Burning Platform or Burning Desire?

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Currently I am part way through an outstanding read,  ‘Firms of Endearment’. The book was recommended to me by Shaun McCarthy from Human-Synergistics.  One of the myths about change raised in this book is that it is a myth that “fear is a powerful impetus for change”.  That got us thinking about change as it relates to organisational culture and leadership.  Two phrases we hear used often in organisations when the culture change process is discussed are “burn the boats” or “burning platform”.

Unfortunately both have come to mean that in order to bring about change emergency or imminent catastrophe is a needed ingredient.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and think about the origins of these sayings.  “Burn the boats” as a concept seems to have been used several times by leaders going as far back as Alexander the Great.  Several boat burnings have occurred throughout history, the common reason for the leader’s decision is unwavering com­mit­ment is needed in a life and death situation.  “Burning Platform” goes back to the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster of 1988 and the decision made by Andy Mochan who was working on the platform at the time.  As he puts it “my choice was fry or jump, so I jumped”.

“Burning Platform” was brought into organisational use by Daryl Conner (to read the full background http://www.connerpartners.com/frameworks-and-processes/the-real-story-of-the-burning-platform) as he was looking for a powerful metaphor to demonstrate deep, tenacious commitment is needed to make change. Even he says that his original intent has been misconstrued.  Two of the most prevalent misconceptions he quotes are:

  • “An organization can only muster the kind of commitment necessary to successfully change if it is facing circumstances with catastrophic consequences such as insolvency, toppling stock value, loss of governmental approval, an unwanted takeover, failing merger, and/or collapsing market shares.
  • Leaders should intentionally manipulate information or circumstances to manufacture the appearance of urgency for change when that’s not actually the case”.

When it comes to creating organisational culture change we have found that using fear by creating the ‘burning platform’ is not a great motivator. While it may have some initial impact, it is not sustainable over the long term and it produces defensive behaviours where people are more intent on protecting themselves than engaging with achieving the organisation’s needs.  The outcome of such behaviour is reduced personal motivation and satisfaction and loss of quality and adaptability at the group and organisational levels.

There is an alternative to considering the use of a “burning platform” approach whether you are trying to create a high performance culture or a culture oriented towards innovation or customer.

The alternative is to focus on creating a “burning desire”.  Here are some thoughts to get you started:

  • It starts with every person at every level of your organisation understanding why your organisation does what it does, how it does it, the outcomes to be achieved and where you intend to be at an agreed point in time, say three years from now.
  • People understand their role, and by carrying out that role the significance and contribution that is made towards achieving the required outcomes and how that makes a difference to all stakeholders.
  • Systems and processes support people to maximise their contribution.
  • Those who lead and manage engage with their people by facilitating and recognising  people’s contribution,  continually emphasising  expectations and standards, enabling road blocks to be removed and when required offer constructive feedback where performance falls short of the mark.

Igniting the “burning desire” in people is, in our view and that of our clients, not only more powerful in helping people show what they are capable of, it is more sustainable and motivating than a “burning platform” in building the organisational culture you chose.

Wondering “How to change Organisational Culture” in your company? Contact Vivente for Organisational Culture and Leadership Improvements in Sydney, Australia