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Leading Change: How Effective is the Burning Platform?

The term “burning platform” has popped up for the fifth time this week (feels like the tenth) in my conversations with senior executives. The concept has been around since my days (don’t ask how long ago) leading the change management team at a global IT company. For the unfamiliar, the whole burning platform idea is based on an anecdote about dire decision-making, about a life-and-death impetus for change. And if we believe all these executives, more platforms are burning today than ever before.

The anecdote runs something like this: a man working on an oil rig (let’s say off the Gulf Coast of my home state, Louisiana) suddenly finds himself smack in the middle of a platform fire. Catch-22: If he stays put he’ll burn to death; if he jumps, he’ll plummet 200 feet to almost certain death in debris-filled water. He decides to leap… and somehow survives. When rescuers ask why he jumped, he declares: “I’d rather meet probable death than certain death.”

In business lingo, this fabled death-defying leap is most often conjured when an organization is facing dramatic change. It’s a way to assure people that they have no choice but to go along with the new direction. So, it’s not surprising that there is so much talk of burning platforms today — economic and personal crises are rising in tune with our ability to declare them to the wider world. Personally, I can empathize: I’m hearing the cry of “we gotta change!” in a higher pitch than ever before. But is it really “burn or drown” time for most of us?

I don’t deny that there are legitimate burning platforms in the world today. Companies like General Motors truly must take drastic, paradigm-shifting steps if they’re going to emerge after bankruptcy and succeed. Meanwhile, on the personal level, individuals who are sacrificing their health to the point of exhaustion and toxicity must remove poisonous habits before they tend to their higher aspirations. But when we take a deep breath and assess our circumstances, how common, really, are these examples?

For most of us, the burning platform metaphor provides a much-needed kick in our backsides. Ultimately, though, it is not the most productive way to view the situations in which we find ourselves and our organizations. Take the metaphor too far and we find ourselves making decisions of fear and desperation rather than creativity and resilience.

The point is not merely to maintain the status quo: people, organizations, and our planet literally need constant change. All living, thriving systems do. For instance: no business group today, no matter how large or small, can remain static if it hopes to keep pace with the desires of its customers, its staff, and its stakeholders. We must continually examine, study, respond, and reinvent, adapting and innovating to the shifting world around us.

Reinvention isn’t easy: a recent McKinsey study showed that only 40% of company change programs show a modicum of positive results. The impetus for change proved to be a critical factor: those programs with the highest likelihood of success weren’t reactive or defensive; they were proactive and engaging. Successful change initiatives relied on: 1) a grander vision beyond the immediate problem at hand, 2) a visibly enrolled leadership team, plus 3) communication and accountability that reinforced people’s involvement. No burning platform motivation here.

In short, transformative change — shifts that actually produce a new level of well-being, capability, and results — are less about fixing immediate challenges and more about building for vitality and future success.

So, we must ask about our organizations and our lives: Are our platforms really burning? Are we faced with only two choices: probable death or certain death? The existentialist in me (one of many little voices in my head!) says that, of course, death is a certainty for all of us.  When we accept that mortal truth, we can move past our deadly fears and get back to making a living.

Photo by Rob Young