The concept of the burning platform is based on the story of an oil worker in the North Sea who wakes up to find his rig on fire. As it burns he realizes that he has only two options; stay on the rig and perish in the fire or jump into the icy waters below where death is highly probable. He chooses the latter, is rescued and survives. The lesson from this parable: taking any action is better than waiting to be engulfed by the flames.
This is the position Apple found itself in back in the late 1990s. The corporation was hemorrhaging cash trying to compete with Microsoft and Dell. Their products were unremarkable. Their strategy was not differentiating.
With very few options remaining, the Apple board looked to the past to try to reinvent its future. They took the unprecedented step of rehiring Steve Jobs to be CEO, who immediately did what was previously unthinkable and secured a $150 million loan from Microsoft. He then jumped off the burning platform of boring, tan, box-shaped computers and re-imagined the desktop as a more shapely, all-in-one unit that came in a variety of colors. Then in succession introduced the iPod, iTunes, Macbook, iPhone and iPad, never resting as he felt the flames continue to lick at his heels. If it weren’t for the fact that Apple was in such trouble in 1997 we may never have had these innovations.
So how can we introduce a culture of radical innovation into our companies before we get to the brink of bankruptcy?
When a company is sailing smoothly through a string of profitable years with products that are satisfying its customers, the last thing any executive wants to do is bring risk into the equation. The truth is that every platform is a burning platform, even if it seems successful now. It may happen next year. It may take three years. But, inevitably successful products and businesses will come under attack by competitors. If you have a good business, someone will try to take it from you. Rather than wait for that to happen, great companies evolve before they’re forced to.
Most companies make the mistake of waiting until their product feels stale and their competitors push them to change. They try to milk every penny of profit from their cash cows and in the process are forced into a strategy of defensive innovation.
So how do you create a sense of urgency when there is no visible external pressure?
How do you turn your cash cow into a burning platform?
Envision the worst case scenario.
Most business and product plans make assumptions based on the best case scenario or at least a continuation of the status quo. Markets will grow, competitors will evolve, costs will come down, etc. We all know that’s not how the world works. New technologies, regulatory changes, economic disruption can all greatly affect our businesses. If the worst were to happen tomorrow what changes would you make to cope with it? In what way could those changes spur innovation even in the best of times?
Imagine your business without your core product.
The most profitable companies derive a significant portion of their revenue from products that weren’t in their portfolio five years ago. Relying on your core product and creating line extensions may make for excellent short-term profits. In the long run, however, they weaken the brand and prevent you from making leaps into new, more profitable categories. Apple’s exponential growth began once they realized they weren’t in the computer business.
Create a scout team.
Each week in the NFL teams practice against their “scout team,” a group of players who run the upcoming opponent’s plays and emulate their personnel. Working against the scout team allows the offense and defense to learn about their competitor’s strengths and weaknesses and develop a successful game plan. Create scout teams in your organization and run one, three, and five years simulations against each competitor.
Identify companies that aren’t competitors now, but could be.
Five years ago if you asked executives at Ford who their toughest competitors were, they would have said Toyota, Honda and maybe General Motors. Hyundai and Kia weren’t even on their radar screen. But now the Korean manufacturers are quickly taking significant market share in the two largest and toughest segments of the automotive business, mid-sized and compact sedans.
Who’s waiting on the horizon to take share away from you?
Don’t be afraid to identify a role models and learn from them. Read their writings, watch their speeches, study their decisions. The CEO du jour is Steve Jobs, but of course there are many other successful leaders out there. Imagine if one of them were running your company. Would they wait for the competition to move first? What actions would they take to create and maintain competitive advantage?
When it comes to innovation, urgency is your friend. If you wait until the market is pressuring you, however, it may just be too late. For every company like Apple that survives, many more fail like Borders, Nortel, and Silicon Graphics.
Harvey has spent over 25 years creating both award-winning communications and new products for such brands as Chevrolet, Pepsi, Kraft, Kimberly Clark, Mercury Marine and many others. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan where he prepared for this modern world by studying Latin. Harvey served on the Board of Directors of the Product Development and Management Association and has spoken on the subjects of branding, advertising creativity, and innovation at conferences across the country. Harvey is the founder and Director of Disruption of OBX Thinking, a product innovation and marketing firm in the US.