deck hands begin jettisoning projects, policies and people that on the surface appear to be unessential in the current goal of speed.

But like Barbosa, the competition often has untapped skills and tactics that can nullify a plan based on flight and speed alone. There will be an inevitable fight. At some point, these companies will have to make a stand.

For me, the best line in this scene is when Will Turner realizes the current course of action is not enough and a fight is needed. It’s at that point he tells the deck hand not to jettison the cannon because, “We’re gonna need that.”

If your company or organization is being threatened by Barbosa-like aggressive competition, lightening your load for speed is not ill advised. But you need to take care that in the confusion, you don’t lose your cannons. You will eventually have to fight. And you will need weapons.

For instance, you may have projects that aren’t immediately adding to your revenue stream but are positioning themselves to be the differentiator you need in upcoming competitive battles. Maybe you have policies that reflect your culture that are difficult to defend in flight mode, but over time form the very culture and organizational value that makes you unique. And perhaps the person who you consider to be past their prime, might well be the holder of the insights and experience you are going to need to win against younger and more naïve upstarts.

I know corporations, and the executives that lead them, are required to make hard and difficult decisions. And I am of course aware that change is not only inevitable, but also necessary. I abhor stagnant environments and embrace well-designed change. My hope is that reorganizations, changes in policies and direction are not solely focused on the short-term survival of flight, but that those in command are carefully considering what and who they are tossing overboard. They may be the very cannons they are going to need to survive.

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