Why thinking in terms of burning platforms and tipping points is not sufficient to drive change

The term ‘burning platform’ has its origins in a real life/death scenario faced by an oil worker in the North Sea and now commonly used to help change agents and stakeholders articulate organisational or personal motivation (WIIFM – What’s In It For Me) for change. ‘Burning platforms’ form the basis of ‘sticky’ or unresistable messages to motivate change.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘The Tipping Point’ explored how ideas, messages and behaviours can spread through a combination of opionion leaders (social influences) and ‘sticky’ messages. Ideas reinforced by Andrea Shapiro’s ‘Creating Contagious Commitment’ – an excellent reinforcement of the role that people (contacts), infrastructure / environment (context), and messages (content) can play.

Change agents recognize the importance of training to build the capabilities that people need to adopt new ways of working.  They also understand the importance of leadership in role modeling, rewarding and reinforcing the right behaviours, and the influence of the organisational ‘climate’: what has gone before, and interdependencies with other competing changes.

What the authors of ‘Influencer – The Power Change Anything’ add to all of the above is a focus on identifying the ‘vital few’ behaviours that will enable change.  They describe how demonstrating or practicing these behaviours can result in the development of new personal beliefs, i.e. through direct personal experience, or through the vicarious experience of storytelling: anecdotes, television series etc..

Their approach is further supported by a coherent synthesis of 6 sources of influence acting on motivation and capabilities.

The basis and support for this approach is graphically illustrated by examples drawn from society and organisations around the world.

The ‘vital few’ behaviours are identified by the equivalent of root cause analysis: what is the root cause of the problem in situations where unwanted situations are occurring?  The authors also identify the equivalent of ‘good practice’ situations where people are demonstrating the right behaviours: they call these people ‘positive deviants’.  They recommend detailed observation and analysis as a way to identify the ‘key vital’ positive behaviours occurring in these situations.

The 6 sources of influence are summarized in the following table:

Level Motivation Capability

(Drawn from psychology)

Making the undesirable desirable

(intrinsic satisfaction)

This is about getting people to try the new behaviours, perhaps adding an element of competition, creating a sense of pride and ownership, tapping into personal passions, helping people appreciate and aspire to what can be.

Surpassing your limits

(coaching and practice)

People need an opportunity to practice new behaviours in a safe environment, with clear and frequent feedback , interim milestones and deriving learnings from any setbacks.


(Drawn from social psychology)

Peer pressure

(social motivation)

Peers can influence each other through approval, disapproval, praise, ridicule, acceptance, rejection.  They can act as opinion leaders (champions) if respected (knowledgeable, trustworthy, helpful) and well connected.  This is where leaders can influence through role-modelling and where it is important to understand resistance.

Strength in numbers

(social capital and the wisdom of crowds)

Groups working together will perform better than an individual: they will build on each others’ ideas, and help an individual to succeed.  It requires collaboration and a recognition of interdependence: a translation of ‘me’ problems into ‘we’ problems.


(Organisational theory)

Rewards and accountability

(structural motivation)

The important thing here is to reward the right behaviours and to do so in a timely and appropriate fashion without compromising expectations of what constitutes everyday or long-term behaviour.  It also includes effective warning and ultimate action against what is the wrong or unacceptable behaviour.

Change the environment

(structural ability)

This includes buildings, space, sound, sight i.e. non-human interventions.  There is a connection here with some Lean and Six Sigma concepts in that it includes the use of visual information or data: signs, guidance, metrics.  It also includes the concept of ‘propinquity’ (physical proximity) of people and things, layout, design (e.g. to avoid mistakes).

What ‘Influencer’ implies but does not spell out, is the importance and approach for effective communication to support change.  Our previous blog: Communicating change – some practical procedural guidance may still be a good source for such information!


  1. RiverRhee Consulting enhances team effectiveness using process improvement, knowledge management and change management.  Follow the links to find out more about RiverRhee Consulting and about Elisabeth Goodman and John Riddell
  2. Influencer – The Power to Change Anything, by Kerry Patterson et al, McGraw Hill, 2008
  3. Communicating change – some practical procedural guidance http://wp.me/pAUbH-2z
  4. How to successfully implement business change http://slidesha.re/gskGyJ