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Burning Platform
How to Drive Urgency at Work (Without Relying On Fear)
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AnnaMarie Houlis
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Feeling stuck in your career and unsure where to go from here? If the thought of staying put where you are seems unbearable, perhaps what you need to do is a build yourself a "burning platform."

But what exactly is a burning platform, what's the controversy surrounding them and is it the right move for you?

Let's dive in.

1. What does the phrase "burning platform" mean?

The phrase "burning platform" is simple. It refers to a very specific kind of pain message that relays a sense of serious urgency. This burning platform encourages people to adopt a radical change strategy — whether it's a message to others within a company or a message to yourself to make a career move.

2. What is the history and origin of the phrase "burning platform?"

The phrase "burning platform" comes from the story of a very real, literal burning platform. On July 6, 1988, the Piper Alpha oil rig in the North Sea exploded and causes a massive fire that claimed 167 lives, which was the largest number of deaths in an offshore accident. The explosion was the result of an avoidable lack of attention — the failure to check simple systems that had been working just fine for the decade leading up to the fire. And it was intense — the blaze shot nearly 300 feet into the air, and it could be seen from about 62 miles away.

The workers locked themselves in a room in part of the rig, hopeful that the fire would burn out before reaching them or that emergency systems would save them. When they realized that their plan wasn't going to work, three men made their way to the edge of the platform and looked down in the ocean — dangerously frigid and rough waters. They were faced with two choices: 1. Stay and hope for the best. 2. Jump into the ocean and risk what was likely certain death by hypothermia.

Two of the men chose to jump and, though they were severely injured, they lived because of a seaside rescue operation. The man who stayed on the platform, however, burned to his death as the helicopters that came to his rescue did not make it in time.

For the two men who lived, it was either jump or fry in the flames, so they ultimately chose possible death over certain death. They didn't jump because they thought it'd be a good idea, or because they were confident that they'd make it out alive. They weren't sure that jumping was the right move, but they jumped because they knew that staying behind was the wrong move.

Today, the phrase "burning platform" refers to those workers' burning platform, suggesting that, when we're stuck between a rock and a hard place, we make radical decisions that could also very well be for the better. The story conveys the message that the option of staying put/the same is simply unacceptable; something needs to be done, and even if that change is risky or painful, it's necessary.

The phrase with regards to the workplace was first introduced in Daryl Conner’s Managing at the Speed of Change, and the metaphor of the burning platform has since been used for nearly 30 years to describe an intense level of urgency for change.

So what's an example of a burning platform in the business world?

In 2011, for example, Nokia CEO, Stephen Elop, sent an email out to his staff telling them that if the company was going to survive (after Apple, Google and Samsung eroded Nokia's share), they'd have to join forces with Microsoft. The only way forward was to move products over from its own, arguably superior operating system to Windows 8. His argument was that, while joining Microsoft wasn't a good move, it'd be a positive one because staying put wasn't an option.

3. What is the controversy surrounding the phrase "burning platform?"

While the phrase "burning platform" is largely used today, it is unpopular with some thought-leaders within the management world.

Some leaders don't like to build burning platforms because, to them, a company or person shouldn't have to get to a point in which they have to make harried decisions.

"The resolve to change that organizations develop during burning-platform circumstances can surface early or late in the game; when the resolve forms early, the company has anticipated what the price or pain of the status quo will be if the desired action is not taken," explains Resiliance Alliance. "When the resolve develops late, the company is already paying a price for the status quo that is too expensive to bear. Current pain is what inspires commitment to change late in a situation. Unfortunately, only short-term tactical action is 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; however, it is often more difficult to convince people to take direct action when no current pain is felt."

Other leaders also feel that managers shouldn't have to convey an emergency in order to convince people to want change. They should be able to inspire and motivate their team without scare tactics.

"Although he agrees with the importance of providing a compelling story to convince people to create change, he does not believe that managers need to convey the burning platform to motivate people, explains Joseph Paris for Operational Excellence Society.  

He writes:

"It begs the questions; why does everything need to be a panic? How much is 'self-induced?'  Are the emotional and physical states involved sustainable — or will there be 'burn-out?'  Is there anything that isn’t a 'burning platform?' Is there really any difference between the 'drama' we see kids engaging in on Facebook and the 'drama' that we often manufacture as adults?

"I refuse to subscribe to this mentality. If the argument is about the 'semantics' surrounding the 'burning platform' – and instead of seeing the 'burning platform as a crisis situation,' individuals need to somehow see through the rhetoric and just 'recognize the need to change' — then why not just call it that?  A 'need to change?'  And then rally around that?

"As such, I can’t reconcile in my head how 'the need for change' is equal to a 'burning platform' — or even requires that one exists as a prerequisite for change; as if change cannot occur without the threat of dire, life-threatening, consequence.  I just don’t, and won’t, buy this as a requirement for a continuous improvement initiative to be successful."

A burning platform, then, isn't necessarily right for everyone; it's not going to inspire change in every person or company. For some, however, the necessity and urgency behind the pain message that is a burning platform can be hugely helpful.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.

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