The burning platform

October 11, 2010 · by Allison Porter · Filed Under Choices, Previous · 4 Comments

Google “crisis 2010” and you will discover that we are in the midst of a food, credit, budget, housing, unemployment, currency, and even a Toyota crisis.  I also believe that our failure to win labor law and immigration reform, combined with layoffs, attacks on standards, and the widespread scapegoating of immigrants and workers in general, has also created a crisis for unions and other social change organizations that we might not survive.  My question is whether focusing on it as a crisis will be the platform that galvanizes us to make the changes we need to make to create a different outcome.

I have said or heard that there is a crisis for working people at regular intervals as long as I have been trying to make a difference.  The assumption is that people are motivated to change or stop what they are doing because of a sense of urgency – things will get worse if we don’t!  A “burning platform” is a common metaphor for the motivation to change, as the fellow it refers to famously said in explaining why he jumped off the platform: “better probable death than certain death.”   The tried and true formula for Change – D x V x NS = C – starts with D for Dissatisfaction [times Vision times Next Steps].  What can be more dissatisfying than a crisis?

So why doesn’t calling it a crisis create more energy for change than it does?  In their book Switch: how to change things when change is hard, the authors Chip and Dan Heath argue that evidence of a problem is not enough.  To start with, we need to connect the evidence with our emotions to gain our attention.  For many of us the word “crisis” has emotional content, because we conjure our own images.  But there are many for whom it is just an overused word.  For them, we need to work harder to create an emotional connection to the problem, just like the TV footage during Katrina riveted the public in a way that no statistic on poverty ever could.

A crisis should focus our attention and prompt us to make hard choices, but it can also be overwhelming and cause us to shut down.  That is where “flight” becomes a better option than “fight.”  We quit before we begin.  Heath and Heath say that ‘scripting the moves’ is more effective than stating the goal when the solution is a long way off; and that believing we are not starting from scratch – that we are actually on our way there – is more motivating than believing that the change we need to make is huge and dramatic.  In fact, they implore us to ‘shrink the change’ and ‘find the bright spots.’

I am convinced that calling this period of history a crisis – even the worst crisis of our lifetime – is insufficient.  I am still wondering whether – for those people and institutions who are not adapting to the challenges they are facing – there might be something that works better.


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