When I was studying at the U.S. Army’s red teaming school at Fort Leavenworth back in 2015, I was introduced to a powerful concept called “My 15 Percent.”
The idea is simple: Whether you are a general or a private, there are things you can do to improve the performance of your unit, that will improve the performance of your division, and ultimately, the Army as a whole. It was the product of research by organizational psychologists who found that no matter how disenfranchised or powerless people feel – no matter how low they are on the totem pole – they still have the ability to directly influence at least 15 percent of the part of the organization they work in.
So, we were taught, if you don’t like the way things are going, focus on making a positive change your 15 percent.
The same approach works just as well in corporations, according to bestselling business author and executive coach Barry O’Reilly.
“Often people say that we can’t do anything if the leaders won’t let us do it, or somebody else is stopping us, or that team will let us down. But people have way more power than they realize,” he told me, adding that even front-line managers can help their companies make better decisions by changing the way they approach decision making every day.
“When you show up and say, ‘I think we need to change the culture or the way we work here,’ it’s a big ask. But when you show up and say, I’m going to start small. I’m going to start doing one thing differently every day, I’m going to try and share with my peers that we need to unlearn the way we make decisions, or even more important, the way I make decisions. I’m going to try and make decisions in a different way this week. I’m going to be more collaborative. Maybe I’m going to be more direct or maybe I’m going to try and make sure I get contrary opinions before I decide. Maybe I’ll wait until I hear everyone else's opinion in the team before I make the decision – these are all tiny, little changes people can make on a daily, hourly basis, that is role modeling new behavior,” O’Reilly continued.
“It can actually have a profound ripple or network effect in companies, because once people see you trying to change your behavior, and then they see some of the evidence of the results of change – that the team are happier, that you're making better decisions, that the product is growing, the process is changing – suddenly they’ll want to replicate what you're doing. That’s how movements start.”
And once other managers start following your lead, it’s bound to get noticed by more senior leadership.
“That builds the momentum to where the leadership team are then looking and going, ‘What is this group doing differently? They seem to be happier. They seem to be shipping more. People seem to be more engaged in their work. What’s happening there? We need to do more of that!’ That’s where you can bring them into the equation,” he says.
O’Reilly has seen this happen many times, but his favorite story is from Capital One bank. He was working with the leadership team in charge of the credit card business, reviewing their weekly reporting dashboards, when the head of that business unit called a time-out.
“He went, ‘Everything on here is an output. We’re just measuring on time, on budget, on scope, task complete. There are no outcomes here. We need to shift to be outcome-based if we’re going to be successful, based on where , the (chairman and) CEO wants to go,’” O’Reilly recalls. “He went back to his desk and wrote his bulletin update for the week, and was like, ‘Hey everybody, we’re all trying to transform the way we work. My team’s trying to work in a more agile way. This week I recognize that we’re too output based. We need to become more outcomebased. This is how we’re trying to change. It’s difficult, it’s hard, but it was a great realization for us.’ He sent that email to 50,000 people. This creates this agency in the company. That’s inspiring. People were stopping me in the corridor going, ‘We’ve never got emails like this before. What the hell’s going on up there?’”
And that led to sweeping, positive changes throughout the company.
“There’s no two ways about it: One person can have a profound effect,” O’Reilly says. “Whether you’re the CEO or you’re on the shop floor, don’t discount the agency you can have. If you’re worried, just start small. Do one little thing every day and see the impact it can have.”