OCI #30: The Burning Platform
A misunderstood and provocative metaphor; an important underlying concept
Have you ever referred to an initiative as a burning platform? Do you dislike the term and wish it would go away? Do you know the story behind it? (If you’re unfamiliar with the term, read on!)
Every now and then I pick up a classic element of change management content and look at it with fresh eyes. Today it’s the burning platform. I’ll share a little historical perspective and some commentary.
Burning Platform: The Origin Story
First introduced in Daryl Conner's Managing at the Speed of Change, the metaphor of the burning platform has been used for more than 30 years to describe a high level of resolve for successfully pursuing a change initiative. It is still in use today, but is sometimes scorned by the change management world and often misinterpreted by people who hear it without context. Here’s how the story was originally presented in the book.
At nine-thirty on a July evening in 1988, a disastrous explosion and fire occurred on an oil-drilling platform in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. One hundred and sixty-six crew members and two rescuers lost their lives in the worst catastrophe in the twenty-five-year history of North Sea oil exploration. One of the sixty-three crew members who survived was a superintendent on the rig, Andy Mochan. His interview helped me find a way to describe the resolve that winners manifest.
From his hospital bed, he told of being awakened by the explosion and alarms. He said that he ran from his quarters to the platform edge and jumped fifteen stories from the platform to the water. Because of the water's temperature, he knew that he could live a maximum of only twenty minutes if he were not rescued. Also, oil had surfaced and ignited. Yet Andy jumped 150 feet in the middle of the night into an ocean of burning oil and debris.
When asked why he took that potentially fatal leap, he did not hesitate. He said, "It was either jump or fry." He chose possible death over certain death. Consider this:
He didn't jump because he felt confident that he would survive.
He didn't jump because it seemed like a good idea.
He didn't jump because he thought it would be intellectually intriguing.
He didn't jump because it was a personal growth experience.
He jumped because he had no choice—the price of staying on the platform, of maintaining the status quo, was too high. This is the same type of situation in which many business, social, and political leaders find themselves every day. We sometimes have to make some changes, no matter how uncertain and frightening they are. We, like Andy Mochan, would face a price too high for not doing so.
An organizational burning platform exists when maintaining the status quo becomes prohibitively expensive. Major change is always costly, but when the present course of action is even more expensive, a burning-platform situation erupts. The key characteristic that distinguishes a decision made in a burning-platform situation from all other decisions is not the degree of reason or emotion involved, but the level of resolve. When an organization is on a burning platform, the decision to make a major change is not just a good idea—it is a business imperative.
Good Ideas and Business Imperatives
Two types of situations can generate the urgency to implement and sustain major change: The high price of unresolved problems or the high cost of missed opportunities. The price of unresolved problems can range from brief discomfort to a situation where recovery will be impossible. The price of missed opportunities can range from missing something interesting and enjoyable to missing a key element in moving from market leader to market dominance. The examples at the lower end of each continuum represent "good ideas." As you move up the scale, the costs shift to those that are too expensive to pay. These situations that arise are burning platforms—business imperatives. The line between a good idea and a business imperative is subjective; each organization must define this distinction for itself.
Most organizations jeopardize their ability to sustain imperative changes because they embark on too many good ideas—changes that they want to do, are justified in doing, ones that will produce benefits and may be popular with the employees, but are not imperatives. To conserve assimilation resources, it is vital that organizations focus their attention on burning-platform-type situations.
Metaphors and images can be so powerful! It's hard to hear this story without mentally placing yourself on the edge of an oil rig, thinking about what you would do in Andy's situation. It certainly creates a vivid picture of resolve. Many of us have had the experience of needing to address a situation that is unbearable—physical pain, emotional torment, or some other difficult circumstance; or being deeply drawn toward something we want—a relationship, a career path, an important goal; recognizing that the cost of staying where we are is too expensive; and manifesting the resolve to take an irrevocable leap.
Having said that, I'd like to separate the metaphor itself from the concept it represents.
The Concept: Resolve
The idea that significant resolve is needed for major change is hard to argue with. Resolve is necessary to begin well, and, as initiatives unfold over time and hit the inevitable highs and lows of transition, it must also be sustained, rekindled, and protected. To the extent that we go into an initiative convinced that the alternative—maintaining the status quo or beginning but not completing the effort—is unbearably expensive, we have a better shot at maintaining focus and realizing the full benefits of our investment.
The linkage between resolve, priorities, and change capacity is also very real. Identifying initiatives in which the cost of failure is unacceptable vs expensive, uncomfortable, or inconvenient is a critical leadership capability. I have seen many organizations try to implement too many initiatives, failing to distinguish between good ideas and business imperatives, and choking on the cumulative resource and energy requirements. These organizations not only place unreasonable demands on their members, but also run the risk of failing at truly urgent changes because the required capacity is absorbed by “good ideas.”
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Four Motivations for Change
Resolve for change is usually driven by a combination of current and anticipated problems and opportunities.
Current Problems are situations in which a failure to act will expose us to continued harm, loss, or danger.
I see a bear. I need to run.
Our workplace is unsafe—people are getting injured. We need to update our procedures.
Current Opportunities are situations in which a failure to act will cause us to miss significant gains or advantages.
There’s a big sale. I need to go shopping.
One of our products is in high demand. We need to ramp up production quickly.
Anticipated Problems are situations in which we need to start now to avoid significant problems in the future.
I don’t want to have a heart attack when I’m older. I need to eat healthier food.
Our profit margins are shrinking. We need to revamp our business model.
Anticipated Opportunities are situations in which there is a future goal we would like to achieve that requires us to start now.
I want to publish a book next year. I need to sit down and write today.
We have a mission to train the next generation of leaders, and it will take at least 5 years to begin to see results.
As you think about a current initiative you are pursuing, which of these elements are part of the rationale for moving forward with the change? I have often used a grid like this one to capture thoughts and generate discussion, using the following instructions:
“In each quadrant, identify the costs of NOT taking committed action at the present time—what current opportunities will we miss? What future possibilities will we not be able to capture? What current problems will we continue to endure? What future problems will we fail to avoid?”
You will sometimes find that while the rationale for change starts in one place, additional perspectives arise and enrich your understanding as you continue the discussion. The information you surface here can be very useful in helping build and sustain commitment to the change.
Timing and Valence
Although most change initiatives are driven by a combination of motivating factors, there is often one primary rationale that supports action (e.g., we are primarily addressing a long-term problem, but we can also see some short-term benefits/“quick wins” to be gained). Both the timing (current vs. anticipated) and valence (problem vs. opportunity) of the cost of not changing are important factors in the successful sustainment of effort through the transition process.
Current>Anticipated. When the rationale for change is grounded in the here and now, it’s easier to drive action. When costs or payoffs are projected to occur some time in the future, the uncertainty and ambiguity involved often allow people to discount the importance of investing energy and resources now that are critical to success down the road. This highlights the important distinction between urgency and importance.
Problems>Opportunities. Due to “loss aversion”—the human tendency to place more importance on avoiding losses than on achieving equivalent gains—it’s generally easier to motivate change by focusing on problems than on opportunities.
When we combine these two tendencies, it’s apparent that it’s typically much easier to motivate people around current problems than anticipated opportunities. However, there are some very good reasons to avoid the temptation to frame every change in terms of current problems.
Runway. Some core organizational aspirations and issues are complex and require long-term analysis, research, and effort to fully achieve results. It’s important to create space for these efforts if we aspire to a high purpose. If we aren’t careful, we can end up pushing these extended initiatives to the bottom of the priority list to deal with less imperative but more visible concerns, and not allow enough “runway” to come up with and fully implement robust strategies and solutions.
FUD. When we define a change primarily in terms of the current problems it will solve, much of our communication and language tends to revolve around FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt), as we highlight the problems of the status quo and spotlight the benefits of the proposed approach. Even a small amount of neuroscience awareness can help us understand how this might create higher levels of stress and increase polarized thinking, rather than encouraging creativity, and collaboration. Ensuring that we are also articulating current and anticipated opportunities as drivers of urgency gives us a platform to build engagement and ownership of change.
Cynicism. When we feel under pressure to solve a current problem, we often are seduced by short-term fixes that temporarily address the issue (or at least the symptoms), but don’t have lasting impact and are quickly followed by a string of additional fixes. This can lead to an endless cycle of change, a reduced belief in the efficacy of leaders, increased cynicism, and greater difficulty in gaining enthusiasm and buy-in for any new initiative. Balancing this focus with longer-term thinking and planning can help us find a smoother rhythm, sustained results, and increased support for change efforts.
As you look at the portfolio of change initiatives in your organization, what proportion of them are focused on future opportunities and problems? How do you ensure that capacity for longer-term, purpose-focused efforts is protected from the “tyranny of the urgent”? How might these concepts apply to your personal energy as well?
The resolve needed to sustain major change is developed when the cost of not changing is higher than the cost of making the change. The four lenses discussed above can help decision-makers calibrate their level of resolve and agree on their critical few business imperatives. It’s important to ensure that the natural tendency to focus on current problems is balanced by attention to important longer-term pursuits that are equally—or even more—important.
The Metaphor: Burning Platform
Now let's tackle the metaphor itself. Although it became part of my vocabulary when I entered the world of change management more than 30 years ago, I have found myself using it less over time. Why? Well, first of all, I think it requires a good bit of explanation to ensure that people understand the core concept. People who use or hear it without appropriate context often understand it to mean that people will only be motivated to change by current/urgent problems. This is exactly the opposite of what I believe to be true, and I think this is one of the core misunderstandings that has led to critiques of the term.
Secondly, it can tend to drive binary thinking—once something has been declared a “burning platform,” people are not always comfortable questioning whether it continues to be one. In real life, I find that priorities and urgencies shift a lot and that, as new information is known, things that once seemed essential turn out to be less so while emerging concerns and possibilities take on much greater importance. It is essential that decision-makers review their priorities and make adjustments and corrections as needed to avoid foolishly continuing paths that are no longer the best use of their resources.
I will say, however, that I haven't yet found another metaphor with this much power to illustrate what deep resolve looks like. I’ve certainly used the image in my own mind to gather up for a terrifying leap. I’m not ready to abandon it entirely, but it certainly needs to be used in a context where it is helpful rather than misleading.
How have you and others in your organization used the “burning platform” term? In what ways has it been helpful? In what ways has it created complications?
Whether or not you use the metaphor, it’s important to recognize that burning platforms are identified, not created. The cost of changing and the cost of not changing can be discussed, analyzed, and evaluated to determine whether business-imperative resolve is warranted.
If you or others are trying to light platforms on fire, spinning up rhetoric to make it sound as though the world will end if a change does not succeed, you will not help the organization make wise choices about how to use its scarce resources.
And if you are working on an initiative that has been labeled as a burning platform, but is not truly a business imperative when compared to other issues the organization is facing, you need to be prepared for sponsors to become distracted and place a low priority on it compared to things that they see as truly critical. You may want to be prepared for people’s eyes to roll whenever the next “burning platform” initiative is identified.
How do you help leaders understand what real resolve looks like? What are your best tools for recognizing business imperatives and separating them from “good ideas”? How do you help decision-makers continually monitor their priorities and focus on those that are most important?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Organizational Change Intersections! I’ll be back in about 3 weeks with the next installment.