I had never heard the term “burning platform” before. Apparently it got used a lot in the company I was working with though. The executive said that this new initiative was critical and so the team needed to create a “burning platform” to instill a sense of urgency in the business. I found out later that the metaphor meant that if you needed a new platform built, the best way to make sure the work got done was to set the one you were standing on ablaze.
When I first heard it, I thought that it was an interesting way to think about the urgency that is necessary to capture a market opportunity before the competitor does or to rally the troops for some time sensitive and critical effort. Then I learned that it was used by this executive on something close to a daily basis. If the platform is constantly on fire, people just learn to work in the heat.
What I found as I talked to people in the organization was that everything was urgent. Every new initiative was critical, every new project, essential to the business. What I also learned was that because of the environment that constant urgency creates, speed was valued more than direction and work, more than results.
The culture had turned into one where people were rewarded for running around and getting lots done, in many cases with little or no real impact on the business. Prioritization was easy, everything was first.
I also learned that many of the people working there weren’t very happy, they felt like the treadmill was turned on high, but they weren’t getting anywhere. The people who truly thrived in the organization were the ones who simply liked to get a lot done and found their satisfaction in output, not in impact. Organic growth in the business slowed to a standstill. People were creating lots of charts and presentations and spreadsheets, but they weren’t creating growth.
What organizations most need from their people is not work, but results. Sometimes those two things compete with each other. A person can generate a thousand page document that has no impact or a one page document that changes the business for the better. And sometimes the one page takes more time and requires having the feet up on the desk thinking about what really needs to change. More isn’t always better and faster isn’t either.
Every business goes through cycles and phases and that’s a good thing because people work that way too. Its often fun to go through short periods of intense work and long hours at full speed, especially when you can see the impact you are having and the difference you are making. But following the burst, people need periods of rejuvenation and the business needs time to consolidate the changes it made and sustain the results.
Leaders who make speed and volume most valuable will create lots of it. What they won’t create is an understanding of the very few things that will make the most difference for the organization. They will quickly construct a culture where people and resources are exhausted on things that don’t matter. When the crisis really does appear, the people have little left to attack it with and don’t recognize it as anything but another burning platform.
One of your biggest jobs as a leader is setting priorities, whether you are an entrepreneur leading yourself or CEO of a Fortune 100 company. Everything doesn’t need to be done and every single moment you spend on activity without impact is a missed opportunity. Understanding the rhythm of your business and being able to dig deep when the real opportunities arise is how you take a business to the next level and beyond. But the moment you create a culture where everything is important, then you have created a culture where nothing is.