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Step away from the burning platform

Step Away from the Burning Platform

Talking about the elephant in the room is one thing. Defining what ‘effective executive sponsorship’ actually looks like is a bit of different conversation. Prosci tells us that 72% of projects with extremely effective sponsors met or exceeded objectives. Yet effective sponsorship is as complex as the individuals and the context of the organisations themselves.

Transformation initiatives are often forged from a burning platform which has been the approach heavily advocated by traditional change management and leadership thought leaders. Dr John Kotter is regularly quoted with “successful change starts with a sense of urgency”. Part of the theory is galvanising the organisation’s hearts and minds with a common goal, which is often done with profound addresses from senior executives with the “if we don’t change, we’ll die” style messaging.

The burning platform metaphor was inspired from a quote from a survivor of a catastrophic incident on the North Sea in 1988 when the oil rig, the Piper Alpha, exploded killing 166 crew members and 2 rescuers. The metaphor is literally about eliciting a sense of urgency through a “fry or jump, so I jumped” fear-based response from people involved in a change process.

While this type of ‘fear/threat-based’ tactic and traditional ‘tell-and-control’ leadership behaviour has historically yielded results (and will no doubt continue to in some contexts), the rapid pace of change and complexity in organisations are demanding an evolution of leadership styles which is redefining ‘effective executive sponsorship’.

Fear-based tactics stifles performance

Recent research challenges burning platform-type thinking. It found that leaders who drive conversations based around building on organisational strengths (what they are good at doing), led to “significantly greater change success than those who tried to fix their weaknesses”.

Humans are hardwired to react when under threat, experiencing fear or stressed—that fight or flight theory. It’s primal. Simply, we are physically less able to engage executive brain functions when in a stressed state. Creativity, the seed of innovation, only occurs when we engage our ‘executive’ brain function. A focus on weakness often triggers a primal threat-based response in our brain chemistry making it even more difficult to be creative, solve problems and comes up with innovative, transformative solutions.

To me it seems, that despite knowing this, we are mostly doing digital transformations with our people’s hand brakes on.

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What good sponsorship looks like

Prosci’s Best Practices research calls out consistent mission critical activities that ‘effective sponsors’ drive and their ideal traits.

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Although it’s useful to understand, how these activities are effectively delivered and the traits of the sponsor are expressed is a more nuanced consideration.

“It was not the amount of change that people struggled with, but the types of leadership approaches used (i.e., invite-and-inquire versus tell-and-control)…”

A recent Change Lab study shows that teams led with an ‘invite-and-inquire’ leadership style not only create better outcomes for their organisations, they’re also holistically happier people. Instead of driving conversations off a burning platform of fear and threat, this strength-based, invite-and-inquire approach “helps to create a positive disruption by producing an upward spiral of confidence, curiosity, and hope that is grounded in the reality of the strengths your system has to build upon.”

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Inspiration from the bottom up

Amanda Newbery recently published insights based on engagement with 150,000 Aussies and Kiwis (love Aussie data!). One of the key findings was that “employees often suggest more aggressive or transformative change than managers do. Employees often have a better perspective to see what’s needed.”

So, what more could be possible during transformation initiatives if our executive sponsors were better engaging with their people using ‘invite-and-inquire’ approaches?

What becomes possible when we end the burning platform, ‘tell-and-control’ conversations? I saw a big shift results when I learned to step back from the traditional project management ‘tell-and-control’ approach to an ‘invite-and-inquire’ style. I’ve seen good teams evolves into fantastic, thriving teams just by stepping back a bit, giving them ‘permission’ and space to self-organise and shifting the focus of conversations from ‘what’s wrong’ to ‘what’s possible’. 

At Valiente, we do a lot of coaching with executives to step away from the burning platform and shift to invite-and-inquire conversations. This is still probably my favourite part of change management. I think it creates incredibly exciting possibilities and it’s most certainly the type of transformation conversations that I really enjoy being part of.

How is your organisation stepping away from the burning platform? What terminology are you using to drive transformation conversations?

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