When Stephen Elop left as head of the Windows group at Microsoft to become CEO of Nokia, he knew that the cell phone giant was in trouble. The once undisputed leader of the industry had seen its importance cut away first by Apple, and then by Google, and finally, by low-cost Chinese competitors.
Many people with a business degree might have reacted predictably: radically cutting costs, buying a competitor’s product to increase market share, or heavily discounting products. Instead, Elop wrote a memo to all employees in which he compared Nokia to a man standing on an oil rig platform burning 100 feet above icy waters and with only seconds to choose what to do. The man jumped, choosing probable over certain death.
Elop decided that Nokia would break with the past, cast aside its own smartphone software, and adopt Microsoft Windows Phone as its device operating system. The company is still struggling and many people assume that Elop won’t succeed, but he had no other choice. For all the measured and careful steps that executives and companies generally take, there are times when timidity means destruction. Any manager should understand the burning platform concept, because you never know when it will be necessary:
Recognize the Situation
Managers are trained to use normal risk analysis in evaluating decisions. Each choice has potential benefits and drawbacks. Managers are taught to minimize risk, and so generally eschew radical changes, which carry greater risk. In a burning platform situation, there is no premium for caution because the price of status quo is annihilation.
Create the Right Attitude
Never take a burning platform decision lightly. Rational people asked to jump 100 feet into freezing water would normally laugh at the foolhardy request. But when the platform is burning, the leap is actually the only logical choice, as hesitation or passivity means death. A leader, whether Elop talking to Nokia or Howard Schultz trying to rally Starbucks troops to recapture the company’s “soul,” must communicate so employees understand that the unpleasant option is in reality the only one. Everyone in the business must have the proper resolve to make the leap.
Don’t Become a Burning Platform Junkie
Pressure to change is not the same as a burning platform. It is always possible to change the status quo and rarely does a wrong choice mean disaster. When everything becomes a matter of life-or-death, then you make decisions from fear and desperation, and, as a McKinsey study has shown, communicating change in a positive way is more likely to succeed.