The Smoldering Burning Platform


Harry Greenspun, M.D.

Chief Medical Officer, Managing Director, Health Solutions

Korn Ferry

May 15, 2018

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While historically not in the same gastronomic realm as Thanksgiving, we have managed to elevate Mother’s Day into a serious eating holiday. Once marked by a card and some flowers, this annual brunch represents the “perfect storm” of dietary nemesis. First, kicking off earlier than other holidays, my ability to squeeze in a morning workout is generally defeated. Second, lacking a traditional “anchor” protein such as a turkey, ham, or lamb, the menu is inevitably carbohydrate heavy. Compounding this is the fact that, across our extended family, the mothers who attend are excellent bakers and, despite being told that this is “their day,” all arrive with delicious contributions in hand. Finally, and most nefariously, by the time dinner rolls around, brunch is a distant memory, yet the holiday remains. This year, our boys felt it was important to continue to honor my wife Kerry, so they zipped out after dinner to retrieve an assortment of fancy desserts. Thus, as someone committed to exercise and a low-carb diet, my day consisted primarily of French toast, sticky buns, and cheesecake, interrupted only by a nap.


Yesterday I was speaking with friend who is the Chief Human Resources Officer of a sizeable health system. We have discussed at length the myriad of challenges her organization faces.  Rapid changes in the competitive landscape, the transition to value-based care, recent expansion into new geographies, and potential mergers and acquisitions all loom large. Their leadership clearly recognizes these critical issues and their implications. In staff meetings, town halls, and countless communications, they highlight how they need to be prepared for the journey ahead. For her own part, she has created a robust plan to bolster leadership development, employee engagement, and succession planning.


To her dismay, her organization has done surprisingly little. As we spoke, I could hear the frustration in her voice. “We know what we should do, but we simply don’t do it.” It’s a refrain I hear often. Organizations will often painstakingly educate their people on their vision and the pathway needed to achieve it yet fail to implement the programs required to meet their objectives. But why, and at what cost?


We often invoke the notion of a “burning platform,” using looming situations, typically with dire consequences, to motivate teams into action and drive change. The term itself has taken the dilemma faced by workers on an oil rig in the North Sea in 1988, faced with a massive explosion and fire. While its use as a management technique is controversial, it has some crucial elements. 


  • The danger must be real and immediate

  • Addressing it requires difficult and challenging choices

  • Those choices are typically irreversible and risky

  • Maintaining the status quo is not an option


When taken literally, the key message is that the crisis is here and must be dealt with now. Frequently, however, the call for transformation is not coupled with a belief that the danger is imminent, or that the delayed action will have significant consequences. As a result, rather than drive change within an organization, teams often fall into two camps. One, such as the case with my CHRO friend, recognize the real threat and grow increasingly frustrated by a lack of preparation and response. They view this as a lack of leadership, reflective of denial rather than foresight. 


No less alarming is what happens to the other group. They, sensing little urgency or meaningful change, begin to either doubt or ignore the significance of these threats. Consequently, as these issues become more impactful, an organization that made efforts to prepare its people may, instead, make them less willing or able to respond.



Avoiding either of these outcomes is critical. It starts with understanding what is creating the sense of urgency. Is it a true crisis that must be addressed immediately (a true “burning platform”), or an evolving threat that will require time to respond (the “takes time to turn a ship” metaphor).  In either case, decisions need to be made, paths chosen, and actions taken.  n the first case, those may be dramatic. In the second, they may be subtler, but must be visible nonetheless.


I reflected on my observance of Mother’s Day. I knew full well what I should have done. Had I been more serious about my objectives I would have woken up early enough for a workout and had some eggs and fruit. I would have enjoyed a small sampling of the brunch treats, but skipped topping each with syrup, glaze, and whipped cream. As I scraped up the last bits of dulce de leche, I realized I’d lost some credibility at home and vowed to do better. Father’s Day is just around the corner.