The Burning Platform: Innovation or Inefficiency?

I recently read an article in the Copenhagen Post, an English-language newspaper in Copenhagen, called Wolf Among Sheep – When Security Kills. The author, a Dane himself, stated that Denmark suffers from a lack of innovation due to its social welfare state. Knowing there will always be a social safety net, he argues that Danes are not motivated to go out and try new ventures, because their security status is never on the line. People never really experience the looming threat of losing it all which might present in other countries. There is no need for change and many people get stuck in the “why rock the boat” mentality. In summary, there is no burning platform. Is a burning platform really a necessary component of innovation?

The burning platform is a metaphor for an existential threat which forces people to change. It is believed to drive innovation and change, because when we are faced with the threat of failure (or as in the metaphor, death by flames) we will come up with new solutions and ideas we never would have thought of while in our comfort zone. The metaphor is derived from a real-life situation.

While no one is advocating to literally put workers on a burning platform, this is used as a metaphorical technique by some managers as a fear tactic to drive workers to push themselves harder and to innovate. Sometimes there is truly a pressing need for change, such as such new competition, but often the burning platform is created out of nothing to serve a manager’s purpose.

Many of us can relate in some sense to the purpose a burning platform serves. But is it really the right way to lead?

Christian Ørsted, author of Lethal Leadership, says no, it is not an adequate leadership tactic. He agrees that the burning platform method is effective for getting employees to change their behaviour. However, it is not an effective leadership tactic in the long-run. Pain and fear are effective, but they should not be part of a sustainable leadership plan because it leads many employees to experience burn out. In fact, creating a burning platform when there are not any actual threats can greatly damage a leader’s credibility and cause him or her to lose the trust of their employees. It is lethal leadership.

Christian ørsted Quote image

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Managers who use the burning platform method as a catalyst for change instil the fear of failure into their employees. They plant a worst case scenario into their minds to motivate them and convince them to work harder. The employees are under pressure to perform constantly, believing that they are only as good as their latest accomplishment. They know that at any time, with any slip-up, they can become worthless.

Why not just announce a need for change and gather support around that? Ørsted argues that too many managers feel a need to use deceitful measures and tactics to get their employees motivated to go after the change they want. However, if it’s change they want, they should evaluate why each employee is not performing to the best of their ability.

“We have to trust that the others are okay as they are, and if they don’t perform sufficiently in their present position, they probably have strengths in other areas than the ones they are currently engaged in. It is very rare to come across a truly useless employee. More often than not, it’ll be the context the employees find themselves in that fails to brings their competencies to play.”

While outside competition and looming failure might drive employees to work harder and create change, it is only sustainable when its an actual outside threat and it doesn’t become the normal thinking mode of the company. Purposefully creating a burning platform as a manager will only drive employees to burn out, not innovate.

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Anna Guastello
20 Aug 2014

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