Choices and the burning platform
Almost twenty-five years ago, Daryl Conner introduced a concept into the organisational lexicon which been used by many organisations undergoing transformational change – that of the burning platform. And as with most truly powerful things, it comes from hardship.
It’s the story of the Piper Alpha oil rig explosion in the North Sea, when 168 people were killed. One of the sixty-three survivors described how he was awoken by explosions and alarm bells to find the rig engulfed in flames. The oil on the surface of the water had also caught fire and was littered with twisted metal and debris - and the water’s temperature was so cold that he would only have survived twenty minutes before rescue. His choices at this point were: definitely burn to death or probably die of cold and fire in the sea.
So he jumped. And - he survived.
How does this relate to us?
For most of us, we don't really think about our current situation as a burning platform - but we may be aware that we're getting ill, stressed, overwhelmed, tired, cranky, miserable, frustrated and negative.
So let's imagine all of this negative stuff is an indication that we're standing on the emotional and physiological equivalent of a blazing oil rig in the middle of the North Sea. How long do we continue to stand on the platform, hoping for some sort of rescue, feeling the heat and the flames intensify behind us? At what point do we take the risk and jump into the cold, dark, freezing, waters below? At what point do we jump into change?
We usually want our problems to go away, so we just hold back and wait and wait and wait for something or someone else to create the change for us. We avoid and ignore them - and push our issues onto other people or our environment, wanting them to change so we don't have to.
This doesn’t help.
It's better to ask ourselves: “What responsibility do I have in this? What am I avoiding? What is it about myself that I don’t want to see? Why? What am I so scared of?”
1. I say – honour your feelings
All of them.
There is always growth.
We live in a society – the Western world predominantly – which doesn’t like being unhappy. Doesn’t like feeling angry. Doesn’t want to feel down, or upset or afraid. We do a lot of things to avoid feeling any of these things. We shop, we smoke, we drink, we take drugs, we call people, spend time with others, we exercise. Some are positive management tactics, some less so.
I believe if you are staying where you are, there are reasons for this. Unpicking those may take time, or you might just need to reframe and normalize a few things. But you will always have good reasons for avoiding jumping – reasons which support and protect you.
At least until the heat becomes too unbearable and the air becomes oppressive. And then you begin to suffocate.
Then what? The reasons for keeping you in place (presumably) haven’t changed, so how do you move when you feel both deprived of oxygen and – seemingly – options?
2. You reframe
We work with the issue, not against it. We lean into it, feel it out, engage and listen to what it’s trying to tell us. Then – when we've given it the due attention – the block shifts and either disappears, or transforms into something empowering.
So – we can ask ourselves – how can we reframe this?
If you are in a job you hate, ask yourself why you hate it? This gives you a huge amount of information about who you are and what your values are. They may differ from those around you. Think about that. Then think about where you can take your values and attitudes and make them valuable.
If you are a people person but stuck in a job where everyone is out for themselves, this probably isn’t your bag. If you love to be the centre of attention but are stuck in a desk job, you are wasting that beautiful creative energy of yours on something that in the end isn’t going to fulfil you. If you love writing but spend your life crunching numbers, that’s a lot of time and energy invested in something that doesn’t give much back.
Our emotional responses ultimately flow out of our appraisals of the world, and if we can shift those appraisals, we shift our emotional responses.
~ Kevin Ochsner, quoted in Your Brain at Work by David Rock
And it beats continuously trying to push that square peg into that round hole. Or living with stomach aches, nausea, indigestion, sleepless nights, backaches, migraines – or sleeping twisted up in a ball to the point that your body is nothing but a screaming protest of aches, pains and acid reflux.
We spend so much time focusing on how tough and difficult things are, how many problems we have, how it’s impossible to make different choices, that we forget to make friends with our problems. They are a big, neon, kick-ass sign that something is wrong and something needs to change. Even if it’s just our attitude.
Oh yes. The world is round.
3. You give the issue a 360 perspective
Looking at things as just problems means you miss a HUGE opportunity to learn something amazing about yourself.
For example: you feel you lack discipline and are lazy and apathetic because you can’t follow through and see things to the end? How about spinning it on its head? Great! You are someone who has lots of interests – one just won’t do. You need to keep yourself constantly topped up with new things and opportunities. You are not a ‘plodder’. Maybe you are a visionary!
For every personality there is a career to suit.
Or you have lost out to someone else on a job or relationship. Was your heart truly invested in it? Do you really want to be in that environment, that situation, with those people? And – on closer observation – how does it really feel to you? Are you making it about pride or fear? And might there be something behind that emotion which could inflate you back up again, if only you could get to it?
I have not known a single situation in my life, which – good or bad – did not serve me in some way. Because I made it serve me. When all else fails, you have a choice to look at things differently and become friends with the crap in your life.
Get to know it. Snuggle down and get comfy. Because it’s got stuff to teach you.
Now imagine your oil rig had never caught fire – and you weren’t forced to make that difficult choice.
How does that feel?
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