The Burning Platform is a popular way to create urgency in organizations. The term ‘burning platform’ comes from a burning oil-rig which necessitated immediate action, no matter how scary the alternative was, it wasn’t as scary as sure death.
Creating a Burning Platform has become an accepted part of Organizational Change Management. But is it a good thing? Does the Burning Platform create collateral damage to the organization?
I’ve used Burning Platforms for years! My mind was blown when I was exposed to some of the detrimental effects it was causing. Let’s see if your mind is blown too.
Promotes Fear-Based Management. Change or Die! A Burning Platform is designed to scare an organization into taking action. Breakthrough the resistance to change because the alternative is worse!
Fear-based management systems engage the lizard brain, survival is the only objective. Once the lizard brain (amygdala) is activated, access to the thinking brain is blocked. (for more on this see Thinking Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman.) The organization no longer has the capability to think broadly and creatively, it’s in a reactive stance.
What’s wrong with being reactive? Don’t we like being Responsive? Reactive and Responsive are not the same. ‘Responsive’ is the thoughtful ability to respond quickly, in line with our internal strategy and values. Reactive is the knee-jerk changes purely from external factors. Reactiveness limits the organization to a return to equilibrium, but never forward motion.
Creates a Vicious Cycle of Conflict. When we create a management system based on burning platforms, what happens when we resolve the burning platform? Action slows because the burning platform is no longer there. So we need to create another one! Organizations get addicted to the burning platform because it’s now the only way to get work done. We’ve created false urgency, we’ve used conflict and fear to manipulate people into improving performance. But it’s not sustainable. People start to yawn, ‘another crisis, whatEVER.’
“Attempting to lead by conflict manipulation leads to oscillation and loss of credibility” - Robert Fritz in Corporate Tides.
Encourages Leaders to Misrepresent the Current Reality.
Once you’re in a cycle of burning platforms, leaders must make their platform seem to be burning really badly in order to get action. In order to do this, they need to skew or exaggerate the current reality. When you have a leader painting a picture of the current reality that doesn’t square with what folks are seeing, that leader loses credibility. Again we see ‘YAWN, another manufactured crisis.’
In addition, every leader in the organization is creating their own burning platform. Now we’ve got conflicting burning platforms, and unclear priority of burning platforms, and it’s basically a pissing contest to see who can create the grimmest version of the future. Wow, that’s inspiring!
Brain Twist: Let’s start easy here. For now, simply observe where burning platforms are used, and what the impact is in your organization. Notice how good people are sucked into the cycle. Reserving judgment, run through some alternative scenarios in your mind.