Your Change Initiative Will Fail Without This One Thing

This is a story about resilience. It all started in Stockholm, Sweden on July 7, 1912. A man named Jim Thorpe was there to compete as the first Native American in the Olympic Games. For a guy who lost both his parents as a kid and grew up poor in the Dust Bowl, this was a big deal. Not everybody was as excited for him to be there though.

On the last day of competition, Jim woke up to discover that his shoes had been stolen. There were no sponsors to give him another pair and no teammates willing to support. Jim was on his own. He ended up finding two pairs in the trash, but the sizes didn’t match. So, Jim put on extra socks to make the big shoe fit, and he won a gold medal in the decathlon that day.

Why is Jim Thorpe’s story more important today than ever? Because it’s race day and we can’t find our shoes.

It’s no mystery that economics, technology, and business are changing faster than ever before. We’ve heard about the cars that drive themselves, money that transcends government, and the computers that learn and grow. We know that changes like these will shape the future of work, but we’re not sure how. It might be that machine learning and robotics put 800 million people out of work or that most of the jobs in the future don’t even exist yet.

But we need more than generalizations and bold prophecies right now. There are already computers outperforming doctors in diagnosis, banks losing customers to apps, and big retailers dying on the vine. What can we do right now?

Ask any CEO and they’ll tell you that the answer lies in accelerating change. To have an organization filled with people ready to find new markets, leverage emerging technology, develop new products, and to accept that change is the new normal. But that same CEO will probably tell you it’s not an easy road, maybe going so far as to cite the brain science on why change is hard for human beings.

It’s all true, and it’s why most organizations today have an entire team focused on change management. Equipped with frameworks, process maps, and a theory of change, these people work to shift the collective mindsets and behaviors of hundreds, thousands, and sometimes even hundreds of thousands of employees. It’s no easy task.

But too often these initiatives fail. For example, Sears launched an enterprise-wide change initiative in 2013 complete with seven new cultural beliefs, four new key results, and a new mission statement. Five years later they declared bankruptcy. Which brings us to the point of this article: Accelerating change is not about management, it’s about meaning.

When Jim Thorpe woke up that day in Stockholm, he didn’t have a framework telling him to go to the trash can to look for shoes. He didn’t have a process map telling him to add those extra socks. It was something deeper. It was meaning. Because as a man born from the depths of despair, those games meant more than any medal or accolade ever could. There was nothing that was going to stop him from competing that day.

The most creative, resourceful, and resilient thing on this planet is a human fueled by meaning. Fully aware of who they are, and what they are there to do. It's Kurt Vonnegut leaving his job at General Electric to write, Wilma Rudolph winning three gold medals after surviving Polio, and Katsusuke Yanagisawa taking that first step to climb Mount Everest at the age of 71. It’s the impossible dreams.

Unfortunately, too many of us have lost the meaning in the work we do. It’s why only 22 percent of the American workforce think that their leadership has a clear direction for the future. We can do better.

If you want to accelerate change in your organization, you can still use that framework and process map. But know that you'll need more than that. You'll need a story that creates meaning for your people on who they are and what they are there to do. A story to unlock the most creative, resourceful, and resilient thing your organization has: people.

It’s time to lace up those shoes.

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