Innovation Institute

Is your Business on a Burning Platform?

The Burning Platform[1] remains to be an apt metaphor used in business to describe a visceral feeling and a state of urgency for tackling major strategic change. It signals a distinctive situation when an organisation must go through the pain barrier in order to radically and urgently change, and, create a new business imperative – a new business model. This picture was profoundly portrayed in July 2018 by the Chairman of Marks and Spencer who gave his starkest public warning about the existential threat by the internet leading to the demise of the High Street, during which he said: “This business is on a burning platform. We don’t have a God given right to exist, and unless we change and develop this company the way we want, if we don’t, in decades to come there will be no M&S.”

Today, with digital connectivity widening scope and opportunities, and exploitation of data running at an exponential rate, it is clear that change is the only constant. And not just small tweaks to how organisations do business. What’s being thrust upon organisations almost on a daily basis across every market sector from aerospace and defence to consumer goods and food and beverage (and everything in between) is big strategic change. And yet, despite this, many organisations still continue to have a minimum to moderate emphasis on innovation within their offerings, and a sluggishness to adopt new tools, technologies and capabilities that could accelerate digital business transformation.

If these organisations are really to galvanise themselves and embrace innovative digital business models, they need to consider the creation of their own ‘Burning Platform’, or as we, at IKE Institute often refer to it as “Engineering a Crisis”. Taking such steps avoids the binary interpretation of the decision, in terms of confirming whether something is burning and deciding when to act. In doing so, the leadership requires bravery and a deep resolve.

Creating a ‘Burning Platform’ needs a factual narrative underpinned by an action plan that spells out candidly the radical change and sets the new ambition, agenda and pace.  The leadership also needs to construct and promulgate a very specific and urgent kind of pain message that is not only strong and unwavering, but is also interlaced with positivity, opportunity and clarity on the path forward to drive critical behavioural change. 

And, this is where innovation becomes a powerful emerging vehicle that fires up peoples’ positivity to drive a shift in mindset. At this point, an organisation should re-evaluate the ecosystem in which it operates and, as a result, reconfigure its Innovation Process.

This reconfiguring is necessary as it will enable the needle on the innovation-change spectrum to shift from its default position of incremental improvements (often characterised as business as usual) to that of a more disruptive and game-changing position.  Establishing and enforcing a set of Guiding Principles connected to business success indicators from the outset will support achievement of desired decisions, behaviours and trade-offs.

In the context of Digital disruption, the rapid evolution of technologies, trends and algorithms such as AI-enabled-IoT and Deep Learning will be significant as to instantiate Burning Platforms in organisations across many sectors. The systematic shift from Edge Computing (i.e. Endpoints, Near Edge, Far Edge) to Intelligent Mesh (i.e. sensors and devices interacting and collaborating in their space) will forge new business ecosystems that will demand the delivery of compelling user/customer experiences. Such a shift could be underpinned by new innovative thinking to create new business models, products, services and relationships. At this point, an organisation naturally starts to intuitively master emerging and strategic trends and create new opportunities for growth.

In pursuing a Burning Platform journey, at IKE Institute, we have identified ten steps that could guide an organisation’s business innovation transition:

  1. Bring together a holistic perspective across diverse viewpoints (e.g. business and technology opportunities; business and technology threats; business and technology execution challenges). This is a Leadership act that requires strong and active engagement with internal and external stakeholders, as well as, articulation of organisational and sector context. This will help to create a new leapfrogging-mindset thus, pushing the business boundaries into the realm of the Art of Possible.
  2. Leverage such methodologies as Design Thinking, Lean Start-up and Agile to help in setting up an actionable business strategy and direction. Collaboration during this step can be an effective catalyst to accelerate change, deliver new proof of concepts and create valuable learning.
  3. Look through the Business Opportunities, the Business Threats and the Execution Challenges lenses, and identify and create deliverables that bridge the gap - to include:
    • Strategic Options (future-state models; business model innovations; technology evolution roadmaps; business ecosystem analysis);
    • Visibility of Issues (assessments of current-state; analysis of redundancies; duplication; analysis of barriers to execution);
    • Standards and Guardrails (strategic architecture principles; technology recommendations; pace of analysis and decision-making; flexibility to support agility).
  4. Reflect on the future-state of the digital business strategy. Assess the gap and the difference between Digital Optimization (better customer experience and improved productivity and products) and Digital Business Transformation (new business models with new products and services).
  5. Use a nonlinear approach to planning, clearly differentiating between what is desirable and what can be achieved over the key business horizons. Use your champions, your early adopters, and those who are likely to grasp and run with the changes needed.
  6. Rethink governance and balance guidelines and guardrails. Shift from guidelines to guardrails to create an appetite for risk and thus, encourage innovation.
  7. Acquire new leadership competencies for the digital era.
  8. Ensure facilitation, coaching and mentoring are available and accessible together with encouraging an ethos of inclusivity and collaboration. 
  9. Drive change behaviourally, to get the minds to align and to get the bodies to act. This is as true a leadership act.
  10. Show early wins, share all positive metrics, and be open and transparent. Measure, monitor and mitigate, as needed.

Deploying a Burning Platform approach is one of the toughest choices that a business may have to pursue and endure, as it recognises that its inflection-point has gone way past the possibility of undertaking any conventional remedial actions. But often starting a fire is the only way for organisations to wake up and recognise the need to act, and breath new innovative life into their business model to survive.


[1] Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper Where Others Fail, Daryl R Conner, 1993. The phrase a Burning Platform comes from a real incident dating back to July 6th, 1988. On that date the Piper Alpha oil rig in the North Sea exploded – the result of a failure to check some simple systems that had worked faultlessly for the previous decade. The explosion in turn caused a massive fire. 167 men died – the largest number killed in an offshore accident.


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