Management January 7, 2013 Last updated September 18th, 2018 2,187 Reads share

Managing Change: What Neuroscience Teaches Us About Burning Platforms

Image Credit:

This post originally appeared on Elli St.George Godfrey’s blog, Elli is a regular contributor to Tweak Your Biz. 

In 1988 in the North Sea, an Occidental Oil rig exploded killing 167 men. This disaster is possibly the worst offshore oil rig accidents in history (see more of the story here). Those that survived the inferno did so by jumping into the ocean waters despite the great height and frigid waters below. One survivor, Andy Mochan was quoted, “It was either fry or jump, so I jumped.”

Daryl Connor was inspired by Mochan’s story and commitment to survival led Connor to create the change management term of “burning platform.” Since Connor’s introduction, it’s become common in change management to create a sense of heightened urgency so organizational changes are adopted more readily.

The morphing of an idea

Originally, the concept was meant to convey the level of commitment to a decision while recognizing the possible consequences. As Connor reminds us in his blog posts, it was not meant to focus on “peril.” Nonetheless, the analogy of a burning platform has morphed into two main ideas:

  • A change project must be seen as a crisis with dire consequences for an organization if they don’t respond and see it through.
  • Leaders feel the need to manipulate both information and emotions to manufacture the impression there is a crisis.

And despite Connor’s insistence that the idea has little to do with peril, that is how it is applied in day to day practice.

Where neuroscience comes in

When people are presented with a crisis, it typically triggers the part of our brain called the limbic system. This primitive part of our brain is responsible for emotions, motivation, predatory and defensive behaviors, memory and other functions. But when you’re changing an organization, this is not a discrete event.

Using the “burning platform” as the model to engage everyone to comply with the organizational change could have the counter-effect of raising anxiety and resistance due to higher stress levels. We think less clearly and our emotions are more easily triggered when we’re anxious.

As Walter McFarland wrote, “Instead of motivating people to change in a positive way, a burning platform makes them uncomfortable — thrusting change upon them. In another example, driving change from the top can trigger fear within employees because it deprives them of key needs that help them better navigate the social world in the workplace.”

And when your small business is going through a growth stage

All growth stages are change projects. It doesn’t really matter if you’re targeting a specific type of ideal customer or expanding geographically. The way you prepare yourself and your staff is the difference. One of the challenges business owners face is in the social world of their small business. There are a number of alliances, agendas and conversations happening with and without the leader.

Quite a few of my clients tell me how they have to manage their frustration because business partners and staff don’t see upcoming trends or business opportunities as something to act upon immediately.  Taking into consideration that other people absorb information and buy into a leader’s vision in various ways may seem like you’re putting on the brakes unnecessarily. On the other hand, the reluctance to follow you may eat up time that could be used to your business’ advantage. This is the disconnect noted by McFarland.

You can’t make people follow you

Sure, you want everyone to go along with your vision. And they probably will.  One of the last places I worked for doubled their employees in a matter of months. A number of my colleagues were fearful that it would become just like the other human service organizations they had worked for.

Neither of the founders had any intention of changing the culture to an exploitative and avaricious one. If they hadn’t taken the time to eat lunch with us, hang out and listen to people’s concerns, these stories would have gained momentum and slowed the progress. Their wise approach personified that we were going to go their way but they would pace the changes so they were less scary.

You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to recognize anxiety

Businesses are challenged more to be agile and responsive now. You have dreams of what your business can be. Taking the time to ask questions and listen actively to what is said and not said will reduce the level of fear. It makes far more sense to keep the more primitive parts of our brains quiet as we build more sophisticated organizations.

Would you say that using a “burning platform” fosters or interferes with growth in small businesses? Why or why not? What analogy invites more engagement between leadership and employees in small businesses?

Did you like this article? Sign up for our RSS, join us on Facebookon Twitter and on Google+ to get the latest Tweak Your Biz articles and updates.

Images:  ”Female doctor holding an x-ray of the brain in front of a human brain model/

Elli St.George Godfrey

Elli St.George Godfrey

Read Full Bio