Channel Tom for change

by | Nov 7, 2011 | Blog | 0 comments

Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain’s fictional character from the 19th century, remains a modern day change champion.

Throughout The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom shows three strengths that work well today for anyone implementing change in organizations.

1.  An orientation toward building relationships with diverse groups.

2.  Bias toward action.

3.  Commitment to leverage.

This book was required reading this fall for “One City, One Book”  for my village of Kensington, CA in celebration of our 100th birthday. As I read Tom Sawyer, I was struck that the book’s vision of childhood also offered some powerful insights for adults inside organizations.

For example, the self-confident Tom works the community to meet a range of people, from the Widow Douglas to Huckleberry Finn to Muff Potter, creating coalitions along the way. Building relationships is always important in business, especially for getting others to support what we’re doing, especially around change.

Tom takes time to assess situations, but he’s more inclined to act than get wrapped up in “analysis/paralysis.” True his actions may often be more folly than shrewd; after all, he’s a boy captivated by pirates, robbers and other objectionable characters. However, Tom did manage to figure out how to escape from a cave when he and Becky got lost. Implementing change is all about taking action, including making a clear ask of others about the steps you want them to take and helping them get into gear.

Then there’s Tom’s astute move to persuade his friends to help him whitewash a fence—which is supposed to be his punishment for playing hooky from school and dirtying his clothes in a fight. He convinces his friends to trade him small treasures for the privilege of doing his work. He realizes that “in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” As adults in organizations, we know we can’t do everything alone. We need to collaborate with others. So why not position the tasks as something they can enjoy and benefit from?

Tom is clever beyond his years, which makes the book work as both a comedy and a drama.

And Tom remains an inspiration for many of us, including David Coleman whose book 42 Rules for Successful Collaboration  was an ode to Tom Sawyer. (David who specializes in collaboration got others to help him write book chapters.)

Now that I’ve fulfilled my reading commitment for my village, I’m starting The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This is for One Book One Northwestern.  (As a Northwestern alum, I remain active with the university.)

I can read with a clear conscious because I’ve finished John Kotter’s A Sense of Urgency and The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations. One of my clients, which is undergoing massive change, has asked its extended leadership team to read these two books.

This shared experience gives us common language that helps us have more meaningful conversations about the change. While Kotter and his books are classic must-reads on this topic, I confess I’m also enjoying the broader range of literary works.

What are you reading these days?


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