How to Sound the Alarm on a Burning Platform. Photo courtesy of iStock (000001241130).

In today’s noisy world, you need a platform if you want your ideas to be heard. But what if you don’t just want to share a good idea? What if you need to share an imperative … a “do or die” message that galvanizes people to make a major change?

In that case, you’ll need to convince people that their platform is burning.

The Original Burning Platform

On the evening of July 6, 1988, an explosion woke superintendent engineer Andy Mochan from his sleeping quarters on the oil-drilling platform Piper Alpha,120 miles off the coast of Scotland. Andy made his way through fiery chaos to the edge of the 15-story platform, sustaining severe burns. Looking down, he saw a view that was not much prettier … burning oil on the water’s surface, twisted steel and other debris, and freezing water that would cause death within 20 minutes.

As flames engulfed the platform, Andy jumped 150 feet into the water. The impact caused hip and shoulder injuries, but he was rescued from the water. Sadly, 166 crew members and two rescuers died that night; however, Andy and 62 other crew members survived.

Why did Andy make such a terrifying jump? “It was fry or jump,” Andy later told a TV interviewer. “So I jumped.”

“Andy jumped because he felt he had no choice,” said Daryl Conner. “The price of staying on the platform was too high.” Conner, a change-management consultant, watched Andy’s TV interview and recognized the burning platform as a symbol of commitment to a vitally necessary major change. Daryl later coined the phrase “burning platform” in his 1992 book Managing at the Speed of Change (updated in 2006).

Benefits on Fire

An example of one of today’s hottest (pardon the pun) burning platforms involves health care benefits. For many years, medical inflation at most companies has been at least twice the level of ordinary inflation. As a result, the cost of health care benefits has grown to the point that it’s now one of the largest expenses in the budget of a typical company. How much higher can the cost climb before the employer’s ability to offer a benefits package (or even a paycheck) is threatened?

Many employers have been responding to this challenge by passing on an increasingly larger share of health care costs to employees. In the U.S., many companies are even considering discontinuing their health plans under the “pay or play” provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). More hopefully, other organizations are engaging their employees to make healthy lifestyle choices, get earlier diagnoses and treatments, learn to be educated consumers when using health care, and get help coordinating complex care.

DOs and DON’Ts for Leaders

Whether you literally use the phrase “burning platform” or any similar do-or-die messaging, communicate this type of message carefully and cautiously. Here are four keys to doing it right:

  • DON’T create a fire; recognize one. In 2011, shortly after Stephen Elop became CEO of Nokia, he announced that Nokia’s Symbian and MeeGo smartphones were a burning platform and should be replaced by phones that ran Microsoft Windows. Some analysts criticized Elop for manufacturing an emergency and prematurely pulling the plug on Nokia products that had huge market share. A burning platform is about significant pain that will inevitably happen unless people change.
  • DO create a communication strategy. It would be 1-2 years before Nokia could bring a Windows device to market; until then, they needed to continue selling Symbian/MeeGo devices. But most customers didn’t want a smartphone with no future, so Nokia’s market share fell drastically. If Elop had followed a structured way of thinking about communication, he would have followed Apple’s example and kept it secret until launch.
  • DON’T treat every idea as a burning platform. Some leaders try to create “do-or-die” urgency for every good idea. That loses credibility and focus. Save it for those rare imperatives when serious pain will be inevitable if the change doesn’t occur (see Burning Platform or Just a Good Idea?

    for more guidance).

  • DO give people hope. Don’t talk only about the pain that will occur unless something changes. Provide one or more viable solutions. Tell stories about similar situations where people or teams have been successful in pulling off a major change.

Help people see the truth of the platform that is on fire. Then help them see the hope of the solution that’s available.

Have you ever needed to sound the alarm on a burning platform? Share your story in the comments section!

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the Engaging Leader podcast and managing principal of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!