Gary Oftedahl: The Platform’s Burning–Now What?
In addressing the need for change, there are many metaphors that can be evoked as a call to action. How we get people’s attention, and sustain that, is critical in many projects dealing with change. Whether we’re unfreezing and freezing, transitioning, or incorporating Prochaska’s levels of readiness, there is recognition that we need to create a compelling message to stimulate change.
I’m fine with that, but as I’ve often noted before, for every intended consequence, there is an unintended consequence, which when not considered, can have often times devastating effects. You’d think we’d learn from history, but as all of you who’ve read the same books on human behavior and behavioral economics that I have already know, that is not usually the case.
That being said, while I’ve tried to avoid political discussions—it’s likely to keep me saner and safer than the alternative–the recent elections seem emblematic of one of the metaphors for change that has been often referenced in my world of health care. In fact, for many years, it was a mantra.
That is—the need to create a “burning platform” in driving change. The reference is to the story of the worker on an oil rig, who was awakened by an explosion and on running out on the deck, noted a fiery environment leading almost to certain death. With a quick assessment, he leaped from the deck from over 100 feet into a burning sea, ultimately surviving. When asked by others why he’d leaped into an uncertain fate, he acknowledged the alternative of burning on the platform seemed more threatening than leaping from a sense of fright into an uncertain future, but at least slightly uncertain, vs. certain.
That’s taking some literary license with the story, but it’s a tale that has been used by many to initiate change efforts. Succinctly, you need to “scare the bejeezus” out of people to get them motivated to make change. I remember using this example often in my efforts to drive change in my organization. In fact, we had once been told that not only had our leadership not created a burning platform, but we’d provided our staff with asbestos booties—guaranteeing that no change would occur.
The recent election seemed at times to reflect that in some degree. You’ll need to give me some license here, but after all, it is my blog, so I’m entitled. Indeed, there are many issues that need to be addressed in our political arena, and the challenges we face are huge. But many of the victors seemed to use as a main tactic the creation of a fear of the present situation, and a need to trust them to fix it as a key element of their platform. In other words, the burning platform (the world is falling apart, economics are horrible, the government is taking over, etc.) was offered as a reason to vote for them, without offering specific ideas for solutions (the unknown burning sea).
It appears to have worked in many cases, likely understanding better than many the tremendous impetus “fear” can provide for taking action to initiate change. But as I’ve noted, with every intended consequence is often an unintended one. For the very symptom that drives us to initiating that change may limit our ability to creatively identify the solutions needed to address those fears.
In their entertaining, but engaging book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath raise a cautionary note about using the “burning platform” as a sustainable driver for change. From a behavioral standpoint, it is important in driving sustainable change, that we feel positively motivated, engaged, and enthusiastic in our efforts. That mental state enhances and enables the creative, innovative thinking that will be necessary in moving forward. If however, we’re motivated by fear or anxiety, it narrows our thinking, limits our creativity, and leads to nonsustainable efforts. When you’re walking down a dark alley, with threatening persons leering at you, it’s hard to contemplate how you’re going to change your lifestyle to a healthier, creative one. Such is the situation that confronted our electorate in many areas in the past election.
But this also goes beyond the election, and should be considered in our ongoing work on health care reform. (You didn’t really think I’d ignore an opportunity to bring my passion, health care, into the discussion, did you?). We are equally confronted by a daunting set of challenges, ranging from a crisis in primary care, unaligned payment models, increased expectations from our citizens, impending external governmental mandates—the list is endless, it seems.
We need to remember the lessons from Switch, and from others who’ve written in this area. Much as I fear the unintended consequences of the burning platform created in the political arena, I also am concerned by its potential use as a major driver for our health care reform efforts. If we’re truly to tap into the creativity and innovation needed to support changes, we must somehow find ways to positively engage those we lead in these efforts, to enhance the neurochemistry needed to stimulate sustained creativity and engagement. I’m fearful the political use of the burning platform, while initially successful, will not lead to sustainable, creative solutions—time will tell. In our work in health care, while some may feel compelled to create a burning platform for change (“The sky is falling, the sky is falling”), we must take into account the behaviors we need to support—creativity, innovation, enthusiasm—and consider whether we truly believe a burning platform will create those characteristics.
Help me find my fire extinguisher, there’s a fire burning somewhere, but hopefully it’s in our hearts and minds. Thanks to the Heath brothers and others who’ve helped me clarify how I can best support the changes we need. Join me in creating the type of positivity needed to drive the changes essential in our work. Switch—it’s easier than you think—if you’re thinking positively.