The Burning Platform

by Dave Busse

The Burning Platform as a change management metaphor…friend or foe?

Pop quiz:

Best use for a Burning Platform:

  1. Roast some hot dogs and marshmallows!
  2. Creating urgency to move forward
  3. Creating resistance
  4. Discrediting past leaders
  5. __________________________(fill in the blank)

The change management metaphor of creating a burning platform has been a popular concept since the late 1980’s.  The metaphor is based off of an actual burning platform incident (oil drilling platform) in which the workers jumped into what should have been their deaths but survived because they jumped.

The metaphor has an intuitive appeal due to its simplicity and the sense of urgency it creates. So it has been an ongoing struggle for me as to why I personally had such a resistance to the concept.

I was constantly nagged with the usual questions of “Maybe I just don’t understand the concept well enough?” or  “Maybe I’m not designing exercises around it clearly enough?” . And then a client put it in words that I could understand.  “We just don’t respect what it took to get to this point…”.  Although respecting the past is a concept in some of the writings on this metaphor, it seems to be far too easily lost during implementation.

Inevitably the conversation becomes one where urgency trumps respect or respect trumps urgency. The unwritten rule appears to be that they can’t both be present at the same time.  The presumed outcome is that if urgency wins we have to disrespect the past work that was done, and if respect wins then we can’t move forward.

This became most apparent when working with cause based groups who, in many cases, have historical personalities/leaders that are used as a role model for future behavior.   I’m not referring to the actual central figures of any given faith such as Allah, Jesus, or Buddha.

I’m referring to revered leaders within a denomination or, in the case of a cause based organization such as the Red Cross or a food bank,  leaders who are legendary.  Change is often translated into a perceived attack on these highly credible former leaders making them wrong, misguided, or inept.

The concept of “standing on the shoulders of giants” is another concept that has been around for a long time and I think speaks strongly to the change management issue around past leaders.  However I think it would serve us better with an update.  I’m going to suggest a minor tweak:  standing on the shoulders of heroes.

The value of a hero is that they are usually associated with a time when things were extraordinarily different than what they are currently or challenging.  They often survived and thrived because of their ingenuity, or by using an unexpected tactic or strategy against a foe or challenge.  

One of the concepts I am playing with is shifting revered past leaders into heroes.  Once they are in the hero category they are useful, but not restricting, because heroes emerge out of crisis, not everyday work life (even though everyday life is often fraught with crisis).

For me, this shift allows clients to separate themselves from the “rightness” of what these past leaders/heroes did. This provides the allowance for things to be different   and it may  create a need for new heroes with new strategies and new tactics that will win the day.

The beauty of heroes is that they give us perspective not direction!

A little adapted quote that often comes up at Essential Impact:

  • What got us here was perfect for what got us here and it will be different tomorrow.

I would add:

  • I had no idea it was perfect when I started and it rarely, if ever, felt perfect along the way…

About the Author
Dave Busse Dave Busse is a partner at Essential Impact, an award winning leadership coaching company. Along with his EI team, Dave has helped hundreds of companies in a wide variety of industries implement coaching for specific changes in organizational culture.

He holds an MBA from Royal Roads University and is an Associate Faculty in the Certified Executive Coaching program, also at RRU.
2018-01-22T09:38:24-08:00January 23rd, 2018|