Have you ever referred to an initiative as a burning platform? Do you hate the term and wish it would go away? Do you know the story behind it?
This is the sixth in a series of articles focused on classic elements of change management content, updated and augmented with my own perspectives and experience. In the first post, Strategic Risk Factors, I have provided some of the history behind this series. The series is primarily written for change management practitioners, but I hope it will also be useful for others who are interested in making organizational changes more successful.
Today’s Focus: Burning Platform
First introduced in Daryl Conner’s Managing at the Speed of Change, the metaphor of the burning platform has been used for nearly 30 years to describe a high level of urgency regarding a change initiative. While it is still in use today, it is unpopular with some in the change management world (I’ll discuss some of the reasons in my commentary). The material in the “Classic Model” section below is excerpted from Managing at the Speed of Change and used with permission of Conner Partners (formerly ODR).
Burning Platform: Classic Model
At nine-thirty on a July evening in 1988, a disastrous explosion and fire occurred on an 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 the worst catastrophe in the twenty-five-year history of North Sea oil exploration. One of the sixty-three crew members who survived was a superintendent on the rig, Andy Mochan. His interview helped me find a way to describe the resolve that winners manifest.
From his hospital bed, he told of being awakened by the explosion and alarms. He said that he ran from his quarters to the platform edge and jumped fifteen stories from the platform to the water. Because of the water’s temperature, he knew that he could live a maximum of only twenty minutes if he were not rescued. Also, oil had surfaced and ignited. Yet Andy jumped 150 feet in the middle of the night into an ocean of burning oil and debris.
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. Consider this:
- He didn’t jump because he felt confident that he would survive.
- He didn’t jump because it seemed like a good idea.
- He didn’t jump because he thought it would be intellectually intriguing.
- He didn’t jump because it was a personal growth experience.
He jumped because he had no choice—the price of staying on the platform, of maintaining the status quo, was too high. This is the same type of situation in which many business, social, and political leaders find themselves every day. We sometimes have to make some changes, no matter how uncertain and frightening they are. We, like Andy Mochan, would face a price too high for not doing so.
An organizational burning platform exists when maintaining the status quo becomes prohibitively expensive. Major change is always costly, but when the present course of action is even more expensive, a burning-platform situation erupts. The key characteristic that distinguishes a situation made in a burning-platform situation from all other decisions is not the degree of reason or emotion involved, but the level of resolve. When an organization is on a burning platform, the decision to make a major change is not just a good idea—it is a business imperative.
Good Ideas and Business Imperatives
Two types of situations can generate the urgency to implement and sustain major change: The high price of unresolved problems or the high cost of missed opportunities. The price of unresolved problems can range from brief discomfort to a situation where recovery will be impossible. The price of missed opportunities can range from missing something interesting and enjoyable to missing a key element in moving from market leader to market dominance. The examples at the lower end of each continuum represent “good ideas.” As you move up the scale, the costs shift to those that are too expensive to pay. These situations that arise are burning platforms—business imperatives. The line between a good idea and a business imperative is subjective; each organization must define this distinction for itself.
Most organizations jeopardize their ability to sustain imperative changes because they embark on too many good ideas—changes that they want to do, are justified in doing, ones that will produce benefits and may be popular with the employees, but are not imperatives. To conserve assimilation resources, it is vital that organizations focus their attention on burning-platform-type situations.
How Pain Drives Change
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. 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.
If a burning-platform situation is at hand, the issue is not will the necessary commitment to act be generated, but when. If your organization is facing a burning platform, don’t worry about generating commitment; worry about timing this commitment so that it can make a difference before irreversible damage is done.
In today’s irregular business environment, more and more organizations are finding themselves on burning platforms. Leaders are facing a status quo that they can no longer afford. Although transition may be disruptive and expensive, organizations feeling the heat understand that they have no choice but to change.
Change is not always necessitated by existing or anticipated problems; sometimes, emerging opportunities require major transitions. The urgency of burning platforms may result from either positive or negative circumstances, or it may stem from a visionary’s drive for excellence. Regardless, the common denominator for all burning-platform situations is urgency, necessity—resolve.
Burning Platform: Linda’s Commentary
Metaphors and images are always so powerful! It’s hard to hear this story without mentally placing yourself on the edge of an oil rig, thinking about what you would do in Andy’s situation. It certainly creates a vivid picture of urgency. It’s also hard for me to hear this story without thinking of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the people who made the choice to die by jumping rather than die in even more painful ways. Each of us has probably also had the experience of being drawn toward something we want—a relationship or a career, perhaps—and the high level of resolve it creates in us to take risks and pay whatever price is needed to obtain it.
Having said that, I’d like to separate the metaphor itself from the concepts it represents. Let’s take the concepts first. I really resonate with the idea that resolve can be driven by both problems and opportunities. I also agree that we can be motivated by both current and future discomfort, and that the timing is important—if we start too late, we don’t have much runway. If we start too early, it’s sometimes hard to get others to see the urgency.
The linkage between urgency, priorities, and change capacity is also very real. I have seen many organizations try to implement too many initiatives, failing to distinguish between good ideas and business imperatives, and choking on the cumulative resource and energy requirements. In these situations, they run the risk of failing at truly urgent changes.
I like the current/anticipated problem/opportunity grid as a way of creating real and impactful communication about the reasons for a change. Rather than trying to classify the change into one quadrant, it can be useful to cast the reasons for change into all four quadrants, as the things that create urgency for one person may be different from those that will convince another.
There are a couple of important cautions to keep in mind, of course. You can’t (and shouldn’t) turn every change into a burning platform. Burning platforms are identified, not created. If you are spinning up rhetoric to make it sound as though the world will end if your change does not succeed, you will not help the organization make wise choices about how to use its scarce resources. And if you are working on an initiative that is not a business imperative when compared to other issues the organization is facing, you need to be prepared for sponsors to become distracted and place a low priority on it compared to things that they see as truly urgent.
Now let’s tackle the metaphor itself. I personally have found myself using it less and less over time. Why? Well, first of all, I think it requires more explanation than I usually have time to give to ensure that people understand the true message. It very quickly becomes shorthand, and once that happens and people use it without understanding, it can very quickly be interpreted to mean that current/urgent problems are the only ones that motivate people to change. I think this is one of the core misunderstandings that has led to critiques of the term. Secondly, it can tend to drive binary thinking, both in terms of the decision about whether something is a burning platform and about the decision to take action. In real life, I find that priorities and urgencies shift a lot, and that most initiatives involve a series of leaps and mid-course adjustments. However, I will say that I haven’t yet found another metaphor with this much power to illustrate what deep resolve looks like.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. How do you help leaders understand what real urgency looks like? Are there stories and metaphors you use?
Are your change initiatives positioned to realize the full benefits you promised to deliver? Or are you simply installing a solution and trusting that the results will follow?
This is the fifth in a series of articles focused on classic elements of change management content, updated and augmented with my own perspectives and experience. In the first post, Strategic Risk Factors, I have provided some of the history behind this series. The series is primarily written for change management practitioners, but I hope it will also be useful for others who are interested in making organizational changes more successful.
Today’s Focus: Change Realization
When I was first introduced to the terminology and concepts described below (in the late 1990s), it was used to help leaders in information technology understand why so many of their initiatives were not achieving the desired results. In about 2001, ODR published an article called The Leader’s Challenge: Installation or Realization that articulated the concept more broadly, and the installation/realization distinction became a cornerstone of preparing leaders and change agents to succeed in executing major initiatives. The material in the “Classic Model” section below is excerpted from this article and used with permission of Conner Partners (formerly ODR).
Change Realization: Classic Model
Installation and Realization
Most organizations do a relatively good job of figuring out what must be done to solve their problems or exploit their opportunities. The problem is this: most organizations unwittingly apply their resources toward installing new solutions rather than realizing the anticipated benefits. Installation occurs when a new solution (new technology, reorganization, updated processes, etc.) is introduced to the organization. The process may include announcing the project, providing new equipment or software, training, and a host of other related activities. Realization, however, is achieved when the organization goes beyond just deploying the change and reaps the full business benefits that were anticipated when the resources were allocated to accomplish the initiative.
Installation When change projects are first introduced into a work setting, they are deployed but have not yet achieved their ultimate intent. Installation is about placement: managing the tangible aspects of inserting a new initiative into the work environment. It is an essential part of the overall implementation process, but it is a two-edged sword. With it comes the potential for either furthering the primary purpose of the intended change, or actually preventing it from ever truly taking form. For this reason, we make a distinction between two forms of installation: beneficial and dysfunctional.
- Beneficial Installation: Installation is a phase all change endeavors go through where attention is focused primarily on physically inserting projects into an organization. Installation is an asset when decision makers: 1) see it as a critically important step in the overall implementation process, and, 2) realize that much more work is involved to fulfill the true purpose of their investment.
- Dysfunctional Installation: Installation is dysfunctional when it becomes an end state, not a phase in the sequence of necessary action steps. When this happens, people within the organization engage in self-protective behavior that results in the appearance of change without the substance. Employees participate in the farce by saying all the right things, going through the motions of complying, disguising old habits with new rhetoric and fabricating the intended outcomes. While all of this is taking place, the real goals of the effort are being completely bypassed.
Realization Realization takes place when the key purpose for an initiative (e.g., confirmed cost savings, measurable increases in customer loyalty, documented productivity gains, etc.) is actually achieved. Once installation has taken place, the necessary elements are in place to ensure that the installed solution is fully utilized.
Because of its elusive nature, change requires tangible “containers” that allow it to be transported into an organization and be recognized. But these packages actually only carry the seeds of change, not change itself. Examples: A well-crafted sales training program exposes participants to the elements needed to develop effective customer relationships, but the course may or may not foster the acquisition of the desired skills, attitudes, and behaviors that will actually lead to more productive relationships. New, enterprise-wide software may create the possibility of sharing information across departments, but it will not necessarily create the mental and emotional shifts needed to create the environment of trust, openness, and collaboration required to truly achieve the potential synergies.
Many leaders confuse the containers that hold the potential for change with the actual change that is desired. Once the seeds of change have been planted, the true purpose of the endeavor can only unfold if the surrounding human landscape has been made ready to absorb the inherent disruption. Human landscapes are the breeding grounds for resistance because all initiatives designed to bring about change, by definition, interrupt the status quo. The greater the promise of change, the more disruption required. Despite wishful thinking to the contrary, most people are reluctant to disturb the routines that have formed in their lives. We are a species addicted to our established habits, and we often cling to them even when doing so is unproductive or, worse, self-destructive.
What Leaders Need to Know
Many leaders deal rather peripherally with or ignore altogether the people dynamics associated with the major changes they attempt to implement. Why? Much of the time, it’s because they have not fully grasped that leadership involves more than making the right decisions about “what” should be done. Senior leaders must also know “how” to orchestrate the human infrastructure to ensure that there is enough support from the key people involved in a change effort to actually achieve the true purpose of the endeavor.
For important initiatives to reach their realization potential, it is usually necessary to call into play two disciplines: project management and change management. Project management deals with the logistics of implementation (functional milestones, scheduling, training, cost control, etc.) Change management uses behavioral science research and techniques to deal with the dynamics that unfold within the surrounding human landscapes (developing commitment, minimizing resistance, fostering resilience, etc.). It is best when these two disciplines are integrated into a single implementation methodology. This allows the logistic and human components to be seen, as they truly are – two equally important and interdependent requisites to successful change investments. If change management is ignored or applied in a superficial manner, there is little chance of going beyond installation-type outcomes.
Leaders don’t need a deep expertise in the psychology of change to deal with human landscape issues, but a solid, working understanding of the dynamics involved is essential. For change promises to be realized rather than installed, leaders need to know enough about how change unfolds to provide the proper guidance to their organization. They need to attend to the following:
- Sponsor Commitment: Will there be sufficient resolve demonstrated by management (through public rhetoric, private pressure, allocation of resources, consequence management, time and attention, etc.) to drive the desired behaviors and attitudes required by the initiative and to ensure that this leads to achieving the overall desired change?
- Target Resistance: Have the views of those being affected been taken into account to: 1) identify reasons why they might be reluctant to support the ultimate desired change, and 2) develop action plans that either relieve the constraints identified or address how to deal with those that can’t be resolved?
- Corporate Culture: Is the culture (i.e., patterns of beliefs, behaviors, and unconscious assumptions) that surrounds the change aligned with what must happen for desired change to become reality?
- Remaining Adaptation Capacity: Are there sufficient resources (physical, emotional, and intellectual energy) available among the people being affected to adjust to the desired outcome?
- Implementation Architecture: To what extent are sponsors and agents of change prepared to use a structured, disciplined approach as opposed to relying on intuition and good intentions when managing the human aspects of implementation?
Change Realization: Linda’s Commentary
As usual, I have a few thoughts and perspectives on this model from the vantage point of nearly 20 years.
First, I have to say that I enjoy watching people’s faces the first time they encounter the installation-realization distinction. There are usually a lot of “a-ha” moments as leaders and change agents think about the fact that the organization has focused most of its attention and energy on installation-related activities, and see how this language can help them understand the gap that change-management activities are designed to close.
The idea of “change containers” really resonates with me as well, and brings to mind two elements in what we used to call the “napkin speech” (a diagram that is used to tell the story of how change unfolds—look for it in a future blog post): the solution and the desired state. The solution is the container—what we are putting in place (new technology, a new organizational structure, etc.). The desired state is the way we want things to be in the future (including the mindsets and behaviors we want people to internalize, the business results we want to achieve, etc.). Vendors typically sell solutions to organizations, with implicit promises about the results that will be achieved, but often their implementation guidance and planning stops once the solution is installed and activated. Unless someone within the organization takes ownership of managing activities and tracking progress all the way to realization of business benefits, that aspect of implementation is often insufficiently staffed and funded, and project resources are on to the next initiative before they have truly finished the last one.
In training leaders and change agents on this model, one of the tests I often give for whether they are focusing on installation or realization is “what are you calling the initiative?” If it’s the “sales training” initiative, it’s probably installation-focused. If it’s the “build loyal customers” initiative, there’s a better chance that it’s realization-focused.
A second test for whether an initiative is installation- or realization-focused is the measures that are being used to evaluate success. Installation measures (which are very important too) might include numbers of people who have completed training and/or successful deployment of technology functions and features. Realization measures might include shifts in customer experience that are linked to new staff behaviors and/or increases in revenue or profitability linked to the new functions and features. There are several things that make realization measures harder to formulate and track:
- The outcomes that are being sought are usually linked to multiple inputs, so it’s hard to claim that a single initiative was responsible for the shift.
- Realization outcomes can sometimes be more subjective (e.g., customer satisfaction or loyalty, degree of shift in employee mindsets and behaviors) and more challenging to measure.
- Realization outcomes unfold over a much longer period of time and often involve gathering data that has not previously been collected, or gaining access to data that is owned by other divisions or departments.
One way I’ve seen people think about realization measures is in the form of a realization map, which takes the idea of a strategy map and adapts it to identify outcome measures for each area (the most common ones I’ve seen are financial, customer, internal business processes, and learning and growth) and articulate the anticipated linkages among them. A simpler format for this kind of thinking is found in a benefits map.
Would I make any adjustments to this “classic” model today? Maybe a few. I don’t have much to add to the conceptual distinction between installation and realization. I do think that as written this model assumes a “waterfall” approach to planning, where all the desired outcomes are specified in advance and the project plan & change management plan are designed to get to those outcomes. That’s still a very common model, but I’ve become convinced that an iterative, exploratory approach may often be better for getting engagement and traction. From that perspective, both installation and realization are a good bit more evolutionary—we try some experiments, and see what is working, and then continue to expand on the fruitful experiments, measuring key outcomes and adjusting our goals and plans as we go. Such an approach would place no less importance on realization, but would require a substantially different way of thinking about how to plan for and measure it.
How are you approaching the issue of realization? What insights, models, and approaches do you find most helpful?
I started my change management career in 1991, as the research director for ODR, a company founded by Daryl Conner that trained many of the senior change agents practicing today. The tools and concepts developed by ODR, and the ideas proposed in Daryl’s first book Managing at the Speed of Change, have influenced a number of the major change methodologies in the market today, including ProSci’s popular ADKAR model.
In going through my old files, I’ve continued to rediscover models, concepts, and tools that still have value today. In this blog series, I plan to focus each post on one of these elements, with the goal of helping the current generation of change agents continue to build their knowledge.
Some of the material shared here was originally copyrighted by ODR, and I am using it with permission, augmented by my own perspectives and experience.
Today’s Focus: Strategic Risk Areas
One of the models that has continued to stick with me articulates four strategic and four tactical areas of change risk. This model can be helpful in thinking through the areas you most need to focus on in preparing your organization for change.
Strategic Risk Areas: Classic Model
Here’s how the four strategic risk areas were originally articulated:
Critical Areas of Risk When Implementing Strategic Change
- Resilience—not having enough individual, team, or organizational resilience to sustain the change.
- Knowledge—not having managers and employees who understand how change unfolds in organizations.
- Decisions—not having managers who are able or willing to make the tough decisions about how many change projects will be pursued at a given time.
- Architecture—not having managers and employees who can apply the skills, tools, and techniques that permit change to be executed in a disciplined, structured manner.
Quadrant I: Developing Strong Resilience
A person’s baseline level of resilience can be raised by learning concepts and applying techniques that reinforce the five key characteristics of resilient people: being positive, focused, flexible, organized, and proactive. These same attributes are critical to understanding the resilience of teams and organizations.
Quadrant II: Increasing Change Knowledge
Key indicators of general readiness for change are the knowledge and skills people possess regarding the fundamental dynamics of organizational transitions. This kind of change knowledge can be measured by determining the degree to which people have a practical understanding of the structure of change [note: I will address the structure of change model in a future post] and can apply this information to maximizing resilience for themselves and those they manage.
Quadrant III: Managing Assimilation Resources
The capacity an organization has to assimilate change should be treated as any other strategic resource (e.g., capital, technology). In this regard, resources must not be wasted or misused. Instead, it is imperative that the capacity to absorb change be skillfully acquired and carefully protected.
Key decisions involving major change should, therefore, be considered in light of the available assimilation capacity of the organization. When the demands brought on by transitions exceed an organization’s capacity to adequately assimilate them, the changes may occur, but they will be accompanied by costly dysfunctional behavior that reduces the actual value of the final results.
Quadrant IV: Building Implementation Architecture
For each change initiative, there are certain elements from the structure of change that must be managed well for the project to succeed. These unique combinations of elements are called landscapes and can be identified by determining which of the patterns and principles will have the greatest impact on the effort.
Once these key leverage points for a particular change are identified, a specific architecture can be developed that encourages people to:
- Disengage from the present state
- Navigate through the ambiguity of the transition state
- Be motivated and prepared to successfully assimilate the desired state
Linda’s Commentary: Strategic Risk Areas
So often in the world of change management, we focus our attention on one initiative at a time. What I like about this model is that it reminds us that there is work we can do to prepare the organization for whatever changes might come. One of the things you will find if you continue to read my posts is that I have moved away from purely “risk-focused” language to emphasize a balanced perspective on risks and assets/opportunities. With that in mind, here are some of my thoughts on each of the quadrants in this model:
- Developing Strong Resilience When we hire and develop resilient people, and build the resilience of key teams as well as the resilience of the organizational system as a whole, we create a significant competitive advantage by enabling the organization to move more efficiently, effectively, and confidently through every transition. We have continued to refine our understanding of resilience, and our ability to measure and teach it, over the past 25+ years. We’ve incorporated emerging understanding of the brain, advances in positive psychology, and experience in helping people learn to build their change muscles to increase our ability to influence this strategic risk factor.
- Increasing Change Knowledge The more that people throughout the organization know about the predictable patterns in change—how humans typically respond to change, what leaders need to do as they manage change, the natural discomfort that accompanies the unknown and what to do about it, etc., the better prepared they are to succeed when they go through transition. They are able to share a common language, recognize normal emotional responses, identify and perform key change roles effectively, and collaborate to achieve results. I have observed that many organizations include change leadership training at executive and middle-management levels. There is somewhat less focus on building change knowledge at supervisory and front-line levels. When a large change is underway, it presents a great opportunity to provide education that will both help people navigate that transition and prepare them for additional changes.
- Managing Assimilation Resources The idea that people have a limited supply of energy and that too many changes can overwhelm them and lead to stress and burnout is not new. Many good practices have been developed to evaluate the impact of changes and gather data to help leaders make informed decisions about how much change the organization can absorb. What I have not seen, however, is much increase in the willingness of leaders to make the tough decisions to actually reduce the change load they are placing on the organization. I have recently written several blog series on related topics, including change overload, energy sustainability, and evaluating energy demands.
- Building Implementation Architecture This is probably the area that has come the farthest over the past few decades. Many organizations have built or adopted some form of change management methodology to standardize their approach to implementing major initiatives. Training in change management tools and models is readily available.
There is still work to be done in this area. Even the best implementation approach will fail if leaders delegate to implementation teams the things they should be doing themselves, such as high-stakes communication, modeling new ways of operating, and holding people accountable for shifting their mindsets and behaviors. Many change agents are doing significant work on initiatives without much relief from a full-time “day job.” And the experience and wisdom that allows change teams to tailor their approach to the specific landscape of the situation at hand takes time to develop.
To read the next installment in this series, click here.