The burning platform has a storied place in the jargon of change management. The idea of creating urgency has been prominent in the literature, beginning with John Kotter’s seminal work, Leading Change.


Some prefer to frame urgency up as “eliminating complacency” or “unwavering leadership commitment,” but the basic premise remains: to make big changes you have to give employees a stark picture of the current situation.

The burning platform story goes back to a man named Andy Mochan who worked on an oil-drilling platform in the North Atlantic. The platform caught fire while he slept, and he woke to find himself trapped by flames. Confronted with dire options, he chose to leap from the platform into the icy waters below.


Mr. Mochan’s story has been highly successful as a metaphor highlighting urgency as essential to change. It is emotionally compelling and easy to remember, but how helpful is it really as part of effectively applied change communications?

Four reasons it is time to get off the burning platform, and I don’t mean jump

  1. It’s impractical. You must tap emotions to create a sense of urgency among employees. If you focus on negative emotions like fear, this can be the equivalent of shouting fire. Some change management consultants will point to examples of CEOs willing to paint so bleak a picture. The reality is most companies simply won’t allow that message to happen. By the time an urgency message passes most executive reviews, the personal and direct language will turn to cardboard jargon, the competitive threats will be softened, the consequences of inaction will be chopped or reduced to generalities that individual employees can’t easily act upon.
  2. It’s misleading. Jumping off a burning platform is, to say the least, an outlier, a rare time where priorities are clear, as are the ways to react it: stay and die, jump and live longer. Clarity like that is artificial. A company’s problems are rarely so simple, and the welter of solutions is potentially more confusing than the problems.
  3. It puts focus on the problem not the solution. Even when companies can define their problems simply and compellingly, it is even rarer for them to propose simple and clear solutions that apply to everyone. If you want to create a panic, shout fire. If you want to create purposeful and urgent action, shout, “Everyone grab a bucket, there’s a fire!” The simplicity of the solution helps to resolve the initial fear and potential panic of the challenge. If you don’t have a simple solution, don’t shout fire.
  4. It’s violent and individual-focused. The burning platform story is dramatic and its central motivation is fear: one man, death approaching, a leap into the unknown, the miracle of his survival. The fire conveys urgency but the scenario passes over what often matters most when companies must address significant change: working as a focused team for mutual benefit, cultivating positive emotions starting with a sense of shared accomplishment towards well-defined goals, building group resilience and flexibility as circumstances continue to change.


What do you make of the burning platform? How can you make employees your partners in facing future challenges? Soteres Consulting can help change the way that you communicate change for a more flexible, resilient, effective organization.