Articulate a burning platform – NOW!

Over 30 years ago now, a terrible tragedy hit the UK North Sea oil industry – The Piper Alpha disaster. You may have heard of it or remember what happened.

At nine-thirty on a July evening in 1988, a disastrous explosion and fire occurred on the Piper Alpha oil-drilling platform in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland, the result of a failure to check some simple systems that had worked faultlessly for the previous decade. The scale of the blast was immense: the flames from the blaze shot 90 metres in the air and apparently could be seen 70 miles away. At first the workers locked themselves in a room in part of the rig – hoping the fire would burn out or emergency systems would kick in.

One hundred and sixty-seven crew members and two rescuers lost their lives in what was (and still is) the worst catastrophe in the fifty-year history of North Sea oil exploration. One of the sixty-one crew members who survived was Andy Mochan, a superintendent on the rig.

From the hospital, bravely recovering from serious injuries, he told of being awakened by the explosion and alarms. Badly injured, he escaped from his quarters to the platform edge. Beneath him, oil had surfaced and ignited. Twisted steel and other debris littered the surface of the water. Because of the water’s temperature, he knew that he could live a maximum of only twenty minutes if not rescued. He had two choices – to stay where he was and hope for possible rescue from the flames, or to jump into the freezing ocean and risk almost certain death from hypothermia. Andy jumped fifteen stories from the platform to the water.

Why did he jump?

When asked why he took that potentially fatal leap, he did not hesitate. He said, “It was either jump or fry.” He chose possible death over certain death. Andy jumped because he felt he had no choice—the price of staying on the platform was too high.

There are times as a presenter and leader, when you want to encourage change, when you want to address real issues or problems, when you have to communicate the danger of old patterns continuing. Or when you just need solid commitment to a new plan – perhaps a 5 year strategy or a key change in technology or process. What can you do to get your audience to take notice, to come with you?

When presentations are high stakes your audience needs to feel the change or idea is important and necessary.

In order to generate the awareness and responsibility there are times when people need to feel the pain. This is when you articulate a burning platform. A burning platform is a very specific, urgent kind of pain message. Orchestrating pain messages can be the first step in developing organisational commitment to major change. Burning platforms are very powerful drivers of strategic change. They are what happens when:

  • There is a real and immediate crisis
  • There is a limited number of difficult and challenging choices
  • Each of the choices is irreversible
  • Each choice has a high risk of failure

So what is the practical use?

You can use this concept at the start of a presentation if you want to:

  • press home problems – ‘this time we are in real trouble’.
  • push for quick embrace – ‘if we act immediately we can take advantage of the current situation’
  • to demonstrate the implications of not changing / taking action – ‘we will be in trouble if we don’t…’
  • encourage people to take advantage of a situation – ‘in the future we could be in a position to profit from this’

For example, I was delivering a sales training recently and I said:

‘Social selling is here to stay. You can either turn a blind eye and get left behind, or you can embrace the idea, get ahead of the competition and take quick and decisive action to raise your profile and win new business quickly. It’s your choice.’

If you want to get a new level of commitment from an audience, hammer home a point, or encourage change, then articulate a burning platform in one of your high stakes presentations soon. Otherwise you may never get the engagement you require and your idea or plan could whither on the vine.

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