He had the most famous sideburns in American history did General Burnside, but Ambrose Burnside was not much of a general. Civil War historians and military experts can list his particular faults, but one mistake he made is a cautionary tale.
He tried to take a bridge.
He had been ordered to cross a bridge and engage the rebels on the other side.
He sent swarms of men across that narrow stone structure and many died. The little stone bridge was too narrow to get many men across at once and so they could be picked off by the outnumbered defenders on the other side. The mission was difficult, but Burnside was stubborn and brave with other men’s lives.
Eventually he took the bridge, now named after him. He “won” by achieving his goal, even if it had taken too long and cost too many lives.
The great problem with Burnside’s strategy (at least according to historian Shelby Foote) is that the water around the bridge could have been forded. Burnside did not need to take the bridge to fulfill his real mission, but he confused the means (taking the bridge) with the end (attacking the traitors on the other side).
Because Burnside could not think differently, he sent men to their deaths. The Burnside is my name for the plan that takes the bridge, but at a higher cost than needed because there was an easier, less obvious way to accomplish the real goal.
Most of us have worked for managers that had the Burnside problem. They got the job done at great cost if the job was doing things the old way or the obvious way. Sadly, the company, non-profit, or organization with a Burnside in command may sacrifice time, talent, and treasure to gain the objective stupidly.
Of course, we do not wish to pull a Burnside ourselves so we must recall:
The mission is the end goal not the way most people achieve the goal.
Sometimes when the normal means are failing, just pushing through is a bad idea. Pause. Think differently.
In a college for example, our goal is education not growth. Education might be aided by finishing the book or the book might get in the way of a particular group’s education. The book might be fine, normally a bridge for ignorance to knowledge, except when it is not. When things are not working (even if they usually do), ask if there is a ford that will take you across the river. Of course, there might be no other way, persistence might be the only way forward. If so, carry on.
Most of my life, I have found that this is usually a Burnside. I have failed to see the simpler way by not thinking differently. I have followed my orders (finish the curriculum) at the cost of the real goal: get education.
God save us from the Burnside.