The Difficult Second Act: Lessons for Leading Change

February 9, 2016
February 9, 2016 Joe Britto

When you’re leading change telling the right story makes all the difference in that difficult second act, so let’s think about what makes for a good tale.

Once Upon a Time…

Peggy Creamcheese, the only one legged servant girl on a pirate ship (as far as she knew) looked out forlornly into the dark night. She pulled a picture from her pocket, the one right near her heart and looked equally forlorn at the image of her long lost sister. “Susie Creamcheese”, she thought, “where are you?”

In the distance she could see a mountain. Land! But wait the mountain was moving.

When the first wave hit she fell to the deck. With the second wave half the crew fell overboard. That didn’t scare Peggy. She knew this was her chance. Captain Greenbeard stumbled past her and with one jump she whacked him on the head with her wooden leg, and plucked the treasure map from his pocket.

When the storm cleared, it was clear sailing.

Taking over Captain Greenbeard’s ship, Peggy rescued her long lost sister from rival pirates and together they found the treasure right where X marked the spot. Peggy and Susie sailed the seas known to all who met them (and some who didn’t) as the Notorious Girl Pirates.

The End.

The Hero’s Journey is the Change Journey

Hmmm, film producers won’t be knocking on my door offering millions for my hit children’s movie, but there’s something else missing too. Our story nearly fits the classic hero’s (or rather heroine’s) journey structure. In Act I Peggy accepts the adventure and in Act III she has a victorious resolution. But the problem with this story is there’s no Act II. Peggy doesn’t go through the Difficult Second Act that makes Act III so satisfying.

For a story to work we need that second act. And, as Brené Brown’s research shows, it needs to be a Difficult Second Act for Act III to work. Leaving pirates stories for Hollywood, it’s the same in the real world – especially when you’re leading change in your organization.

Why? If any change idea is going to work, it needs to be radically different from what came before. Radically different ideas may well have a stormy second act but the hard won results are far more effective. If you doubt that think back to the “change projects” you’ve seen before. The ones that were tweaks to an existing system or process that didn’t work well.

The Difficult Second Act – A Crucible of Change 

Making sense? If you want to get people on board with new idea, it needs to be different. It needs to hold a promise that the problems of the past will not only be dealt with, but vanquished.

But how do you make sure it’s the best idea? Well, that brings us back to that Difficult Second Act. It means having difficult conversations. And yes that can mean constructive and passionate debate – what some might call conflict.

And just like in the hero’s journey, you’ll find allies, you’ll meet opposition, you and your idea will be tested. And just like in a good story, the hero (and your idea) will be forged in the crucible. And come out the other side better for it.

That’s not a journey for everyone.

But it can be.

Leading Change, Leading Honestly

In Rising Strong Brené Brown suggests three things we need to thrive in the second act. For her, it’s about The Reckoning (getting curious about how your emotions connect with the way you think and behave); The Rumble (getting honest about the stories you tell yourself about your change – what’s real and possible and what’s a fear keeping you from achieving it); and The Revolution (your willingness to write a new story).

Maybe it’s even simpler. Here are three tips on how to do it:

  • First be honest to ourselves about ourselves
  • Then be honest about what we want to do and what’s standing in our way
  • Lastly, be honest with others about what we’re seeing

Because if we can do that, then maybe other people will want to help us achieve it.


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