Yesterday we looked at the theory of transformation posed by Daszko and Sheinberg in their article “Survival is Optional.” Much of their theory rests on the idea that:

“Transformation is motivated by survival, by the realization that everything needs to change or the organization will die; that a significant breakthrough in mindset  is needed in order to pursue new opportunities.” 

This view of change is consistent with the “burning platform” metaphor, which Chip Healy and Dan Healy describe in their best-selling book, Switch:

“Let’s talk about the “burning platform,” a familiar phrase in the organizational change literature. It refers to a horrific accident that happened in 1988 on the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea. A gas leak triggered an explosion that ripped the rig in two. As a reporter wrote, “Those who survived had a nightmarish choice: to jump as far as 150 ft. down into a fiery sea or face certain death on the disintegrating rig.” Andy Mochan, a superintendent on the rig, said, “It was fry or jump, so I jumped.” He was eventually saved by a rescue mission involving NATO and the Royal Air Force. 

Out of this human tragedy has emerged a rather ridiculous business cliche. When executives talk about the need for a “burning platform,” they mean, basically, that they need a way to scare their employees into changing. To create a burning platform is to paint such a gloomy picture of the current state of things that employees can’t help but jump into the fiery sea.” (119-120)

The “burning platform” would indicate that negative emotions – fear, desperation – best motivate change. This theory has led many a manager, as the Heath brothers report, to manufacture crises so their employees will feel the urgency necessary to do things differently. But what the Heath brothers offer in response is psychological research that helps us better understand the emotions that motivate change.

“”If you have a stone in your shoe, it hurts and you’ll fix the problem,” said Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. In a sense, removing the stone from your shoe is what negative emotions are designed to do – to motivate specific actions. […] Bottom line: If you need quick and specific action, then negative emotions might help. But most of the time when change is needed, it’s not a stone-in-the-shoe situation. The quest to reduce greenhouse gases is not a stone-in-the-shoe situation, and neither is Target’s mission to become the “upscale retailer,” or someone’s desire to improve his or her marriage. These situations require creativity and flexibility and ingenuity. And, unfortunately, a burning platform won’t get you that.” (121) 

It seems to us that transforming education to meet the demands of the 21st century is not a stone-in-the-shoe situation either. So what does psychology tell us about alternative approaches?

“Positive emotions are a bit of a puzzle. Unlike negative emotions, they don’t seem engineered to produce particular actions, such as punching or fleeing or avoiding. They don’t even have their own signature facial expressions. In fact, the emotions of joy, contentment, pride, love, and interest all tend to produce the same generic “I’m pleased” expression. […]

Negative emotions tend to have a “narrowing effect” on our thoughts. If your body is tensing up as you walk through a dark alley, your mind isn’t likely to wander over to tomorrow’s to-do lists. Fear and anger and disgust give us sharp focus — which is the same thing as putting on blinders. 

[Psychologist Barbara] Fredrickson argues that, in contrast with the narrowing effect of negative emotions, positive motions are designed to “broaden and build” our repertoire of thoughts and actions. Joy, for example, makes us want to play. Play doesn’t have a script, it broadens  the kinds of things we consider doing. We become willing to play around, to explore or invent new activities. […]

Most of the big problems we encounter in organizations or society are ambiguous and evolving. They don’t look like burning platform situations, where we need people to buckle down and execute a hard but well-understood game plan. To solve bigger, more ambiguous problems, we need to encourage open minds, creativity, and hope.” (122-123)

Questions to consider:

1) How do we motivate ourselves and others to transform, knowing that “survival is optional,” but also knowing that positive emotions will elicit our best work?

2) What do we gain and lose by using “burning platforms” as motivation? 

3) How is joy linked to innovation? 

There’s plenty more to the Heath brothers’ book — we have taken just a few relevant pages under review here. You can access the first chapter here, or check out this video summary: