Don’t Have a Burning Platform? Set the Fire Yourself!

When you walked into the office today, did you smell smoke? Was your life—or your company’s—at risk? Did you have to make split-second decisions that determined your survival? My book, Kill the Company, applies the parable of an oilrig fire in the middle of an icy sea to today’s complacent company. Just as a fire is the only reason an oilrig worker would deliberately dive off a platform to near-certain death, most leaders won’t embark on radical change when business is going well.

Many of us labor under the illusion that if our company has great brand value and a track record of innovation, we should just stay the course. But what strategies are currently in place to ensure that 10 years from now, you aren’t pointing to the same accomplishments that you’re bragging about today? How will you keep your team from succumbing to a status-quo mentality?

You may not be aware of it, but somewhere in your organization, there’s a vulnerability with the potential to burn your company to the ground. Do you want to wait for it to engulf you or start fostering a culture now that encourages people to keep an eye out for smoke signals? Imagine if Research in Motion (RIM) had challenged itself to identify missing opportunities and weaknesses back when it was the fastest-growing company in the world. It could’ve been BlackBerry, instead of Apple, that capitalized on the idea that a mobile device could be a pocket-sized computer—instead of just a phone with email capabilities. Truly innovative companies are in a constant state of re-evaluation and reinvention, even when they’re at the top of their game.

So, how do you light your own company on metaphorical fire? For many of our clients, highlighting weaknesses from a competitor’s perspective helped create a burning platform that started real dialogue about what issues were holding them back. It starts with  you leading an exercise called Kill the Company. Simply invite a diverse group of people across all departments and presenting the following challenge: Pretend you are our competition. What would you do right now to put us out of business?

By turning a standard question—“how can we beat the competition?”—on its head, you allow people to identify weak spots with both a measure of distance and the benefit of insider knowledge. And by pretending to be an outsider, employees are liberated from all the usual excuses, politics, and rules. After all, your competition simply wants to get to the big opportunities before you do.

On individual sticky notes, ask employees to list all the ways your competition could bring you down: “sell the same product for a third of the price ” or “partner with Upstart Y” or “deliver in half the time.” Now, organize the sticky notes on a 2×2 axis grid from largest-to-smallest threat and from easiest-to-hardest to resolve. Where are your biggest threats clustered? Manufacturing? R&D? Shipping? These clusters indicate areas that need immediate attention. Additionally, this exercise can reveal strengths within your company. If say, you’ve got a lock on technology, talk about how you can maintain or magnify this advantage in the future.

After identifying how the competition could destroy you, ask your teams how they would stop it from happening? Implementing a logistics solution that would cut your own delivery time? An acquisition or partnership that immediately expands your customer base? This is the moment when you determine exactly how to put out the blaze.

Once you’ve successfully “saved” your company, turn your knowledge outward: which of these tactics can you use on the competition? Perhaps you streamline your R&D-to-manufacturing process so your competition isn’t first to market. Sell your own products for a third of the competitive price. Acquire Upstart Y before the competition does.

In a world where the most adaptable and agile win, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels: we must find creative and productive ways to create value with the resources we have. An organization’s long-term productivity and competitive advantage can be improved only when its leaders are courageous enough to thoughtfully question the status quo. If you’re a forward-thinking company, you must confront the weakness today that could ruin your business tomorrow.

Want to learn more? Register for Lisa’s webinar with CCL on May 15th 2013. For more innovation tips and tricks, sign up for futurethink’s complimentary newsletter here.

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About Guest blogger Lisa Bodell

Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink, an internationally recognized innovation research and training firm. Lisa founded her company on the principle that with the right knowledge and tools, everyone has the power to innovate. As a leading innovator and cognitive learning expert, she has devised training programs for hundreds of innovators at leading companies such as 3M, GE, and Johnson & Johnson. Lisa is also the author of provocative culture change book, Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution, which was named one of the Best Business Books of 2012 by Booz&Co and won the 2013 USA Best Book Awards in the Business: Management & Leadership category. For more information on Lisa, please follow her Twitter at @LisaBodell.
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