The Knowledge Hub of IMD
FacebookFacebook icon TwitterTwitter icon LinkedInLinkedIn icon Email

Brain circuits

What lights a fire within your company?

Published 30 June 2021 in Brain circuits • 2 min read

Looking at what drives companies to transform their belief systems to be customer-led we have identified a quality we call “burningness”. This is when you feel something so strongly it is like you are on fire. It is a necessary force to compel companies to change. 

When you have this state of burningness it flips your risk calculations. Normally, the safest thing to do in business is to keep doing roughly the same things that brought you success and the dangerous thing is to try something bold or something different. But if you’re on fire then the status quo is untenable – your only option is to take a bold step in a direction that looks promising. In our experience, an absolute prerequisite for successful customer-led transformation is burningness because customer-led initiatives are otherwise too hard to justify in advance. 

So how do you create or sustain burningness in your company? 

Burningness comes from one of three things, in descending order of effectiveness: pain, fear or ambition. 

Pain is the most effective way to create burningness. It’s something that is going wrong now, so it is the most urgent cause of feeling on fire. In this situation you are met with a crisis and because you are in the midst of it nobody argues about the need for bold steps. There is little resistance to change. 

Fear is second, not quite as effective as pain because it is fine now but it appears something will go wrong in future. A good example is digitalization across many industries. Companies know it is coming, so they see they need to change, but it’s tempered because for now your business is going well. Why would you disrupt yourself? People shy away from making things difficult for themselves before they absolutely need to, so they wait. 

Ambition is the weakest because it is entirely self-generated. This means your situation is okay, but because you have a strongly held vision for a better outcome you have a burning desire to turn things upside down proactively.  

Pain, fear and ambition can all be great motivators if they are strongly held. They cause a burning feeling but if you become a success as a result of them, then they are difficult to sustain. Where is your company and your teams? If they used burningness well in the past, do they still have this fire? Or have they become complacent? Can you re-light their fire with ambition or fear? Look at the future and challenge yourselves to do more, and get paranoid about how you stay ahead of the curve . 

If you would like to learn more about shifting your company’s belief system in a bid to become a customer-led success, you can dive deeper with our book the Customer Copernicus. 



Seán Meehan

Martin Hilti Professor of Marketing and Change Management at IMD

Seán Meehan is the Martin Hilti Professor of Marketing and Change Management at IMD. Their book, The Customer Copernicus, is available from Routledge

Charlie Dawson 

Founder of The Foundation

Charlie Dawson is the founder of The Foundation, a London-based consultancy that helps organizations create customer-led success.  


Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on. They only take five minutes.
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
Sign up

Welcome to I by IMD


You have 4 of 5 articles left to read.