In July 1988, a disastrous explosion and fire occurred on the Piper Alpha oil-drilling platform in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. One hundred and sixty-six crew members and two rescuers lost their lives in the worst catastrophe in the history of North Sea oil exportation. Andy Mochan, however, survived.
Andy woke to the sound of the explosion and alarms. Badly injured, he escaped to the platform edge-facing the decision about whether to remain on the burning platform and ensure his death or to jump into the freezing water where he knew he could survive for only twenty minutes. Andy jumped fifteen stories from the platform to the water. When asked why he took that potentially fatal leap, he replied, “It was either jump or fry.” He chose possible death over certain death. Was Andy Mochan motivated to jump? You bet. He jumped because he felt he had no choice.
We remember the burning platform story, not because of the horrifying incident, but because in 2011, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop wrote his roughly 1,300-word memo to shake up the phone company’s leadership. We now use the term “burning platform” to describe a situation where people are forced to act by dint of the alternative being worse. Arguably, a burning platform will motivate people to act in the moment, but can most people stay motivated once the crisis has abated?
Rosabeth Moss Kantor: former editor, Harvard Business Review pointed out that burning platforms do serve as powerful drivers of strategic change when:
- We face a real and immediate crisis
- We perceive a limited number of difficult and challenging choices.
- Each of the choices is irreversible
- Each choice has a high risk of failure.
So, the simple answer is “yes,” burning platforms do motivate, at least in the short run. Once a crisis becomes obvious, burning platforms motivate people to act. That’s the good news. The challenge of achieving a transformation, however, becomes more daunting, and time is not your friend. You’ll have precious little time to explore alternatives. Stakeholders and shareholders will not tolerate the mistakes that they would have tolerated in ordinary times-missteps that can prove fatal.
Leaders who try to motivate by creating a burning platform want to scare their employees into changing. They paint such a pessimistic picture of the current state of things that employees can’t help but jump into the freezing sea, metaphorically speaking. Without doubt, if you need quick and specific action, fear can motivate. In a crisis, negative emotions will move people to action.
But negative emotions over time become demotivating. When we attempt to live in a constant state of crisis, anger, resentment, guilt and worry overpower creativity, flexibility, and innovation. When leaders motivate by painting optimistic but credible pictures of the future, they create success-especially in high-stakes environments.
Motivation moves us to action, but it does more. A kick will cause a dog to move, but we shouldn’t infer the canine acted because of any kind of intrinsic motivation. Rather, the poor dog wanted to avoid further pain. Human motivation tends to be more complex, however. Humans act because we have evolved natures and myriad social, cultural, religious, and family influences.
To stimulate continuous improvement and productivity, those with a disruptive mindset question the status quo. They press for new and innovative ideas as opposed to just maintaining the “this is the way we’ve always done things around here” mindset. They enjoy experimenting with new approaches and pioneering novel ideas. They become champions of and agents for change.
They don’t advocate change for its own sake, however. Innovation can only happen if you have innovative thinkers making decisions. Nothing changes otherwise. When you hire smart people and create an environment that rewards innovation, you can improve just about anything. (Notice, I didn’t say change. Change for the sake of change is really annoying).
A crisis that won’t go away can cause the once-motivated people to join forces with the never-motivated-as much as inertia can be described as a force. In a threatening environment, they then quit making tough calls because they don’t see the point. What good does it do? Feeling like victims trapped in a mental hospital, they often flee the asylum, taking their expensive training, experience, and expertise to the competition.