Setting Context & The Burning Platform

Al Gorman Change, Managing Leave a Comment

When we set forth to assign a task to an individual the significance of context is too often underestimated. Agreed that those tasks that are routine and repetitive in nature require very little in terms of relevant context beyond that applied when the task was first assigned, unless of course something significant has changed.

Context assists in the assignment of meaning to work, to society, and in fact to life itself. Recall the events of 9/11 and we will be drawn to the importance of context. In its relationship with US homeland security the context was altered radically following the crash into the twin towers. Airport and border security took on an entirely new meaning following the event. Air travellers were subjected to immense security screening following 9/11 and were pleased to entertain these measures because of the real risk that was perceived for every North American citizen. Absent the events of 9/11 the response would have been one, when subjecting these same individuals to the intensity of security and searching, that would have been protested as an infringement on individual rights and freedoms.

How does this apply to work organizations? (or other institutions, political leadership, etc.) Context needs to be relevant, tangible, and compatible with meeting the needs of the individuals the context is being provided for. An objective in providing context is to inspire the individual, or the team, to work cooperatively to deliver the outcome requested. The subtlty of being able to align context with each individual’s inherent need for security and belonging will ensure that he or she feels motivated in executing the assignment. The “burning platform” approach is all too familiar, and too readily employed. It promotes that we have this crisis or that one and we all need to adjust in this particular manner or that undesirable and inevitable consequence will materialize. Granted it may work once or twice and the impact wears thin rather quickly. In fact, employees can become defiant at some point, that resiliance in each of us that suggests I will only be victimized so long before I fight back…the “go ahead pull the trigger” response.

What’s the alternative? Fair, honest, and courageous communication; the manager who shares appropriate context, even when that context is apt to imply a serious problem can expect to be received by a team that are willing to help. While reading a quotable quotes book recently, the assertion by one American C.E.O., suggesting that he never laid the ultimatum out to his employees but rather took the big problems to them and asked for their help, was compelling. People arrive at work committed and they all want to help. We all are greater than we either provide ourselves the opportunity, or someone else provides us the space, to be.

As a result, the following key considerations in establishing meaningful context need attention:

1) How is this relevant to the organization?

2) What does this mean to/for the employee?

3) How will the needs of the employee and the organization be satisfied if we succeed?

4) What are the risks and critical issues?

These are not presented as certain consequences but as risks. If one asks for questions he or she is apt to hear the question “what do you think might occur if we don’t succeed?” It behooves us to be honest and then to define that with the help of the team we are confident we will succeed. We don’t see failure as a viable alternative.

5) Ask for the employees’ help.

“We have to get ‘this’ accomplished. It’s significant for ‘this’ reason, and I’m asking for your help.”

6) Be his or her biggest fan.

The burning platform never really burns. How could it? It’s floated out over and over again and it’s high time we sunk it.

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