Burning Platforms

Posted on December 2, 2014

Certain concepts seem to outlive their own usefulness. We cling to concepts considered to be beyond questioning or criticism, even in the face of overwhelming scientific and common sense evidence. This rings true for fields from religion to psychology, from medicine to politics.
Recently, as I was reading a new business leadership book, I confronted the concept of the Burning Platform, which I first learned about in my M.B.A. program. In that program, the Burning Platformwas presented as a law of business management. I realized I had internalized it so deeply that it continued to inform my thinking, even though my foundational knowledge of change has evolved dramatically since first learning about the concept over a decade ago. I also realized the Burning Platform mindset is a powerful mindset in our society and even our work with clients.
Here is how Daryl Conner, whose book Managing at the Speed of Changeintroduced the concept into the business lexicon, describes the event that gave birth to the Burning Platformanalogy.
“At nine-thirty on a July evening in 1988, a disastrous explosion and fire occurred on the Piper Alpha oil-drilling platform in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. One hundred and sixty-six crew members and two rescuers lost their lives in what was (and still is) the worst catastrophe in the fifty-year history of North Sea oil exportation. One of the sixty-three crew members who survived was Andy Mochan, a superintendent on the rig.
From the hospital, he told of being awakened by the explosion and alarms. Badly injured, he escaped from his quarters to the platform edge. Beneath him, oil had surfaced and ignited. Twisted steel and other debris littered the surface of the water. Because of the water’s temperature, he knew that he could live a maximum of only twenty minutes if not rescued. Despite all that, Andy jumped fifteen stories from the platform to the water.
When asked why he took that potentially fatal leap, he did not hesitate. He said, “It was either jump or fry.” He chose possible death over certain death. Andy jumped because he felt he had no choice—the price of staying on the platform was too high.”
Conner’s original intent for the analogy was to show the courage leaders needed to make power changes in their organization. However, by the time I was taught the analogy ten years after his book was published, the analogy had changed dramatically. Business students like myself were being taught that in order for deep change to occur, we must convince those we lead that they are on a burning platform and if they don’t jump, they will perish.
Since learning this concept in school, I’ve come across it in a dozen or so books, and internalized it into my thinking about leadership and my own supervision. I was not alone. The Burning Platform has become how we communicate around all critical issues in our society. Depending on your position, anything from taxes, gun control, climate change, abortion, Obamacare, Eminem (or for us older folks Marilyn Manson or N.W.A.), wage inequality, drugs, or Ebola will ultimately lead to the fall of the United States and the end of humanity.
These are important issues, but with so many Burning Platforms is there any ocean left to jump into? A person on a Burning Platform reacts and does not think logically – “It is either jump or fry.” But what happens when each of these issues has an opposing platform that is also on fire? Gun control vs. gun-related violence; climate change vs. business profits; abortion vs. women’s rights; Obamacare vs. health care as a human right…and so on? As I challenged my own thinking around the Burning Platform, I quickly realized that it has become the default strategy in our political and cultural discourse.
When two people are on opposing platforms, they cannot see the other person through the smoke of fear. Possible compromise is lost because crisis thinking is short-term and lacks creativity. So instead of working together to control the fire, we stand in the flames, stuck in our anger, and lose both the opportunity to progress and our dignity.
Change is much more complex than merely convincing someone that they are standing on a Burning Platform. Whether working with a client or an organization, spending energy on describing the fire is wasteful and, frankly, lazy. Change occurs in the context of strong and healthy relationships, where collective goals bring forth motivation. We change when we feel supported and are pulled towards a future that is more aligned with our values.  
Historically, the helping professions are also guilty of setting the client’s platform ablaze. We often start the helping relationship with an intake that thoroughly describes the client’s fire, in an often dehumanizing attempt to cram a life of trauma into a 30 minute interview. Then, many of our traditional interventions are based on showing the client how out of control their fire is and what will happen to them if they do not jump off the platform. Finally, we put labels on clients (homeless, personality disorder, perpetrator, HIV positive, criminal) based on present symptoms, without looking at developmental, societal, and historical causes for these symptoms.
Unlike our wider culture, the helping professions are changing. Interventions like Motivational Interviewing and Solution Focused Therapy put emphasis on support more than confrontation. Programs like Housing First and Rapid Re-housing provide the safety needed for clients to consider larger life changes. Restorative Justice and Harm Reduction shift the focus from punishment to healing. Unfortunately, our efforts are made more difficult by the fact that we exist on a larger societal platform, ablaze with political dysfunction and an inability to creatively address the true causes of the issues impacting our clients and communities.

My challenge to you this week is to think about your platform both personally and professionally. On a personal note, have you set fire to platforms you are passionate about? Are there ways to calm the fire and connect in a different way with those on the opposite side of the issue around common goals? On a professional note, can you identify Burning Platform thinking in your organization or system of care, and are there ways to better approach important change processes?  Please feel free to share any thoughts in the comment section.  

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