Why a Call to Adventure Is the Secret to Lasting Change


Why is leading change so hard?

One task common to nearly all team leaders is to initiate some kind of innovative change management. It might be in service of a corporate reorganization, or merging a newly acquired team, or adopting new enterprise-wide technology, or introducing a new approach to creating, managing, and activating content. 

With so many change initiatives happening so often, it’s a wonder we’re not all experts at it by now. But no doubt about it, we are not good at it.

So many initiatives in our companies live up to that famous epigram from French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

People often lament the inability to implement change in a company and see the failure as change that didn’t happen.

Often, though, change did happen. We did reorganize the department, integrate the new team, implement the new enterprise technology, or change the way we manage content. The failure comes not in the inciting event, but in our inability to reap the benefits of the change. In other words, we changed, but the problems renewed or remained. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

If you search for advice on how to lead change, you often see the same recommendations for your first steps: Create a plan, have a clear focus, find early adopters, get leadership buy-in, and so on. These steps aren’t wrong, but they overlook one missing component that can help the change stick: creating a call to adventure.

In his eight-step framework for change management, Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter says the first – and most important – step is to create a sense of urgency among those who will go through the change. Kotter thought that urgency was such an important step that he wrote an entire book about it. In A Sense of Urgency, he says failing to establish urgency is what “produces failure, pain, disappointment, and that distressing 70% failure rate.”

I can’t help but see a similarity between Kotter’s “create a sense of urgency” as a first step and the “call to adventure” in Joseph Campbell’s classic description of the hero’s journey storytelling framework. The “call to adventure” kicks our heroes out of their comfort zone. It confronts them with something so urgent they can’t ignore it, and it propels them to action.

Don’t confuse the inciting incident with the call to adventure.

The inciting incident kicks off the story. The call to adventure creates the urgency for the hero to act. In the original Star Wars movie, the inciting incident is when the Empire (Darth Vader) illegally boards a diplomatic ship looking for stolen plans. The call to adventure that propels our hero to action is when Luke finds his home burned and his entire family killed.

The sense of urgency he feels sends Luke on one of the most famous change management initiatives in movie history. No one would be the same again.

As leaders of change, we are storytellers taking our colleagues on a journey. The acquisition of a company, the purchase of software, and the inability to measure content marketing are all inciting incidents. They kick off the change, but they aren’t the calls to adventure that your heroes can’t ignore.

Without a great call to adventure, there’s no reason for the hero to leave their ordinary world. If they don’t, everything may change – but it will all remain the same in the end.

Give them a reason to change that they can’t ignore, and that change will stick.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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