The concept of ‘The Burning Platform’ was first introduced by Daryl Conner who used the metaphor of an Oil Rig worker who had to leap into the water to save himself when the platform of the rig was burning. In this situation if the worker did not jump there was certain death as he would have got burned on the platform and jumping into the heated water with debris was possible death if he was not rescued within 20 mts. So he took the call based on the odds of saving his life although both options he had had a high risk of death. What he essentially tries to say is that sometimes we need to take a call in a hopeless situation such as a burning platform and such a call can ignite and motivate us to unite as a team and do the impossible.
Therefore counties unify when there is a burning platform. A historic example is Japan after world war 2. Similarly there are many examples of people uniting when there had been a suicide bomb attack, sports teams uniting after a heavy defeat, companies uniting when competitors launch a game changing product etc.
However the concept of burning platforms, if taken literally can be misunderstood to mean that a team needs a disaster to unite. There are 4 Types of burning platforms as shown in the following matrix.
Lets examine each of these burning platforms;
- The Platform is burning: This is a problem faced by the team in the present. This means we are in trouble and need to take immediate action. Examples of this situation are; competitor has launched a game changing product, one of our factories have been destroyed by fire, A quality issue that has put us in the danger of loosing our biggest customer, trailing 0 – 2 in a soccer game, civil commotion affecting the supply of vital raw materiel etc.
The leadership response: In this situation the leader needs to gather the entire team and collect information regarding the situation from all team members, asses the crisis quickly, show the team how it can affect each member and the team, collect ideas on how to deal with the situation, formulate a plan and assign team members to take action. Given the situation and its personal impact, the team will [at least temporarily] put aside their differences and work together to deal with the situation. This process can bring diverse team members together, generate creativity, ignite the passion and create synergy. Teams coming out of such situations are generally stronger and are geared to achieve greater results. In this situation the leaders challenge is to convert fear and confusion into confidence and hope.
- There is another platform: This is a situation where a great opportunity comes up in the present. If we act fast we can take advantage of the opportunity. If we fail to see the opportunity, a competitor can exploit it and it can become a burning platform in the future. Examples of this situation are: A new township being developed, a new technology being launched, a new customer emerging, a new need emerging, a M & A deal, a tax exemption being declared etc.
The leadership response: Leaders should have mechanisms of continually scanning the horizon to look for such opportunities that present themselves regularly. The team should also be geared to scan the horizon, as more pairs of eyes and brains are better than one. Team members bringing in such breakthrough ideas should be rewarded and recognized. Once such ideas are identified, the leader has the opportunity to ignite the passion of the team by sharing the potential and the benefit to the team members. Thereafter plans should be formulated for speedy execution since this is a current opportunity that needs to be seized speedily. In this situation the leaders challenge is to ignite passion using the potential as fuel in the same intensity of a burning platform, as not exploiting the opportunity can create a burning platform in the future.
- The platform is in danger of burning: This is a situation where there are indications of a potential problem coming up in the future. We weed to read the writing on the wall and take steps with our team immediately to avoid it becoming a burning platform in the near future. Examples of such situations are; the staff attrition levels increasing, cost increasing, sales declining, shipment delays increasing, increasing machine down time, increasing customer complaints etc. When such signs are visible the root causes needs to be identified and decisive action should be taken to avoid them becoming burning platforms.
The leadership response: Leaders should set up listening posts and relay stations to be able to know of early signals of potential burning platforms. Those bringing in the news should be rewarded rather than ‘shooting the messenger’. This will ensure team embers are fully tuned up to receive danger signals and escalate them. Once such signals are clear it is important to rally the team, highlight the potential dangers, appoint a team to deal with the situation in the same intensity if the platform was burning. In this situation, the leadership challenge is to highlight the potential danger using communication skills to create the desired impact in the absence of the real danger being felt by the team.
- Time to build new platforms for the future: This is a situation where a future opportunity becomes visible. If we are able to see it early and potentially before the competition and act as if it was a burning platform, then it can become a potential winner for the organization. If we fail to see the opportunity and build the platforms to get there, a competitor can exploit it and it can become a burning platform for us in the future. Examples of this situation are:
- News regarding plans for a new shopping mall where we can build a new platform to be ready to acquire the best space at the right time.
- An early indication of a new social trend where we can build a new platform to launch a new product to suit the trend.
- The economic indications of a neighbouring market starting to improve where we can build a new platform in the form of a new branch in our sale force to serve the emerging market.
- A competitor reporting consistent and declining losses over a period of time where we can build a new platform in the form of the required finances to acquire that company at the right time.
The leadership response: Leaders should have mechanisms of continually scanning the horizon to look for early indicators, trends and information regarding new opportunities. The team should also be geared to scan the horizon and learn to see the signs and read between the lines. Team members bringing in such information that can later get converted into breakthrough ideas should be rewarded and recognized. Once such ideas are identified, the leader has the opportunity to ignite the passion of the team by sharing the potential and the benefit to the team members. Thereafter plans should be formulated for timely execution and so that the team can be ready for the opportunity when it arises. In this situation the leaders challenge is to ignite passion by being able share the vision and ignite the passion using hope as a tool and highlight that, not responding to such signals will lead to the loss of the opportunity in the future and this in turn can create a potential burning platform.
Great team leadership is about unleashing the collect passion of teams and burning platforms are gifts of opportunity available to the leader in doing this successfully while making the team a winning team. The greatest of leaders will create the motivation [motive to take action] by creating depictions of potential burning platforms thereby avoiding real burning platforms and building new exciting platforms for growth.