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What’s Your Burning Platform?

Ten participants sat exhausted around the conference table. It was nearing the end of a long, fruitful week marked by successes and failures—all leading to learning and growth. Dave Briere, former VP for WestRock, had arrived the night before to spend time with the team. Now, he was about to share with them the reason they were there. This is what I called his “burning platform” talk, and I had heard it so many times I knew it by heart.

One of the many things I learned from Dave was the importance of having a burning platform—a clearly articulated story around the need for change. It is the “why” behind the “what” and makes clear the consequences of not changing. The reality was Dave’s division had been performing well. The scoreboard said they were winning. However, Dave could see storm clouds on the horizon and knew they could not afford to become complacent. And he understood better than most that his people were the key to thriving in the chaos that lay ahead.

All of this became part of Dave’s burning platform. As he spoke, I watched the body language of the group. Dave’s words were resonating—people were sitting up straighter and listening intently. More importantly, it became obvious by their questions that they were seeing themselves in the story and were gaining clarity about the important role they would play in responding to the challenges that lay ahead.

A burning platform is the antidote for complacency.

It is easy to become complacent when the sea is calm and you see blue sky as far as the eye can see. However, complacency is a dangerous thing. At best it leads to mediocrity. At its worst, it leads to obsolescence.

Change is the one constant in life. It is relentless, comes at us fast and has no mercy for those who resist. A burning platform reflects the reality of rapid change but refuses to accept complacency as an option.

Your burning platform should bring clarity.

What makes a burning platform compelling? First and foremost, it is centered around reality. It neither exaggerates nor minimizes the threat and the need for change. An effective burning platform brings clarity about the real conditions a team is facing now and in the future. It is NOT a manufactured crisis designed to manipulate people, nor does it necessarily need to be treated as an emergency. However, it should paint a picture so clear that it galvanizes the team, creates focus, and moves the team to act with a sense of urgency in responding to change. At a minimum, it should answer these three questions:

  • What is the problem or threat?

  • What happens if we do nothing?

  • What is the opportunity if we act?

A compelling burning platform creates clarity, and clarity produces singleness of heart, mind, and action. The most effective burning platforms revolve around a simple story. It is easy to get lost during rapidly changing circumstances. A clear burning platform built around a simple story cuts through all the chaos and creates focus.

The best burning platform makes the team the hero of the story.

There are some key elements to an effective burning platform, the most important of which is a clear call action. The purpose of a burning platform is to inspire the team to act. Leaders who make themselves the hero of this story devalue team members and produce a sense of powerlessness and insecurity. Humble leaders make the team the hero. In effect, the leader is saying, “Look, we have this looming threat, but I have hope because I believe in you and know that if we pull together as a team, we will thrive.”

It is an invitation to all who hear it to take 100% Responsibility by taking ownership for their response. It is a powerful message and inspires the heart.


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