The Starting Points Counts

Article, Insights

How to lead human systems optimally

How do you motivate yourself and others?

When you want to motivate yourself or others, you can do it in two different ways:

You can create a Burning Platform – this is what we would normally call an “away from” motivation or a Burning Desire – this is what we would normally call a “towards” motivation.

The consequences of working from a Burning Platform …

Let’s be clear – working with a Burning Platform as a starting point can work, and throughout history this approach has produced many great results. Just think of Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to the British Parliament on June 4, 1940.

When we chose to refrain from using a Burning Platform as our starting point to create motivation, it is because it does not support long-term sustainable results and healthy profit.

… with customers

If you use a Burning Platform as your starting point – focusing on the customers’ Problems and Pains in your sales work – you can make the customer buy from you here and now – in particular when the platform is burning out there. The negative consequence is that the feeling you create in the customers when you interact with them this way will be associated with you and your brand.

Typically, the Burning Platform approach will only work a few times with the same customer before the they start to think: “How come I keep having Problems? I thought I was paying you to make my Problems and Pains go away.” And then they will start – consciously or unconsciously – to avoid you and look for a new supplier and another solution.

Working from a Burning Platform is, therefore not the right strategy if you want the customers to become your Positive Activists.

… with employees

In the same way, when you use a Burning Platform, Problems or Pain in your management of your employees, you will also be able to see results in the short term. In other words, you can scare your employees into working harder for a period of time in order to create a better performance. However, you run the risk of several of your employees becoming burnt out and apathetic over time. They get the experience that no matter what and how much they do, it continues to hurt.

… with dogs

In the 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman used this strategy to create helplessness in a well-known experiment with dogs, called “Learned helplessness.” In this experiment, he brought a dog into a compartment with two boxes separated by a few inches high barrier. He then gave the dog an electrical shock through the metal floor of the box it was placed in. The only way the dog could escape the pain was to jump over the barrier to the other box, after which the shock was applied again. The observation, Martin Seligman made, was that after a few times the dog gave up. It just laid apathetically in the box and put up with the pain.

… in strategic and change management

So, if you want proactive and energetic employees who can maintain a sustainable performance – also when change is needed – the Burning Platform is not the best approach either. When you use a Burning Platform, Problems or Pain as a starting point for change management, you run the risk of your organization wasting its efforts on the wrong activities, in the sense that you may be solving some of your problems, but it is not certain that you will set the right direction for your business at all.

And then there is the ethical aspect …

Finally, there is a bigger and – for most of us – deeper question that arises, if you choose to

use a Burning Platform, Problems or Pain as your starting point to create performance and results …

Is it ethically justifiable to scare people and this way, force them to do what you want?

We don’t think so.

In fact, this is the most important reason, why we have chosen to start in a different place when we work with organizations, employees, and customers. Our world is a world defined by a Burning Desire.

The consequences of working from a Burning Desire …

In our approach and in our models, we start by uncovering what already works well

  • for the customers or
  • the organization or
  • the employees or
  • any human system that we are working with, for that matter.

If you start in a negative state, focusing on the problems you experience, you may be able to find a solution to those problems – and you may even find a workable solution – but often, you will not find the right answers to the questions that underlie the problems.

However, we will not let our actions be defined solely by the challenges. It is not enough for us to just solve problems. They are merely projections of the past. We need to start in a different place to create real change and true value. If you take your starting point in a positive state and focus on what is already working for you – your strengths – you will be able to concentrate on, what you really want – an outcome with a higher and more lasting value than the value created by just solving another problem.

The fundamental idea is here that there is a larger system surrounding the (human) system with which we are working and that the system with which we are working reacts in relation to this larger system. Thus, the aim of the model is not to use time and energy to change the system we are working with. On the contrary, the aim is to reorient it and expand it – in a constructive way – so that it can accommodate the information from the larger system.

The Starting Point Counts

In the case of dynamic systems – and humans, including organizations with living people in them, are always dynamic systems – the process is initiated by starting with what works for the system and then letting the goal rather than the problem define the procedures; otherwise, the problem would become part of the solution, i.e., the starting point counts.

Thus, we start by uncovering what already works for the system – the Present State+ (PS+) – instead of what doesn’t work for the system – the Pain, the Problem, the Burning Platform – characterized by the negative state that we could call Present State(PS­-). This is the starting point used in most conventional models in sales and in interaction with human systems in general.

From there – from the Present State+ (PS+) – we create an outcome, a Burning Desire called the Desired State++ (DS++), with a higher and more lasting value than the value created by just putting out another fire, solving one more problem, or relieving an additional pain, resulting in a state that we could call the Desired State or DS, without any connotation.

This is the model we normally use to show why it makes so much sense to start in the green Present State+ (PS+) and create a Burning Desire from there instead of starting on a burning platform in the red Present State(PS­-) when we work with human systems.

The Staring Point Counts

The mindset we apply when we position ourselves in the green zone, where the human system works at its best – the PS+ – and use a Burning Desire to define the DS++ is that it is the strongest part of the system defines what it is capable of. Or, to put it in other words: The limits to people’s achievements are not set by their weaknesses – their problems – but by their strengths – their talents. Their boundaries are defined by what already works for them. Therefore, when leading human systems, it makes much more sense to take the green path and start with what already works than taking the red path and begin with what doesn’t work.

When you are working with a purely mechanical system, the situation is different, of course.  Here, the old saying that the “weakest part of the chain” defines its strength applies. If the back tire of your bicycle has a puncture, then you have a Burning Platform – you are in the red zone. When you have mended the tire, the bicycle will work again – and you will be back in the green zone.