Reconsidering disruptive change metaphors

My literature review related to disruptive innovation and change in the workplace is off to a great start. The weather has been changing in Colorado. Things are getting colder each day. I’m sure snow will be here before we know it. This type of weather is perfect for reviewing academic literature. A briskly cold morning helps make a cup of coffee even more satisfying. It also means that my daily walks will be on my treadmill. That adds an extra hour of day that can be spent reading.

My research efforts have lead me to one principle finding so far. That finding is something that I have been considering in considerable detail. That finding developed in the form of a story. Starting in the 1990’s advocates of disruptive innovation and change started to begin evaluating “the burning platform” and other methods of achieving change. I started my literature review with a book by Daryl Conner titled, “Managing At the Speed of Change” (1992). In that book Daryl evokes a metaphor related to a burning oil rig. That metaphor brings forward a situation that involves making very real choices on how to move forward. Since the 1990’s business leaders have started to shift from understanding the burning platform and applying the metaphor to other situations to creating burning platforms. My mental model of that dichotomy breaks down in the form of a metaphor driven story.

The story begins based on a general premise then moves to a special theory related to the creation of burning platforms. Every workplace is in some ways is like a community. In this case, imagine the community in question as a village with buildings surrounding a central town square. Some of the buildings are new and some of them have been around for awhile. The community is full of rich institutional knowledge and skilled professionals. A community like this village develops processes and crystallizes bureaucracy mechanisms over time. Just like companies a community builds a social fabric that helps people work together. Theorists like Putnam and Feldstein have explained the importance of restoring community within the book “Better Together” (2003). It is probably safe to assume that theorists like Putnam and Feldstein are correct and that stronger communities inherently strengthen the social fabric of a community and that shift benefits everyone.

Imagine that workplace community as the previously described vilage. One day a new leader arrives and starts to build a platform in the town square. The community continues working together based on the process and crystallized bureaucratic structures that already existed. Everyone starts to see the platform get bigger one board a time. People have seen platforms be built for concerts, town hall events, and even a state fair. Some of those platforms lead to great celebrations within the community. Some of them brought the people together.

One day the new leader stands up on the platform and proclaims the need for change. The need for disruptive innovation. The need for destructive change within the village. The leader proclaimed that the a great platform had been built to enable that change. The leader expected the community to appreciate and buy into the platform. In the middle of looking around and talking to the crowd that leader proclaimed that now was the time for change that that the community needed to be ready to accept and deal with real change. This challenge was not the type of challenge that Spencer Johnson brought forward in the book “Who moved my cheese?” (1998). It was something else. People can prepare to deal with change in a variety of ways. People have gotten used to managing change and engaging in continuous improvement.

The next day the people of the community looked toward the town square and realized the platform was burning. Everyone was informed that the platform was supposed to be burning and that nobody should be worried. Smoke was in the air throughout the community and the platform continued to burn throughout the day. Teams from the local community fire department offered to put out the fire, but the new leader warned them to let the burning platform take its course. Changes were announced to improve the processes and breakdown the crystallized bureaucracies within the community.

After a few days of announcements and the introduction of sweeping changes the burning platform had turned to ash. The new leader had left the community to campaign in another community down the road. Everyone gathered around the town square to clean up the burnt timbers and ash left from the burning platform. One of the community managers looked back and said, “It takes a community to rebuild from something like this.” Everyone nodded in silence as they worked to clean up the town square. The community knew they would have to work together and that the town square was central to being better together. Everyone had to come together. Everyone had to work together. They were better off together. A town will always be a town. People in that town have to work together toward achieving common goals.

Everyone knew that building a platform and burning it down did not help the community. Leaders often think of change in the workplace as a sport. Maybe this metaphor will help explain why the end of disruptive change as a workplace sport is so important. Restoring a community involves building out a stronger community. A large body of academic literature exists related to building strong organizations that are designed for success. A wide variety of techniques exist related to organizational development. Building and burning down platforms over and over again in the middle of a community does not make sense. It is destructive.

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