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The burning platform is a popular metaphor for how to bring about organisational change.  However I think it is 1) Insensitive and 2) An unhelpful metaphor for change.  I will explain how Chief Executives actually encourage and explain the need for change in their organisations, which emerged from my interviews with CEOs who successfully changed their organisations.

The popular use of “The Burning platform” and its origins

The burning platform ideas as a metaphor for change started around the late 1908s and early 1990s. The idea is simple.  If you set fire to the platform, then people have to jump off.

There are two problems with this metaphor.  One to do with the insensitive origins of the metaphor.  The other to do with the nature of the metaphor for change, it being such a poor one for several reasons.

Using ‘burning platform’ is insensitive!

The origins are of course the Piper Alpha oil rig fire where in 1988.  One hundred and sixty seven people died in that fire.  Only 67 survived.  You can read the details on the Piper Alpha Wikipedia page. I think this phrase originated in the language just after this disaster.  Talk about insensitive and inappropriate.

A personal reason for not using this metaphor is that I knew someone who had been on Piper Alpha.  He was not on it at the time of the fire, but even so.  I have two very good reasons for not using the phrase.

The burning platform is a poor metaphor for change

Putting aside the insensitivity of the phrase for a moment. Just think about the metaphor for a moment, and how it works (without the oil rig background).  Imagine standing on a small wooden platform, ten foot high, that is set on fire….  It raises three problems for me as a metaphor for change:

1) Emotional reaction: What would be your emotional reaction?  I suspect it would be fear, fright and flight.  It is not, “Oh great, we see a super opportunity for improvement” is it?  Rather it is one of avoiding what is going on.  Change induced by fear, and danger is not particularly useful for sustainable relations with the people you work with.  The emotional drive is wrong.

2) Where do you jump to?   One problem with the burning platform is that it is an “Away From” metaphor.  This contrasts with ones that are “towards”.    For instance, i want to stop smoking is away from, whereas I want to stop smoking and feel fitter is towards (feeling fitter).  Away from and avoiding something, without a better alternative. Away from motivators are less effective, unless the thing you are avoiding is particularly unpleasant, which is perhaps the burning platform is used as such a strong incentive to leave it.

This is closely related to the lack of a sense of what the towards might involve.  For instance, what about the dangers associated with where you are jumping to?  As the old English saying goes, Are you about “to jump out of the frying pan into the fire”?  (Or in this case away from the fire into a hot frying pan).   Is where you are landing going to be worse?  Or simply a slightly better situation than the one that you are leaving? Frankly you are jumping off into a temporary solution to avoid something.  There is no sense that this is a better and permanent place to stand.  The metaphor contains no sense of direction about where to jump towards and end up.  There is no sense of a safer and potentially better place.  Just that the platform has to be left behind.  This is not helpful. Knowing the future will be better, or at least that there is a positive journey, will encourage me to participate. I want to know there is a clear destination or clear journey to a better place.  This leads to the third point.

3) Where is my sense of control over change?  Finally, as an employee, if the managers are setting fire to the organisation, I might as well go and find a different organisation and management to work for. If this one has no idea what the future holds, then why stay?  Jumping to a completely different ship (excuse the change of metaphor) is as good as jumping off the platform.  Why do people say they do not like change?  Because they do not like change that they feel they do not control.  I want to have some sense of control over where I end up.  I want control over change that affects me. 

What is a better way to encourage change?

Just for a moment, reflect on the three issues I have raised above.

  1. The emotional case for change – that being a positive one
  2. Having somewhere to jump to.  A better and safer or more desirable future
  3. Having some personal control over the change.

So what do Chief Executives actually do?  I searched out Chief Executives who had improved the performance of their organisations, by created cultural and behavioural change.

In almost every case these effective Chief Executives used what I came to call the “compelling imperative for change”.  This was not being compelled by setting fire to the organisation.   Rather it was an emotional and rational explanation of why change needed to occur.  Of course there was an element of, why things need to change:Things are clearly broken, or things can not stay the same (because a train is coming down the line).

In every case there was a careful explanation of both the compelling imperative for change, AND how that change would come about.  In other words,

  1. The case based on a rational understanding of the need and a positive emotional desire to be in a better place.  The case for change was both rational and emotional.
  2. There was somewhere to jump to, or at least a ‘bus’ on which to start the journey to the better place.  (Destination or journey).
  3. They were asked to participate in that change and be a part of it.  A fundamental piece of ‘people do like change’.

All three are fundamental parts of an effective culture of behavioural change programme.

You can learn more about how these Chief Executives thought about and designed their cultural and behavioural change programmes in the “Culture Change Zone”.