Last week, I finished my series on the burning platform. I included the original story of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, which provided the metaphor that I still use today. I certainly feel a debt of gratitude toward Andy Mochan, as well as others who survived and died that day, and their families. Their loss and sacrifice inadvertently provided a mechanism many change practitioners (myself included) have used to help ourselves and our clients better understand the kind of commitment necessary to realize fundamental change. It was because of their courage and determination that we can see the deeper implications of how to navigate some of the change-related challenges we face in our work.
Because I know many of you have used the burning platform metaphor in your work, I wanted to share something with you. Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster. A campaign is underway in Aberdeen, Scotland to raise money to maintain the existing memorial and gardens. Please consider making a donation to the Piper Alpha Memorial Fund as a way to express our appreciation for their contribution to our profession.
1. When real burning-platform urgency is at hand (due to either current or anticipated problems or opportunities), it means people believe the penalty for not realizing the intended outcomes is significantly higher than the investment for doing so.
- Current problems attract attention more easily but they usually provide only limited options. When the flames are imminent, people will be highly motivated to change. At that point, however, there is usually only enough remaining time and resources for tactical moves—there’s no room left for strategic maneuvers.
- Anticipated opportunities are the hardest to convince people to accept because it often looks as if something is being fixed that isn’t broken. However, this is where strategic breakthroughs are made if people do get on board.
- Timing is important. If commitment to leave the status quo forms too early, it won’t be sustained; if it develops too late, it won’t have an impact.
- With true business imperatives, commitment is inevitable…the issue is whether the determination to take action will come forward in time to be meaningful.
2. The story isn’t about fear, it’s about resolve—the fortitude and steadfastness to no longer pay what has become or will become an inordinate price for the existing conditions.
- The fact that a burning-platform-type situation is scary doesn’t mean fear is at the heart of the unfolding dynamics. The focus is on an unwavering determination to depart from existing circumstances.
- Fear is a symptom, not a cause, of a status quo too expensive to maintain. The primary attributes associated with a burning-platform mindset are courage and commitment, not terror and panic.
3. We should encourage clients to avoid the two most common misinterpretations:
- The metaphor is not meant to imply that major change requires immediate, catastrophic consequences in order to be successful.
- The metaphor is not meant to imply that leaders should intentionally manipulate information or circumstances to manufacture the appearance of urgency for change when that’s not actually the case.
4. The resolve to change doesn’t reach burning-platform status until leaders feel deeply committed at an emotional level to its realization:
- If leaders feel their personal brand is at stake (their own sense of mission, self-worth, values, legacy, honor, reputation, ethics, etc.), they are more likely to do everything within their power to reach realization.
- Burning-platform steadfastness goes beyond intellectual acceptance, so it can’t be synthetically manipulated or coerced. This kind of attention and diligence can be discovered within oneself and strengthened, but it can’t be effectively contrived or feigned.
5. The function of a burning platform mindset isn’t just to break from the past; it also serves as a deterrent to backsliding into previous habits and routines.
6. The “burning platform” term is used far too often, which dilutes its impact:
- In some companies, it has become synonymous with anything anyone thinks is important to accomplish instead of the absolute top-priority change initiatives that leaders have declared essential to realize.
- If the term is applied too liberally, it’s easy to overload an organization with too many initiatives to be absorbed all at once. Successful organizations prioritize their initiative portfolio so that only a few are designated business imperatives at any one time.
- When this happens, the changes in play are usually installed rather than realized—in addition, productivity, quality, and safety standards typically begin to falter.
- Designating an initiative as a burning platform must be done within the context of the other changes under consideration. An initiative can only be seen as a business imperative compared to the other projects that are competing for attention and resources.
7. When involved in developing implementation architecture, the change practitioner’s role isn’t to create pain and hope; it’s to help clients uncover, articulate, and leverage the pain and hope inherent in what they are attempting to accomplish.
8. Both PM (how the pain of maintaining the status quo is expressed) and VS (how hope for a better future is fostered) are vital to reaching realization:
- There are two prerequisites for successful transformational change:
- Together, pain management (PM) and viable solutions (VS) represent foundational aspects to change architecture. PM provides the motivation to pull away from the present; VS provide the motivation to proceed to the desired state.
- Part of why the burning platform story became so popular is that, without an expensive status quo, the cost of transformation is unlikely to be paid.
- Our role as professional change facilitators puts us at the forefront of either fostering or impeding the explicit use of PM by leaders. As such, our own acceptance or rejection of the need for PM is pivotal.
9. It is essential to distinguish good ideas from business imperatives
- Good ideas are initiatives with solid reasons for being pursued (could make money, delight the customer, keep up with the competition, the shareholders would be happy, etc.). Business imperatives are initiatives that would be too expensive not to pursue. A good idea has all the earmarks of something worth trying…a business imperative is a non-negotiable, “must get done” endeavor that has to succeed no matter what the obstacles. With good ideas, you give it your best shot…with business imperatives, you are “all in”—everything at your disposal is utilized to ensure realization is reached. Good ideas are primarily rationally based. (“It just makes sense to see if this can work.”) Business imperatives have a solid logic behind them but they are also emotionally based. (“I won’t be able to justify it to myself or those who depend on me if we fall short of the mark.”)
- Figures 1 and 2 provide some examples of the price of unresolved problems or missed opportunities. The items at the lower end of each scale represent good ideas. Moving up the scale, the costs shift to business imperatives—those that are too expensive to pay for and absolutely must be resolved.
- Each leader and organization has a different tipping point for where a good idea becomes a business imperative. Based on variables like assigned duties, interpretation of relevant information, the nature of the change, and one’s tolerance for risk, sponsors may vary widely as to when they declare that an initiative constitutes a burning platform. One leader may view a level 3 or 4 problem/opportunity as a change that absolutely must be fully realized, while another may face a level 8 or 9 situation and still not interpret it as an absolute must to accomplish at all costs.
(Click graphic to enlarge)
(Click graphic to enlarge)
The burning platform metaphor describes the commitment needed to sustain movement away from unacceptable conditions, whether they are current or anticipated problems or opportunities. It also describes the tenacity needed to break from the past and counter the inertia that holds people inside their zone of familiarity. Pain is not the only motivator for transformational change, however. Hope for a brighter future can also fuel the engine of deep, sustainable change. The common denominator for both is that the implications for continuing the status quo are too much to endure. For this reason, the story is meant to highlight the importance of resolve (not peril) when leaders strive for full realization of their change initiatives.
When I first introduced the metaphor nearly 25 years ago, my aim was to help people understand the role commitment plays in successful change. Here, I’ve attempted to clarify some misconceptions so practitioners can use the story to help leaders confirm and express their own resoluteness toward change, and be better prepared to help others further down in the organization invest the same level of commitment.
As I described earlier in this series of posts, what drove my original interest in the Piper Alpha event was my desire to find a metaphor to reflect the commitment needed to sustain movement away from unacceptable conditions. The burning-platform story is about the level of resolve it takes to break from the past and counter the inertia that holds people inside their zone of familiarity.
The pain associated with the way things are, however, is not the only motivation for organizational transformation. The costly nature of existing circumstances addresses only half of the formula needed for people and organizations to fully realize fundamental change.
Pain and Hope are Constant Companions on the Journey
Kurt Lewin was the first to popularize the fact that there are dual forces involved in change. In the 1940s, he said the present state has to be “unfrozen,” transformed, and then “refrozen” before fundamental change can emerge. What happened to Andy is nothing more than an elaboration on his brilliant insight into the process. He, of course, made no mention of a burning platform, but his views did include the notion that it is the pain of the status quo that thaws the fixed (frozen) ways people and organizations are fixed in their routines and habits.
In addition to the unfreezing (pain) part of his model, Lewin also suggested that a refreezing motivation is essential to promote consolidation around a new alternative. Attraction to a new future provides hope that there can be a more positive outcome than the one to which existing circumstances point.
As practitioners, we must remember that orchestrating sustained transformations involves helping clients leverage both pain and hope. The pain associated with maintaining present circumstances and the hope for a brighter future fuel the engine of deep, sustainable change. This means that pain management and viable solutions are fundamental aspects to change architecture.
Proper development and application of pain management (PM) is central to the change facilitator’s role. Although the transition process has its hardships, that’s not the discomfort I’m referring to here. Instead, I am speaking to the pain associated with not changing that is so important to transformational change. PM is the deployment of carefully crafted sponsor communications and appropriately applied consequences to help people understand that the price for the status quo is prohibitively high.
Often, leaders are aware of the risk of maintaining the current state long before the rest of the organization. When this happens, deciding that a change is necessary is the easy part. The challenge is convincing an entire organization of the necessity to stop or lessen their reliance on many of the routines and frames of reference to which they have become accustomed.
Once people understand that what they have been doing is no longer a reliable option, there is usually a greater openness to exploring alternatives. This is when leaders’ solutions can gain some traction. Trying to convince people of the benefits of a new future when they are satisfied with what they have is not a path to change success. On the other hand, persuading people that what they have is no longer feasible but failing to offer any hope for a better alternative creates ulcers, not change.
Introducing viable solutions (VS) is the second key element to change architecture. VS are offered by deploying communications and consequences designed to foster the view that the change is both preferable and within reach. Solutions are viewed as viable only if they are seen as both attractive (relative to the status quo) and accessible (understandable, affordable, etc.).
The pain associated with the present state (PM) and the hope generated by a practical alternative (VS) are both necessary to create the needed commitment to sustain transformational change. They are equally important to achieving realization, yet each carries a disproportionate weight of influence at various times in the implementation process. For example, there is a need for greater emphasis on PM in the early stages of an implementation effort…not because it is ultimately more important than VS but because it is typically more neglected at the beginning.
Many organizations are comfortable promoting the benefits of the desired state, but because they are afraid of appearing too negative, they hesitate to engage in explicit PM communications and consequences. The result is that people hear about a solution (the change) to a problem that, from their perspective, doesn’t exist or is only a minor concern.
Because of the frequency with which organizations fail to properly engage PM, let’s examine what is behind this reluctance. In particular, I’d like to explore whether we as change practitioners sometimes contribute to this hesitancy.
The Practitioner’s Influence
Of course, people are capable of shifting toward attractive new things during incremental change, but the focus here is on substantial transitions, not continuous improvement. The small adjustments we make in life are fairly easy to complete. When we embark on the big endeavors, however, we can become easily distracted. Why is this the case?
In general, I have found that clients have a harder time sustaining major shifts if the only purpose behind their initiatives is to accomplish something desired, instead of also relieving the burden of something dreaded. It is not difficult to start a major change based on a yearning for something new, but if that’s the only, or even the primary, motivation, the odds of staying the course are less than if a problem is also being solved.
I realize many practitioners wish this weren’t the case. In fact, some will consider me “politically correct” for saying people won’t likely change something fundamental just because they want to enjoy a new advantage. My response to those with this view is that when I examine my four decades of change facilitation experience, I can’t identify a single case where successful major initiatives were executed that didn’t include some elements of pain as well as hope. It is both the avoidance of the cost of the status quo, and the desire for a new potential benefit that drives transformational change. I want to be clear—I’m not suggesting pain is the only motivator in play. I’m saying that without an expensive status quo, the cost of transformation is unlikely to be paid.
What I believe this means for us as practitioners is that we should operate on the basis that a well-crafted PM strategy is vital to: 1) helping leaders confirm and express their own resolve toward change and, 2) enrolling others down in the organization to invest the same level of commitment.
Our role puts us at the forefront of either fostering or impeding the explicit use of PM by leaders, so our own acceptance or rejection of the need for PM is pivotal. This leads to a crucial question for each of us to ponder: Is it essential for people to believe the price for the status quo is too high before the organization can fully realize major change? Our respective views on this issue have an important bearing on our effectiveness so I invite you to give this some thought.
My response to the question is a resounding YES.
My bias is probably evident at this point, but I’ll summarize it. My years in the change business have shown me that, most of the time, most people fail to reach (much less sustain) their intended outcomes when they are driven solely or even primarily by wanting to exploit the opportunities before them. It’s not hard to engage these kinds of projects, but, more often than not, they fall to the wayside before reaching realization. Therefore, sponsors need to ensure a well-thought-out PM campaign is included in their implementation architecture. Without such a view, it will be much more difficult for people throughout the organization to buy into seeing change as a burning platform/business imperative instead of just another set of good ideas that may or may not reach their stated objectives. Subsequently, I believe as professional change facilitators, it is our responsibility to advocate for, help design, and skillfully orchestrate effective PM strategies when we are engaged in crafting execution architecture for our clients.
What to Emphasize, and When
As professional change facilitators, our primary focus isn’t the what of change, it’s the how. Our contribution to an organization’s success is tied more to enabling execution than it is to shaping the content of the changes being pursued. In this light, when we develop implementation architecture, we’re not creating pain and hope, we are helping clients uncover, articulate, and leverage the pain and hope inherent in what they want to accomplish.
As stated above, when introducing dramatic change, it is important to describe why people need to depart from what they have been doing, as well as to provide a compelling picture of what they should move toward. However, during the initial phases of implementation, it’s essential to place a disproportionate emphasis on the PM perspective.
Here’s why. Most projects begin during uninformed optimism and then fall into the depths of informed pessimism. Once people reach their tolerance for ambiguity and loss of control, change is no longer fun and the tendency is to push back against it. This penchant for resisting is so strong that, as a species, we will consistently choose familiar states, even if they are not working well (relationships, organizational structures, etc.) over something new. We do so in order to maintain the sense of equilibrium that comes with sticking with what is predictable in our lives…our established habits and routines. PM is critical to emphasize early on, when people are first hearing about change, because otherwise their commitment to shifting things will be too casual (good ideas). Instead, what’s needed during major change is a cathartic-level resolve that carries enough emotional punch to break from old patterns (business imperatives).
Both PM and VS should be reflected in communications and consequences throughout the change process; however, early on, PM should take center stage. VS is what promotes the case for moving forward but PM creates a reason to listen to and be interested in VS. In addition, PM reduces the inevitable pleas for returning to what was when the journey becomes harder than people expected.
Think of PM and VS as two ends of a continuum where each is strongest at its respective pole, while being more evenly balanced in the middle. Once the bond to the existing state is weakened by PM, it is time to strengthen the emphasis on the VS. This is not, however, at the expense of PM. As the implementation process matures and ground is gained toward the desired state, there should simply be more weight placed on VS, not less on PM. Once well into the execution, where critical mass of commitment has been reached and there is little chance of losing momentum, PM can be de-emphasized with a stronger focus being placed on VS.
There is much to be explored about how VS is used to foster hope during the change process. However, the focus of this series is on the burning-platform story. We’re looking at how it can be used as part of crafting a PM strategy that fosters the commitment to break free of the pull of the status quo. We’ll examine some of the implications related to the proper use of VS at another time.
In my next post, I will cover some implications for practitioners wishing to use the burning-platform metaphor.
When something goes viral, it’s seldom a deliberate act to distort the original meaning. Nonetheless, the message almost always changes to some extent. It’s a natural consequence of thousands of people selectively hearing, remembering, and communicating to others what they understand to be true. I believe that when the burning platform story’s meaning was twisted from my original intentions (see my last post), it was primarily because the scorching oil rig and Andy’s leap into the water are such compelling images. The reason I selected the story was that I thought it would be memorable. To say the least, it has proven to be that.
The abandoned shell of twisted, burned steel that was once a center of activity for more than 200 oil workers is a powerful testament to the fierce intensity of the devastation that took place. Unfortunately, some people only registered and passed on to others the specifics of that particular event (a do-or-die situation), and not the broader implications I wanted to highlight when I chose this as a metaphor for commitment.
Clearly, one of the reasons behind the persistence of the two primary burning platform misconceptions I mentioned in the last post is that Andy’s situation was such a life-threatening event. The mental picture of him jumping, and the associated emotions it evokes, are a formidable blend. When people remember or retell the account, they sometimes forget that the story was meant as a placeholder for a larger point (the depth of commitment needed for major change). In addition, many people associate important change with problems. (“The only time we change around here is when something needs to be fixed.”) The forceful imagery evoked from the story, combined with the association people tend to make between impending danger and the need to alter the status quo, is compelling.
Although I’m pleased so many people remember the story and have gone to the trouble to share it with others, my hope is that this series will reframe the crisis-centered interpretation sometimes attributed to it. Contrary to how some people relate to the term “burning platform,” I don’t see it as a story of disaster. To me it’s a tale of courage and tenacity that illustrates the commitment necessary to face the risk and uncertainty inherent in departing from the current state of affairs.
I never intended to give the impression that an emergency was always necessary to motivate sustained major change. If one word is associated with the story, I would prefer it be resolve rather than peril. People don’t have to face a life-threatening situation or organizational insolvency in order to support fundamental change. What is required is a deep level of resolve: the determination, fortitude, and steadfastness to stop paying what has become or will become an inordinate price for the existing conditions.
When the implications for not changing far outweigh what it will take to realize the desired state, this kind of profound determination will play itself out in four ways:
I’ll describe each in more detail below, but, in general, think of these as four motivations for changing at a fundamental level. Although it is important to distinguish between these four origins of deep commitment, as far as the metaphor is concerned, the real issue isn’t the motivation driving the change, it is the level of determination demonstrated for leaving what is for what could be.
Someone who displays a genuine burning-platform mindset won’t approach the situation as if finding a remedy is “nice to have” or even something highly desired. A sponsor who demonstrates the kind of commitment the metaphor depicts views change success as non-negotiable. He or she will treat it as an absolute business imperative to achieve the intended realization outcomes. The price for the status quo makes succeeding with change a very personal thing…“Nothing can stand in our way—this initiative must reach its intended outcomes.”
The result of maintaining things as they are in a burning-platform situation inflicts a grievous cost. Andy’s plight represents circumstances that epitomize a current problem—when people determine that leaping into the scary unknown is expensive, but less so than the costs they face if they continue with things as they are. By no means, however, is this the only reasoning that supports fundamental transformation.
The second set of conditions that will cause people to leap into frightening change is anticipated problems. Here, existing circumstances don’t reflect an immediate threat, but a trend or some type of projection into the future strongly suggests that the situation will deteriorate significantly if the current course is maintained. Major change that is based on problems that are likely to emerge or get worse, but haven’t yet done so, is less common than immediate problem-driven transitions, but it most certainly does occur. For example, maybe Andy could have prevented the explosion or at least made a more orderly and safer evacuation if he had known about and been in a position to act on the problem before things got out of control.
Either way, dramatic change is fairly uncomplicated when people are solving a problem, current or anticipated. That’s not to say it is necessarily a picnic when it comes to all that is involved in reaching full realization, but trouble-centered change is relatively straightforward to justify and generally easy for people to relate to.
With the third burning-platform circumstance, the issue is still the high cost of the status quo, but here, maintaining the needed resolve can be particularly challenging. Getting excited about wonderful new options is the easy part. It’s staying the course when implementation becomes protracted and/or difficult that people have trouble with. It’s usually much harder for people to sustain their commitment to change when pursuing current opportunities than it is when they are trying to solve problems.
Despite this tendency, we have all witnessed people who initiated a shift in something fundamental because of their desire to upgrade their status. They got married, had children, completed an additional level of education, accepted a promotion, expanded market share, increased shareholder value, introduced new technology, etc. Current opportunities offer a favorable harvest that can be enjoyed immediately and thus represent a strong early motivator for change. The question is, will that motivation persevere throughout the implementation process?
Once again, the key is the price that will be paid if the change is not successfully realized. Only when failure to exploit the opportunity becomes too costly will positive situations be just as galvanizing toward change as the more negative-based motivators.
Finally, anticipated opportunities are situations where the benefits of leaving the status quo can only be savored later. Here, burning-platform commitment is tied to the implications faced if the desired advantage is not achieved in the future. This can be a very powerful motivator for change, but securing substantial, lasting commitment under these conditions can also be extremely difficult to achieve. The challenge is not only that the change is being driven by opportunities exploited instead of problems resolved (I’ve already outlined how this can make implementation challenging), but the potential for gaining the desired advantage resides in the future and is easy to defer.
Whether they are current or anticipated, opportunities must be extraordinarily attractive to spur the sustained effort implied in business-imperative situations. The lure must be so powerful that the person feels that the price for not attaining the goal is beyond his or her ability and/or willingness to pay.
A word of warning to change facilitators. The opportunity side of burning platforms can be tricky. Grasping how a positive future can be linked to the pain of the status quo can sometimes be easier said than done for clients.
This is where the reframing skills of the practitioner play an important role. Part of what we do for clients includes helping them see that sometimes opportunities left unleveraged can produce just as many negative implications as unresolved problems. It doesn’t matter if there are expensive difficulties that need resolution or wonderful options that would be painful if not taken advantage of. Either way, continuing with the present course of action is no longer an option.
Maintaining the Status Quo
I hope this explanation of the four conditions that constitute burning platform situations helps you see that the crisis Andy faced is only one version of the kind of resolve the metaphor was meant to describe. Yes, some leaders do enter into a burning-platform mindset because of current do-or-die circumstances, but others successfully pursue change with the same steadfastness based on problems they know will surface down the road. Some sponsors have been able to convince their organizations of the necessity for paradigm-level change because of existing or forecasted benefits that lay in the future. Whether the situation is about current or anticipated problems or opportunities, the common denominator in each case is an unwillingness to continue supporting the way things have been.
It’s All in the Timing
The conviction to depart from current circumstances can surface early or late in the implementation process. When the resolve forms early, a company has anticipated what the price or pain of the status quo will be if the desired action is not taken. When the resolve develops late, there is already a price being paid that is too expensive to bear.
Current pain is what inspires commitment to change late in a situation (see Figure 1). Unfortunately, most of the time, only short-term tactical actions are possible at that point. When the resolve to change comes early, it is due to anticipated pain. Anticipated pain can be more powerful due to the extra time available in which to make strategic moves. This kind of change is often more difficult to convince people to act on, however, because they tend to stay caught up in the crisis du jour.
If the decision to leave the status quo forms too early, it won’t be sustained; if it develops too late, it won’t matter. When burning-platform situations are at hand, the issue isn’t will the necessary commitment to act be generated, but when. With change that is truly imperative, commitment is inevitable…the crucial variable is whether the determination to take action will come forward in time to be meaningful.
The Focus Is Resolve, Not Peril
The burning-platform story is about having the tenacity to do whatever is necessary to no longer pay for the prohibitively expensive status quo. When change initiatives are propelled by interest of a less intense nature, they are considered “good ideas,” not “business imperatives.”
Because of the importance placed on predictability, when there is a dramatic departure from the status quo, people always struggle with the transition (even when they desire the outcome). In fact, the only way the gravitational pull of “the way things are” is broken is when the price of the status quo becomes prohibitively high. If the motivation for leaving present circumstances is based only on intellectual interest or even a strong preference, the likelihood of a successful implementation is low. Moving away from established patterns of thought and behavior is unlikely if what is in place is only moderately costly (dysfunctional).
When executing major initiatives, leaving what is for what could be doesn’t often occur unless the existing conditions have become unbearable. It is then, and only then, that change becomes a non-negotiable priority. Said another way, for significant change to reach realization, the people involved must be more than merely intrigued by the idea of departing from what they are doing (good idea); they have to reach a point where their resolve to change is tenacious and unyielding (business imperative). For example, a burning platform mindset is in play only if leaders move beyond relating to their initiative as an organizational commitment and start seeing it as a promise they have made to themselves and others. It must become personal; they must feel their own credibility and integrity are at stake.
In the next post, I’ll talk about the relationship between pain and hope, which are both necessary to create the commitment needed to sustain transformational change.
The most-often sited misstatements about the story are 1) organizations must have a catastrophe to change; and 2) leaders should manufacture one if it doesn’t already exist. See the previous post for details.
 One more reminder that this blog is intended for seasoned practitioners involved in significant organizational transition: Some of the dynamics I write about might be less intense or non-existent if the initiatives being implemented are more modest in nature (i.e., incremental shifts or continuous-improvement-type modifications).For example, people may not struggle with minor, incremental change as described in this sentence.
“It was fry or jump, so I jumped.” — Andy Machon
The “burning platform” story has become a permanent part of the organizational change landscape. In this series, I’ll offer some background about how I found and introduced the story, what its original purpose was, how that intention has sometimes been misunderstood, and some of the implications for change practitioners who incorporate the metaphor into their practice.
One night in 1988, I was watching a TV news program when the newscaster began interviewing a survivor of a massive oil rig explosion (see story below).
For months, I had been looking for the right metaphor to describe a pattern of commitment I had uncovered and the story was exactly what I needed. It caught me off guard, however, because it appeared out of a story of disaster…the last place from which I thought a metaphor about commitment would have emerged.
Let me back up a little. My work has always been informed by the field research we conduct at Conner Partners, which goes back to the firm’s beginnings in 1974. From the start, we’ve focused on uncovering the mindset and behavior patterns associated with succeeding or failing at large-scale organizational change.
Several months before I saw the newscast, we found a very distinct success pattern related to the nature and level of commitment that senior leaders demonstrate during major successful initiatives. What was revealed in that pattern is common knowledge today, but this was in the pioneering days of early change management and we were still groping in the dark for even basic answers.
What I saw back then was that the staunch commitment successful leaders showed toward their initiatives wasn’t due exclusively to their attraction to a new desired state. They also displayed a sense of distress related to their current state. What was becoming clear was that the high cost of maintaining the status quo played an important role in sustaining the motivation needed to truly realize change objectives.
The Burning Platform
At nine-thirty on a July evening in 1988, a disastrous explosion and fire occurred on the Piper Alpha 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 what was (and still is) the worst catastrophe in the fifty-year history of North Sea oil exportation. One of the sixty-three crew members who survived was Andy Mochan, a superintendent on the rig.
From the hospital, he told of being awakened by the explosion and alarms. Badly injured, he escaped from his quarters to the platform edge. Beneath him, oil had surfaced and ignited. Twisted steel and other debris littered the surface of the water. Because of the water’s temperature, he knew that he could live a maximum of only twenty minutes if not rescued. Despite all that, Andy jumped fifteen stories from the platform to the water.
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. Andy jumped because he felt he had no choice—the price of staying on the platform was too high.
While listening to the story, I began to hear elements of the survivor’s (Andy Machon) story that reminded me of what we heard when interviewing the leaders who had helped us uncover the commitment pattern. There were many parallels.
Consistently, these executives said something like, “I had to make the changes work, no matter how difficult or frightening the process was.”
I was most struck with how often leaders talked openly about wishing they didn’t have to pursue the changes they were implementing so well. “With everything else we have going on around here, this initiative is not what I thought I would be busy doing. The execution process is uncertain and the risk of poor outcomes is high. We don’t have the time for this right now; we don’t have the resources and we don’t have the people. The problem is, if we don’t pull this change off well, the consequences will be too much to bear. I have to get it done and done right.”
Andy was also clear that he didn’t want to jump off that platform (leap into risky change). He was badly hurt from the explosion and the last thing he wanted to do was plunge 15 stories, with no guarantee of rescue, into a frigid sea full of flames and debris.
The interviewer asked how he found the nerve to make the jump. His response stunned me. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something similar to: I knew that if I stayed on the platform, I was going to fry. Andy chose probable death over inevitable death.
That was a powerful moment for me. I recognized in Andy the same kind of determination to act that I heard from the leaders I had interviewed. In their own way, they were saying they were also frightened…scared of jumping into all the ambiguities and jeopardy that came with major change. Yet, the price for not doing so was simply too high. Like Andy, leaping into harm’s way was not something the leaders casually pursued. They moved toward their changes with seriousness and sobriety. They executed their initiatives for only one reason—they were essential to businesses growth, if not survival. This didn’t mean the initiatives would always succeed, but it did mean that the executives would do everything within their power to reach the desired outcome.
From that point on, I have used the burning-platform story in my writing, speeches, and executive seminars, as well as my consulting work, to convey the intensity of the leadership commitment needed to succeed with major change.
From Metaphor to Myth
Almost as soon as I began using Andy’s account as a metaphor, it became obvious that many people could relate to the story as a symbol for change commitment. The more I told the story, the more the metaphor’s appeal grew. In 1992, I included it in my first book, Managing at the Speed of Change, and the story really started to spread…first within the U.S. and eventually worldwide.
With the metaphor’s growth in popularity, however, came the inevitable mutations from the original story line. Before long, I began hearing about people attempting to make the same points I was expressing but using stories about burning buildings or bridges. My personal favorite was when someone replaced “burning platform” with “burning bush.” (News flash—that story originated from a different source than me!)
I soon realized that releasing something into public space can become a double-edged sword. While I enjoyed seeing the story gain popularity, I also had to come to grips with its widespread misinterpretation.
The Piper Alpha incident described above is the condensed version of the story. It’s an accurate but incomplete explanation of what happened and, as such, it’s potentially misleading. Some important amplifications are not drawn out and without them, the story can be easily misconstrued. Unfortunately, it was variations of this abridged depiction of the burning platform account that many people heard when the story’s popularity began to grow.
When this started happening, I realized that I had lost the ability to maintain the integrity of the story’s original intent. Not only were details about the tragedy itself distorted, but some of the most important implications that made the story such a powerful change metaphor were lost or twisted into interpretations unrecognizable to me.
Don’t get me wrong—witnessing thousands of people worldwide pass the metaphor on to thousands more has been a wonderful experience. It has been particularly gratifying to hear from so many people over the years who told me how meaningful the story was for them. They not only got the main points I was trying to convey, but they also felt that it accurately explained their circumstances when introducing major change in their organizations. (Some described the deep, tenacious commitment that existed, which resulted in the successful execution of their initiatives; others recounted the lack of necessary resolve, which explained the failure of their change projects.)
All in all, I can say that, for the most part, the story worked as I had hoped. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it hasn’t worked in all cases. More people added their own revisions than I wish were the case and their modifications resulted in a message that, in some circumstances, was different from the one I intended; but in others, it was antithetical.
Here are two of the most prevalent misconceptions:
These characterizations have sometimes been attributed to the story and have even been described as representing my own personal view of how change should be architected. I assure you, neither is the case. Once I learned that these sorts of distortions were proliferating, I quickly set about to try to help people understand the actual intentions behind my use of the story. I first attempted to correct the misconceptions when I published my second book, Leading at the Edge of Chaos. I included a section that retold the story and offered some clarification. I have also offered as much interpretation as I can in speeches and during my consulting work with clients.
Regardless of these efforts, however, some false impressions still persist. What is particularly fascinating is how the fallacies resurge periodically with renewed fervor. We appear to be in another of the resurrection cycles because I’ve been asked several times recently to explain my original purpose in using the story. So, here we are.
I can’t control what others do with the story, but my intention in this series will be to explain once again how I use the burning platform as a metaphor for the unwavering commitment needed to sustain significant change.
In the next post, I will discuss the four types of burning platforms.