Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Beyond the “burning platform” – advancements in Change Management

Thought leadership continues to advance the discipline. And occasionally, we dare to challenge the ‘sacred cows’ of our own discipline. In this post we look at the “burning platform” and “Who Moved My Cheese”. This is done respectfully, in recognition that these were advances in their time (but times change) and that every situation is different (just because we have a hammer does not mean every protrusion is a nail). So here we go.

“Burning Platform”

The “burning platform” (1) is often used to suggest that people must fear change in order to move forward.  Likewise, Kotter’s “sense of urgency” (2) is referenced to drive people into the future.

However, considering the pace of change that teams are required to deliver today, operating with this level of ongoing anxiety is a state that is not sustainable. It is the equivalent of idling a car at 5000 rpm for weeks on end – the engine will burn out no matter how well maintained. Instead, a different social contract is required of the employer – employee relationship. Such that expectations are re-set.

A different, measured pace is appropriate – quicker perhaps a speed walking marathon (with all the attendant training and support), but not a sprint marathon.

[Of note, this was NOT the original intent of the phrase “burning platform” –this phrase was coined by Daryl Conner in 1998.  Since this post was published Daryl has published his original interpretation here “The Real Story of the Burning Platform” which is still valid today. Focusing on commitment, resolve and resilience are still revolutionary mindset shifts for many change leaders and practitioners.]

“Who Moved My Cheese?”

“Who Moved My Cheese?”(3), let’s first remember that for its time this book was insightful. However, it was written more than 20 years ago (1998). The reality is that the intuitive message in this seminal work is that it stinks to have change forced on you with no explanation. That was always true but is not helpful enough.  Explaining the change is still not enough.

Both external and internal environments of organizations have changed dramatically and Change Management thought leadership has advanced with them. The notion that change happens “to us” is often still true. However, current prevailing thought leadership advocates toward the continuum of engaging users in the solutioning process and earning their commitment as the optimal way for expediting adoption (reducing resistance).


The world is moving forward and Change Management is advancing with it – are you?


(1) The concept of a burning platform is comes from the Piper Alpha oil rig catastrophe, a massive explosion and fire in the North Sea off Scotland in 1988. 167 of 229 men died. All that survived had jumped into the frigid North Sea from a height of more than 100 feet. The choice was that of certain death vs potential death.

(2) “Leading Change”, John P. Kotter, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, 1996. “Creating a Sense of Urgency” is the first of eight principles of leading change.  Of note, Professor Kotter continues to publish and expand the body of knowledge on Change Management since this publication.

(3) “Who Moved My Cheese”, Spencer Johnson, Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 2002. This is a wonderful management parable of four characters – Hem and Haw are resistors while Sniff and Scurry are early adopters – who hunt around a maze for cheese. The cheese is not always in the same place so they have to adapt. The one who adapts most quickly documents his insights in ‘the writing on the wall’. It illustrates different reactions to unsolicited change and provides some advice on how to adapt.

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In Jan 2011, the following interview with Daryl Conner, who coined the term “burning platform”, was conducted with Luc Galoppin.

In it they explore the nuanced meaning of this phrase that is so often abused and the impact on ROI trajectory of getting it right.

Comment by Gail Severini ©

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