Successful change movements all have 3 acts

Nancy Duarte

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Nancy Duarte

Leaders of world-changing movements, from social leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. to business leaders such as Steve Jobs, persuade people to follow them into the unknown, the unpredictable, the untested.

Because change is both scary and difficult, they also help those followers push through their fears and overcome big obstacles.I wanted to see if there was a method to that magic, since it’s so critical for organizations to keep innovating and reinventing if they want to survive over the long term. (Many companies, including my own, have learned this the hard way as core products and services have matured beyond their sell-by date.)

So my colleague Patti Sanchez and I studied the most successful movements in business and society to look for common patterns.

Here’s what we found: The process mirrors the classic three-act structure of a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end — and a lot of turmoil and triumph sprinkled in. All the great leaders we studied repeated this process with each new idea or venture. Think of it as a long train of S curves, extending into the future, preventing complacency and stagnation — because inspiration is a job that never ends.


In the beginning, you share your dream with others and persuade them to take a leap into the unknown

You have a vision for how to make something better, but you need others — maybe your employees, partners, customers, or investors — to follow you and help you make it happen. So you act as a torchbearer, illuminating the path from here to there by helping them understand where they are headed and what the journey ahead will look like.

You describe your vision vividly and compellingly so that your fellow travelers long to see it become reality. Many CEOs deliver vision speeches at the beginning of each year that serve this purpose.Then, to move forward, you inspire people to assume new goals and responsibilities. That’s not an easy task. People will often reject something that rocks their world, so you must paint a compelling picture of the rewards they’ll gain to entice them to jump in.

Show them that the rewards justify the risk. Also inform them of the sacrifices that will be required so they know what they’re getting into. In a 2005 speech to Apple developers, Steve Jobs announced that the Macintosh would no longer be using the PowerPC processor and would shift to the Intel platform. This was a nerve-wracking transition for developers.

But Jobs reminded them how successful Apple had been in earlier transitions, like moving to Mac OS X, and explained that this change would help them “keep pushing the frontiers.”

A silhouette of a person holding a sword and flag, leading a group of people upwards


The middle, as in any good novel or movie, is where most of the tension plays out — the scrappy fight, the steep climb

Challenging the status quo does not come without hardship. Complex processes may prove more difficult to simplify than anticipated. Initial ideas may flop, or a competitor may throw a wrench into your gears. It’s your job as the leader to remind people what’s at stake and encourage them to press on.

In 1999, Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, rallied his team to embrace the new mindset that inventive technology and tireless hours would help them win against rivals. He said, “If we are a good team and know what we want to do, one of us can defeat 10 of them. We can beat government agencies and big famous companies because of our innovative spirit.”

Eventually, though, the fighting and the climb will start to take their toll. Overcoming hurdle after hurdle can dampen everyone’s enthusiasm. So you need to reenergize people by acknowledging the progress they have made. Remind them of key milestones and celebrate small wins while keeping their sights set on the big goal.

Silhouette of two people looking at a sunrise while having their arms around each other


At the end, you and your cohort arrive at the new destination

When the dream becomes reality, everyone deserves (and needs) a victory dance. Whether big or small, this “movement” has changed the course of the future. It’s also time to take stock of lessons learned to prepare for the next journey, because if you’re planning to stick around you’ll soon have another dream. And another.


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A version of this article originally appeared in HBR.

Illustrated by Rodney Montenegro

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