For many years, change professionals (myself included) have used the analogy of the burning platform to create urgency behind change. The logic goes: if you create a place where no one wants to (or can) be anymore, there will be no choice but to change!

This analogy has served us well – helping us to identify the key reasons behind a change and create a springboard for diving into the future state.

However, research recently released suggests this is NOT the best way to drive change.

John Kotter, one of the foremost thinkers in the Change Management field, has recently released a new book: Change: How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results in Uncertain and Volatile Times. In the very first few pages Kotter addresses the analogy of the burning platform, noting it actually creates “anxiety, anger, guilt, and stress” and instead recommends focusing on urgency of opportunity to pull impacted groups toward a change.

This. Is. Brilliant.

Kotter digs into the human psyche, bringing psychology research into the human response to change. He discusses the “Survive” and “Thrive” systems, natural and hard-wired responses that change managers need to understand in order to create safe spaces for change.

Managing Change as an opportunity.

The “Survive” system activates when we perceive a threat. Your body can’t tell the difference between being chased by a wild animal and the threat of losing your job – both of these stimuli will produce the same response in the body – stress and anxiety. The “Thrive” system, on the other hand, produces an energy and opportunity-seeking response. If our typical approach to change results in activating the “Survive” system of impacted groups, I’d wager that the result isn’t going to be what we intended, and we’re going to burn people out in the process due to constant “Survive” activation.

In the modern business world, where change happens at breakneck speed for organizations to keep their competitive edge, focusing on the future and the opportunities provided by change is much more likely to invoke the “Thrive” system.

Balanced Change Approach

The Levvel Balanced Change approach focuses on activating the “Thrive” system to help impacted groups see the opportunity in change. At the outset of every engagement, we focus on creating a well-defined and attractive picture of the future, one that allows impacted individuals and groups to see themselves in that picture. We focus on using inclusive language, and letting teams know how they will become skilled and ready to take on the new challenges of the future.

Looking forward enables an acknowledgement and honouring of past ways of working, that may have been just fine up to this point. We’re no longer telling people that their work today is “no good” and “not viable for a competitive future”. Instead of activating the “Survive” system, through building a picture of why today’s ways of working are no longer good enough, we look to activate the “Thrive” system by focusing on the exciting opportunities that lie ahead.

This is not to say that we need to move away from explaining the “why” of a change. On the contrary, explaining the reasoning behind change is extremely important to successful adoption. But focusing on a positive approach that draws people toward an exciting future will create the enthusiasm and adoption that any change requires to be a success. Leaders today should look toward building a picture of change for their teams that is inclusive, supportive, and highlights the unique opportunities change provides. Because no one wants to be on the burning platform.

So, how would it feel if we flipped the narrative? Stop saying “change is hard” and start saying “change is exciting”! I think that’s a change that’s worth adopting.

~Courtney Weiss, Managing Director Change Consulting – Levvel inc. Reach out to