Don’t Burn Platforms

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead. 
– Casabianca by Felicia Dorothea Hermans

That boy didn’t jump ship. Never again use the phrase ‘burning platform’ to describe motivation for change. 

A Bad Metaphor

Spend much time creating change and someone will ask ‘but is there a burning platform?’  This question is usually asked:

(a) to demonstrate their knowledge of change management jargon and

(b) to insinuate there is no compelling rationale for the change.

The burning platform metaphor comes from a story of oil workers in the North Sea who confronted with certain death by fire, jumped to a likely death by freezing water. It is often attributed to the fire on the Piper Alpha.  That specific burning platform was made much worse by a belief that employees on another platform had that they were not allowed to stop the flow of oils and gas into a fire that was killing their colleagues. They lacked the discretion to do the obvious.

Need I go on. It is a really bad metaphor. Now never use it again.

The Wrong Mindset

The mindset behind the burning platform metaphor is no way to view real change.  The assumption is nobody will change without something akin to threat to their life and the best anyone need offer is a slight improvement.

Burning platform is embedded in a view of the world where smart management needs to get dumb employees to do something they don’t want to do. Like the boy in the poem above, employees loyally await orders before acting (& need prodding even then).  The same logic drives many performance management and incentive schemes.

Real Urgency Comes from Choice

A burning platform is often described as the first of Kotter’s 8 steps of change. It is not. The first step is ‘Create a sense of urgency’. A change imperative matters.  However, there are far better and more constructive senses of urgency than a risk appetite bending fear of certain death. Constructive urgency comes from choice and requires an active and creative engagement. Examples of constructive imperatives include:

  • Fulfilling a personal purpose
  • Realising one’s potential
  • Benefiting others
  • Collaborating with others
  • Collectively agreeing a path forward as a group
  • Autonomy & Accountability for achieving personal or collective goals, and even
  • A well reasoned request from a colleague who respects them and whom they respect

Start with a Conversation

However, to advance a change using any of these motivations you will need to engage people in conversation, to address their views, questions and concerns and connect them personally & collectively to change. You need to respect that people agree to change.  You don’t get to change them.  That’s hard work and it respects their intelligence, effort and contribution. Unfortunately, that’s how change usually works.

Stop dreaming you can light a fire under your people. You can’t. They are smart enough to leave before you get the chance to play arsonist.

A simple conversation about change is far more powerful. People are fired by respect, accountability and opportunity.

Put down the matches.

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