The burning platform and the hot potato

Within the change management community, the concept of “burning platform” is well known. It refers to a set of circumstances that thrive and support the urgent need to change things. If we do not change, we will all go down together …

The logic goes as follows: If you make clear to the audience of your change (those impacted by the change), what the imminent problems are that need to be addressed, this will ensure their commitment in the change program. Also, explaining what will happen if things do not change, will boost their engagement; people will be willing to change, since they understand changing is a matter of ‘survival’.

Even if in reality the platform is not ablaze, understanding why change is needed, is a crucial first step on the path to readiness for change. However, the use of 'the burning platform' deserves some nuance.

Imagine following scenario: the management of the company you work for uses every opportunity to make it clear that the company will go through difficult times if no action is taken. What will be your first reaction?

A. Waw, this sounds serious. What can I do to help?
B. No surprise to me, just look at how this company is managed. Curious to see what they will come up with to tackle this.
C. Did not see that one coming; will be a real challenge for the management. Perhaps it is better to abandon the sinking ship …
D. Here we go again ...

Chances of your first reaction being option A are very slim. Perhaps the other options feel far more familiar. I order to motivate people to take action, the ‘burning platform’ message clearly needs some annotations.

Modesty rules

Most likely, many of the employees already know for quite some time that change is needed. Just proclaiming the ‘burning platform’ will not add anything … In the end you are not telling them anything new. ‘Finally, the management understands things need to change… What will they do about it?’ As a change leader it is important to have a clear understanding of what is happening within your organisation. Understanding what happens within your organisation will ensure you can bring a well balanced message across, so that people start feeling concerned and willing to engage. Bringing a modest message (most likely you are not the first nor the only one who has come to the insight that things need to change) forms a good base to reduce the risk that people will just wait and see.

Be aware of the ‘Ivory Tower’

If the gap between the management and the floor is too wide, the management will be personally held responsible for failure; a phenomenon known in psychology as ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’. We attribute failure and success in a different way for people that are close to us (part of the group) versus the ones that are more distant. Positive behaviour of people that are not part of our ‘group’ is easily attributed to external factors (luck, ideal market conditions, …), negative behaviour is attributed to the person itself. So, if the employees feel no connection with the management, they will tend to blame the management for the situation as depicted in the ‘burning platform’ and will most likely have little trust in the management to turn the situation around. To engage people in any change, it is crucial for the management to be easily accessible and available. As a change leader, you need to be aware of the distance between you and the change audience and actively manage your accessibility.

Emphasize what goes well

When was the last time the platform was ablaze? How many times has it been on fire? Perhaps (at least a part of) the organisation did get the ‘burning platform’ message already multiple times in the past. Perhaps they haven’t witnessed a fundamental change, following all these alleged fires. As a result, the ‘burning platform’ has lost all credibility. Even if things did not turn out as expected in the past, be grateful of what did go well. There is always something you can learn from prior experiences, good or bad, successes or failures. Again, be modest, speak about both successes and failures. Most likely, your organization is already operational for some years and surely, there are things that work well. Make sure to highlight these and ensure that they will be maintained. Radical change is rare… Never forget that the new ‘talk’ is as good as the old one, until proven otherwise.

What is in it for me?

The first question people will raise is what will change for me, as a person. Will I lose my job? Will I have a new boss? Will I have to move to a new desk? Will I have to shift jobs? Can I contribute? Do I have a say in the matter? Be aware that you as a manager can not realize any change on your own, you need help! Make clear to your colleagues you cannot do this without them; ask for help, ask for feedback. Tell them, you need them to make this a success. Having a say in the change increases the engagement as well as the willingness to change. Define upfront how and when you want to involve your colleagues (push and pull).

Even if in reality the platform is not ablaze, understanding why change is needed, is a crucial first step on the path to readiness for change. However, the use of 'the burning platform' deserves some nuance.

Although the ‘burning platform‘ may well be a fact-driven and substantiated view of the reality, it remains a fact that it will not motivate the majority of your audience to take any action, on the contrary. Ensure your message appeals to what occupies your audience and do not be blind of their past change experiences. Bringing a modest and honest message is much more important that going for the ‘shock’ effect. Be realistic in showing the way ahead in an understandable and appealing way. Talk about the vision and the strategy of the organisation when bringing the change message. People need to trust you know what you are doing (which does not mean that you know everything), before they engage in the change. If you want people to get out of their comfort zone and engage in a change, make sure there is a clear and understandable link between ‘why we need to change’ and the vision and strategy of the company. In this way, your chances of success will increase significantly.

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