The law of 20%

I believe strongly that sustainability should be owned by all employees in an organisation. So why I am advocating targeting 20% of your employees? Because I believe that is the most effective way to get all employees in the organisation on board.

How does this work? It goes back to Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point :

‘once 20% of the population begin moving in the same direction, they act as a tipping point for more change in that direction’.

Gladwell also writes about the personalities – the connectors, salesmen and maven – who play a crucial role in any change process. (‘Maven’ are the intense gatherers of information and impressions who are the first to pick up on new trends).

In his book, The Necessary Revolution, Peter Senge tells the story of how Darcy Winslow at Nike used this principle to effect change. She realized that effectively engaging even 20% of 25,000 employees at a deep level was a hard task. So she identified designers as the ‘mavens’ who were at the heart of innovation in Nike’s business and could lead change – reaching 20% of 300 designers was a better place to start.

The techniques that she then used to engage included a two-day meeting of a cross-section of people in Nike, including designers, to begin the dialogue within the organisation. It also involved shifting the conversation from problems to possibilities. For example, she would start a dialogue with designers, explaining about the issue of waste and toxicity, and then ask the question, ‘What is most important to you about design and new products at Nike? And how, if we were at our best, would you see us facing these challenges?’ She was drawing on Nike values and the spirit of innovation to inspire designers. Once the dialogue had been opened, this could be followed up by asking questions which would stimulate the creativity of designers, such as ‘How do we design a completely recyclable shoe?’

As EE Cummings wrote – ‘Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question’, or as Jim Collins said in ‘Good to Great’ – ‘Lead with questions, not answers’. Today one of Nike’s three official management goals is ‘to deliver sustainable products and innovations’.

So, who would be the 20% that you would target in your organisation? It may be that is a particular department. Or it may be the people who are already leading change and taking action within their own areas and need help and encouragement to do more. And what questions would you be asking of them, to stimulate creativity and inspire them?


1 thought on “The law of 20%

  1. HyperActiveX

    I think you make a valid point – a small number of people can influence the larger masses, and perhaps that is the best way to get to the large majority. And this is applicable to all significant transformation initiatives in general.

    Not sure, though, whether that small number is 20% as opposed to say 15% or 25%. These days the numbers 80 and 20 have become popular thanks to the Pareto principle a.k.a. the 80-20 rule, and the more recent improvisations around this concept in management thinking (e.g., ‘The Long Tail’ etc.). So I guess 20 is a good enough number to peg it at!


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