The burning platform, an analogy for action that cannot be avoided and a strong indicator of an organisation that doesn’t know how to change.
Naturally there are changes where it’s more appropriate to conjure up such dramatic images: a slump in shareholder value, safety incidents, profit warnings, industrial dispute. But, be honest, these changes are vastly outnumbered by initiatives to improve the company. AKA: day to day business.
So what’s wrong with using the burning platform analogy?
Repeated use of the concept leads rapidly to change fatigue and worse. Staff that perceive their organisation suffering from an existential crisis for years on end will feel their security is threatened. Some will act to preserve their security, inside or outside the organisation. Those who are powerless to act will likely suffer higher stress levels and job dissatisfaction.
We should also remember the story of the boy who cried wolf. The message that this time the situation is critical loses credibility on the third retelling.
Further, the burning platform concept is about addressing a short term issue – it is tactical and responsive. Perversely, the changes where it is most used are often tricky and complex transformations; the exact opposite. Utilising the burning platform for strategic change is communicating “our current strategy has led us into a crisis that threatens the company’s viability”.
Finally, it doesn’t avoid resistance, it merely postpones it. The concerns, views, fears and values of the individuals are not addressed, they are simply deprioritised. This is a challenge as, depending on the change readiness of the organisation, the postponed resistance is likely to be greater as a result.
So why does the Burning Platform get used so often?
The simple answer: because it is easy.
It removes the need for us (as change practitioners) and our leaders to address “what’s in it for you” for the diverse stakeholder groups. Our messaging is simplified. our reinforcement simplified, our case for change becomes a walk in the park. We only need one story, one message.
When we attempt to find a rationale that is irrefutable and by doing so close down discussion, we move from being Change Practitioners to acting as broadcast communications channels. As mentioned, that’s sometimes necessary when we really must act quickly. But before you use the Burning Platform approach, be aware that you are taking out a resistance-management loan that earns interest.