You stand on a platform 15 stories above an icy ocean, filled with floating debris, twisted steel and patches of burning oil. It is chaos down there. And yet you jump! Whatever would make you do this? Well, the deck on which you are standing is ablaze and your boots are melting.  There is urgency.  This is your burning platform.  Daryl Conner, author of ‘Managing at the Speed of Change’ saw a report on survivors of the Piper Alpha disaster and coined this compelling analogy that has become part of the language of change.


Piper Alpha was the world’s worst offshore oil disaster.  (That is, I suppose until the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010).  An improperly sealed gas valve, created a fire, which, fueled from ruptured pipe-work, created a massive fireball which engulfed the platform. Machinery and steelwork melted. Helicopters and safety vessels could not approach and evacuation became impossible. The survivors were those who took the type of drastic steps described above.

And so the question for this note is: “what experience can you give your staff that will make them want to commit to the change you have designed?”

Kurt Lewin spoke of ‘unfreezing’ and John Kotter says first step in any successful change is to create a sense of urgency. Urgency without a sense of punishment. This takes creative thought.

Make it real

Statistics and an income statement seldom have the kind of impact required to create a burning platform. To see the situation for what it really is, the right people must come face to face with the raw operational problem. Kim and Mauborgne call this “jumping the Cognitive Hurdle”in their “Tipping Point” leadership model.  And they illustrate the point from the story of the crime turn-around in New York in the early 1990s.

Urgency through experience

In 1990 only 3% of New York City’s major crimes happened in the subway.  At least that is what the statistics said.  But the public called it the “electric sewer”.  Their cry for help fell on deaf ears. Then the new Police Chief, Bill Bratton, made all top and middle management ride the subway, morning and evening to experience for themselves, the gangs of youths, people jumping turnstiles, the graffiti, the aggressive begging and the drunks sprawled on the benches.  This provided the urgency and emotional energy for their commitment to the clean-up operation.

Urgency in a box of gloves.

John Kotter tells the story of a manufacturer where an executive was being ignored as he tried to show the benefits of centralised procurement. The executive got a student on vacation employment to do a study of the gloves being purchased. The student found that the various distributed manufacturing sites in the company were buying 424 different types of gloves. 424! And some factories were paying more than three times the price that others were paying for the same glove, from the same supplier. Still no-one listened. To create a sense of urgency he and the student purchased a sample of each one of the 424 gloves. They tagged the gloves with the factory where they were being purchased and the price. They laid the gloves in the boardroom and invited the executive team to come and look. The team were speechless.  Some users were paying three times as much as others for the same gloves from the same factory.  The centralised purchasing project got wings.

Urgency in selling a process

I had my own burning platform when I told the IT manager in the oil company in which I worked that he was going to be fired. The LAN had been failing two or three times a week for a year and the techies were no closer to understanding the cause. I had been suggesting a Root Cause Analysis workshop since the problem began but the techies were always too busy putting out the fires to figure out what was causing them. From his high horse the IT manager demanded to know why. Then I told him “the LAN has been breaking down for a whole year. Each time it happens it impacts the business and we run the risk of  massive losses.  You have bought a new router and a new file server, each for half a million, and still you don’t actually know what the problem is”.   OK perhaps this lacked the finesse of the previous two examples.  But the urgency was heard.  I got my break to run one afternoon root cause analysis session with all the people involved.  In that time we drafted a problem statement and listed the ISs and IS-NOTs (that ATS process from Kepner Tregoe was so good).  When we realised we did not have enough information the guys put ‘sniffers’ on the network and collected data from each event.  It took a while but eventually we fully understood the problem.  And sorted it out.

What is the message you are going to give your team? What threats or opportunities can you describe that will engage them in the discussion on change?  What is your burning platform?