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Provocative Ideas:
The 15% Concept

The 15% Solution


Most people have about 15-percent control over their work situations. The other 85 percent rests in the broader context, shaped by the general structures, systems, events and culture in which they operate.

This has enormous implications. If you only have 15-percent influence over your situation, it is vitally important to know exactly where that influence lies, and how it can be exercised. Otherwise, you waste valuable time and energy trying to influence the 85 per cent beyond your control. The result: burnout, stress, frustration and a lot of unproductive work.

It's the same with organizations. Many spend a lot of time and money on organization-wide initiatives designed to enhance quality, service or teamwork, only to find that results fade after initial success.

Why? They get mired in the 85 per cent that's uncontrollable, instead of targeting the 15 per cent where substantial results can be achieved. The 100-percent approach tends to spread itself too thinly, and actually mobilizes opposition to itself.

When senior management waves a flag saying "We're restructuring" or "We're going to revolutionize quality and service," who takes the most interest? Those who fear the consequences. People want to subvert the change - or systems and controls tie the organization into the old reality.

Evidence of the difficulties of large-scale change is widespread. Research suggests that successful initiatives are often best launched on the periphery of organizations, far away from central systems and controls. A recent study shows that large downsizings are often followed by even worse financial results in a couple of years.

My own research shows that many organizations are caught in a syndrome of "change, change, change - and going nowhere." Top executives realize that dramatic change is necessary. They communicate new visions, and frequently initiate major changes. But after promising first efforts, results usually fizzle out.

New change programs follow in rapid succession and become "flavours of the month." Quality becomes the "Q word".

Employees groan when "empowerment" is mentioned. They get disillusioned and stressed because the rhetoric is contradicted by processes that continue to reinforce the status quo.

Of course, there are exceptions. Almost any business magazine presents stories of spectacular changes achieved through heroic efforts by a particular chief executive, leader or work group. These inspirational stories often give valuable information and ideas to managers. But in an unspoken and subtle way, they serve to reinforce belief in the possibility of "100-percent change."

In retrospect, successful change programs almost always seem charmed, visionary and well planned. But hindsight is 20-20. From this perspective, the path from the past to present becomes a remarkably straight line. In fact, successful initiatives are usually muddy and messy.

Invariably, they are driven by leaders or groups enthused with a sense of the possible, and of what they would like to achieve. This is what lends them energy and direction. But opportunity, hunch and happy coincidence usually play an important role. More often than admitted, people organize the processes as they go along.

We live in a time when most of our organizations face the challenge of creating breakthroughs. The irony is that there is no magic wand, elixir or sure-fire plan to achieve this.

The challenge rests in finding ways of creating transformational change incrementally: By encouraging people to mobilize small but significant "15-percent initiatives" that can snowball in their effects. When guided by a sense of shared vision, the process can tap into the self-organizing capacities of everyone involved.

Gareth Morgan is Distinguished Research Professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University, Toronto, and author of Imaginization: The Art of Creative Management.

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