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Try vs. Do

Another piece from the “Way Back Machine,” first published in April of 2002

A colleague of mine read a piece I wrote called Movies About Sales Are About Something Else, and noticed that I had incorrectly quoted Master Yoda on the virtues of trying vs. doing. I clicked around until I found what is described as the shooting script for “The Empire Strikes Back.” Reading it got me thinking about the question of personal or organizational change. But before I get to that topic, here is the Yoda and Luke scene at Dagobah:


Luke’s face is upside-down and showing enormous strain. He stands on his hands, with Yoda perched on his feet. Opposite Luke and Yoda are two rocks the size of bowling balls. Luke stares at the rocks and concentrates. One of the rocks lifts from the ground and floats up to rest on the other.


Use the Force. Yes…

Yoda taps Luke’s leg. Quickly, Luke lifts one hand from the ground. His body wavers, but he maintains his balance. Artoo, standing nearby, is whistling and beeping frantically.


Now…the stone. Feel it.

Luke concentrates on trying to lift the top rock. It rises a few feet, shaking under the strain. But, distracted by Artoo’s frantic beeping, Luke loses his balance and finally collapses. Yoda jumps clear.



Annoyed at the disturbance, Luke looks over at Artoo, who is rocking urgently back and forth in front of him. Artoo waddles closer to Luke, chirping wildly, then scoots over the edge of the swamp. Catching on, Luke rushes to the water’s edge. The X-wing fighter has sunk, and only the tip of its nose shows above the lake’s surface.


Oh, no. We’ll never get it out now.

Yoda stamps his foot in irritation.


So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?

Luke looks uncertainly out at the ship.


Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.


No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.


(focusing, quietly)

All right, I’ll give it a try.


No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.

Luke closes his eyes and concentrates on thinking the ship out. Slowly, the X-wing’s nose begins to rise above the water. It hovers for a moment and then slides back, disappearing once again.


(panting heavily)

I can’t. It’s too big.


Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hm? Mmmm.

Luke shakes his head.


And well you should not. For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. It’s [sic] energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we…

(Yoda pinches Luke’s shoulder)

…not this crude matter.

(a sweeping gesture)

You must feel the Force around you.


Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere! Yes, even between this land and that ship!



You want the impossible.

Quietly Yoda turns toward the X-wing fighter. With his eyes closed and his head bowed, he raises his arm and points at the ship. Soon, the fighter rises above the water and moves forward as Artoo beeps in terror and scoots away. The entire X-wing moves majestically, surely, toward the shore. Yoda stands on a tree root and guides the fighter carefully down toward the beach. Luke stares in astonishment as the fighter settles down onto the shore. He walks toward Yoda.


I don’t…I don’t believe it.


That is why you fail.

Luke shakes his head, bewildered.

There Is No Try in Change

“There is no try” resonates through all time and all heroic journeys. Lack of belief, courage, faith, and self-reliance hounds the hero at every step, sometimes bringing the hero down, sometimes becoming the catalyst that propels the hero and the journey onward.

Strength and courage of commitment are powerful aligning forces that empower both the individual and the group to change. Change and change management are not trivial matters. Whatever effort it takes to develop a new vision, operating principles, strategies, and tactics—not trivial tasks by the way—pales in comparison to the effort required to move an organization along the path towards greater customer centricity, a superior customer experience, a new go-to-market, or whatever else might be galvanizing leadership.

There is an academic answer to the question of how to drive change. The folks with the big degrees like to use words like “guiding coalition,” “empower,” and “consolidate” when speaking of these things. John Kotter (Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press, 1996) proclaims for eight keys to driving change:

  • Establish a sense of urgency.
  • Build a guiding coalition.
  • Develop a vision and strategy.
  • Communicate the new vision (over and over).
  • Empower broad-based action (get rid of obstacles and disconnects).
  • Generate short-term wins and create recognition.
  • Consolidate gains and produce more change.
  • Anchor the new approach in culture.

For some reason I could never get excited about those concepts. Joseph Campbell paints a much more profound picture of change in his epic book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. He says:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (Campbell, pg. 30)

Strip away the glowing language and mythic concepts and you find that organizational change is nothing more or less than a Heroic Journey. We don’t think of it that way, we don’t use those words, but that’s what it is. We’re not talking about some sort of mindless, overbearing, cartoonish vision of leadership where everything gets done only through outsized effort. We’re not talking about making promises we can’t hope to fulfill and then trying to do it anyway. We’re not talking about plunging your organization headlong into a battle it cannot win. Think instead of heroic as the disciplined, vision-driven, difference-making mode in which every group of achievers has performed throughout time.

On an individual level, the hero is Ernest Shackleton who loses his boat in the crush of the Antarctic ice and yet brings his entire crew out alive nearly a year later.  It is Gandhi. It is the nameless boy on the farm who heeds the call to arms in defense of his country. It’s the middle school music teacher who starts in September with a bunch of kids who sound like they’re strangling cats and delivers in June: musicians.  It is the working mother who stays up all night with her sick child and still shows up at work the next morning because that’s what you do. It’s anyone that faces his or her fears and makes a difference as a result.

Organizations can be heroic as well, and not because they are collections of heroes. Instead, they make heroes out of ordinary people. They are the elite fighting forces in every nation. They are the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. They are any group bound by duty and discipline to do the job, do it well, and care for their comrades as they do it. They are any group that says “we’re willing to go on the journey, be accountable, and be judged not just by the score, but by how we compete as well.”

People through all time and everywhere love tales of heroic journeys because they connect us with what the philosopher Carl Jung called archetypes: they tap into a shared sense of meaning. You can plug in Hercules, Homer, Clint Eastwood, Jason and the Argonauts, Mao, or Pele and the power of the story still holds up.

Journey as a Metaphor For Change

The heroic journey—the change journey—has recognizable and predictable components. Although there is a wonderful richness and variety to the myths and legends of different tribes and races, heroic tales all ultimately adhere to the designs of what Campbell calls the “monomyth.” Without too much work, we can extrapolate those mythic features into the following points, each of which applies nicely to the concept of organizational change.

The Call to Adventure: Every journey begins with a call. Often the hero ignores or ducks the call, but eventually it can be disregarded no longer. The change mavens like to spruce this concept up with words like “burning platform.” Whatever you call it, the adventurers need to hear and heed the call. There can be no going back.

In mythic lore, the journey may have been shrouded in mystery, but the destination seldom is. And even if it is in some myths, it shouldn’t be in your organization. If you’re going after the Golden Fleece or you’re off to slay the dragon, everyone needs to know where you’re going and what it will look like when you get there. Use simple pictures and words. It’s easier to visualize the past then the future. That’s one of the many reasons why people keep doing what they’ve been doing. Help them see, hear, and feel the relative advantages of doing something new.

Supernatural Aid. In Campbell’s words: “For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure . . . who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.” (Campbell, pg. 69) There isn’t a consultant in the world who wouldn’t like the job of supernatural aid, even though the figure in mythology is often a withered old crone or an ugly critter. But mark the words: every journey is filled with peril. That’s what makes it heroic and that’s what makes it worth doing. Don’t ignore the guide.

Crossing the First Threshold. There will be challenges on this journey, and therefore there will be a first challenge. Many journeys founder at this point. But it is successfully meeting the first challenge and getting the first win that provides the propellant the journey needs.

Time is the necessary component of change. It takes time to drive any type of change and embed it into the organization. Time is also the erosive and corrosive force that eats away at the resolve required to turn small wins into broad beachheads and sustained success. Speed to first business benefit is everything.

This is where the amulets and potions come in. Here is where you’re going to be glad you have Yoda or Ben Kenobi on your side. You need to be prepared for the first challenge and know how to get past it. Or to state it another way, your change program needs to produce some sort of visible victory, fairly soon in the journey, or people will lose faith.

The Road of Trials. Says Campbell, “The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage.” (Campbell, pg. 97) The second part of that passage is the interesting one in the context of the organizational journey.

There will be psychological, systemic, and process obstacles to making any change. Existing processes and practices cut their own deep grooves over time. These are the Minotaurs, dragons, and evil witches of the modern organizational change journey. The question is: what will you do when you hit an obstacle?

At some point, fighting the good fight is a job for the team, not the consultant. While your people will often listen to management or an outsider, they pay attention to what their peers say and do. These peers, these thought leaders within your organization’s social system, are the “benign power of the region” Campbell speaks of. If you can’t get these folks bought into the journey and engaged in meeting the trials and challenges, you’ve got a problem. You need to get the people that everyone watches in the boat and on the journey early. If they won’t join in, you may need to get some of those people out of the boat before you can continue.

Finally, don’t loose site of the fact that all tribes have totems, stories, legends, and myths. One of the problems with your change journey is that those old touchstones may not be much help along the way. In fact, some of them may even prove antithetical to your new purpose. Don’t leave your people without encouragement on this strange new journey. Even tiny little steps and small signs of success need visibility and recognition as the journey begins. These, in turn, become the new stories and legends that will support the new design. Later, when the new practices take hold, shift your recognition to bigger, more substantial wins.

The Ultimate Boon.  Having reached the final destination, the hero faces his or her ultimate test. In some cases, the journey is the hard part and the boon or blessing is easily won. In other cases, the final challenge is a fierce one, calling on all the faith, cunning, courage, self-confidence, amulets, chants, potions, and the occasional trick that the hero has at his or her disposal.  But to win the challenge is to win the boon—the blessing that the hero brings back to the benefit of the tribe.

In many cases, organizational change initiatives aren’t as neat as the myths of yore. There probably won’t be some final battle: “yesterday we weren’t customer-centered; today, we smote the dragon and now we are customer-centric.” Instead, the boon will show up one win and another benchmark reached at a time. As my client and colleague Carol Gray, Executive Vice President Small Business Banking at CIBC says:

It’s tempting to try to solve for nirvana. What you’ll wind up with is an impossible to implement solution that takes five years and millions of dollars, or tens of millions of dollars, to implement. You need to chunk down your project into six-month deliverables that are meaningful, have an impact, and have utility immediately. If you don’t, people will disengage and funding will dry up.

It’s not quick wins. Everyone uses those words, but that’s too transactional a view of implementing something that’s really quite complex. It’s too ‘throw it out, let them use it, and then throw it away.’ What you want is a deliverable that encourages the behavioral changes you’re looking for. That’s the first and hardest thing to do.

The Magic Flight. Says Campbell, “If the hero in his triumph wins the blessing of the goddess or the god and is then explicitly commissioned to return to the world with some elixir for the restoration of society, the final stage of his adventure is supported by all the powers of his supernatural patron. On the other hand, if the trophy has been attained against the opposition of its guardian . . . then the last stage of the mythological round becomes a lively, often comical pursuit.” (Campbell, pg. 197)

The concept of the boon or elixir is what’s important here. The boon needs to get back to the tribe. Or to put it another way, the journey needs to bless the tribe, the employees, and the customers if it’s going to work. The customer experience needs to get better, the work needs to be more rewarding and interesting, and the financial rewards all around need to be superior, or why go through the pain of change? If the big boon is that you get to keep your job or the company gets to make more money or that we get to survive, it’s not much of a boon at all. No boon, no change.

Crossing the Return Threshold. Grabbing the fleece, killing the dragon, capturing the castle, or raising the X-Wing fighter isn’t enough. You have to make this win, this boon, part of the culture of the tribe. Tell the stories, call it the new standard, anchor your new processes, rewards, and recognition to it, and raise the bar on your collective expectations.

All of this brings us back to Yoda and Luke. None of this change regimen will work without leadership.

It’s tempting to talk about organizational inertia and how people resist change. That’s Luke thinking. Raising stones or raising X-Wing fighters: they were the same to Yoda. Change is change, the journey is the journey, and it all begins with you. Commit yourself and your leadership team to the disciplined thinking and action required to first raise the stone, then the next, and then raise the X-Wing fighter from the murky depths.

Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.