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How To Create Change When You’re Not In Charge

create change when you're not in charge

What does the name Thomas Wilson mean to you?

Probably not much. But over a decade ago, this young man created a groundswell of change in a massive Federal organization that altered thousands of lives for the better; including mine.

How did he do it? And what can we learn from his story about creating large-scale change from the bottom up?

It was 2004. I found myself in Camp Beuring, Kuwait, preparing to cross into Iraq with my battalion to support the surge that was in place for the first Iraqi election. Afterward, we would remain in Iraq for a year-long rotation.

Two weeks prior to launch, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Kuwait, for a press conference designed to energize the troops prior to the mission. This is when Specialist Thomas Wilson stood up and asked the following question:

“We’ve had troops in Iraq for coming up on for three years and we’ve all been staged here out of Kuwait,” says Wilson. “Now, why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles and why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?”

Specialist Wilson wasn’t joking about digging around scrapyards. In the weeks leading up to this moment, we’d spent day after day scouring through junkyards full of destroyed American vehicles to assemble the equipment and armor we needed to protect ourselves. It was a tense time for all of us, and morale was understandably affected.

Now, we weren’t asking for the heavily armored vehicles you see today. We were shaping nickel-plated, ballistic steel onto our vehicles to provide a most basic level of protection. When we launched, the vehicles looked like they were straight out of a Mad Max movie. It wasn’t much. But we had something.

Specialist Wilson was literally at the bottom of the food chain in the largest and most diverse organization in the country; speaking to the man who reported to the President himself. His question sucked the air out of the room in that moment. It was completely counter-cultural to ask it, but he had the courage to stand up and create real, meaningful change with a simple question.

Within a week, cargo aircraft were landing in Kuwait full of ballistic steel for us. Thomas Wilson saved many lives in the moment and in the years to follow as his action shined a spotlight on a real issue. Over the next few years, our armed forces began to be supplied with proper equipment to achieve their unique mission and, without a doubt, Wilson’s actions had a far-reaching impact on thousands of lives.

Change Is A Complex (And Necessary) Process

No matter how small or large, change is, at its core, a people process, and it’s possible to create change no matter where you sit.

But, as we all know, large-scale change is never easy. People are creatures of habit, after all, so it’s not surprising that they naturally resist change. We don’t like things messing up our world, even if our world kind of sucks.

It’s our sucky world and we’re familiar with it. If it changed, who knows what might happen?

In addition to peoples’ general tendency to resist change are the complexities of an organization’s culture and the various subcultures that exist, which can have a significant effect on peoples’ behavior.

Your organization likely has a variety of unique subcultures (by role, by location, etc.), each bringing a variety of different beliefs and assumptions to work each day. Understanding the beliefs and assumptions that exist within your organization and its subcultures can help you make sense of “what right looks like” and how to succeed.

Workplace culture helps guide our behavior. It’s what makes our work lives consistent and predictable. But sometimes, it can hold us back. Thus, it’s imperative that we make the effort to understand our culture and ask ourselves what existing beliefs, assumptions, behaviors, and processes may no longer be serving us well.

Creating Change Without Positional Power

Change is, at its core, a people process. So how do we create change when we’re part of a massive organization and not in charge?

Challenge your individual and collective beliefs and assumptions. What is real and what is self-imposed? I typically work with clients who are struggling with a set of assumptions that are either completely self-imposed or that may have been true at some point but are no longer valid. Honestly examining the “reality” that you operate within and to be questioning what is and is not valid in the present context can help you gain an understanding of how you may be limiting your own possibilities without even knowing it.

Identify what is within your span of control and your span of influence. Your sphere of control may be somewhat smaller than you’d like but it is important to consider what you can influence in your role. It’s surprising, when you actually sit down and think about it, how much each and every one of us can influence in the day-to-day.

Use tools to measure the “issues” and help others understand the impact on the business. As a business leader, I feel like this is the price of admission, but I’ve called it out explicitly anyway. In order to create change, especially when you’re not in charge, doing your homework is critical. Bringing valid data to the table to help you present your case will help others get on board.

Seek out a sponsor. Identifying someone who has a larger sphere of control and getting them to buy into your case can help open a lot of doors. Understand and respect that this sponsor may be putting a lot on the line to support you and they will likely want to make sure you’re case is water-tight before committing too much to it.

Learn to sell your ideas in “leader speak.” Understanding your audience and articulating your ideas in ways that resonate with what they are concerned with is a surefire way to get noticed. Just because you think something is important doesn’t mean they will, so presenting it in the context of the business will help your ideas resonate.

Recognize your hidden assets. If change is a people thing then creating change is not constrained by position. Anyone can create change person by person if their ideas are sound and if they are able to convey them in a way that gets people on board. Understanding what assets and resources are available to you, both in yourself and in the network around you, can help you gain momentum.

You’re super passionate and you see an opportunity to create positive change in your organization. Fantastic! Be mindful that creating change need not include leaving a trail of bodies in your wake. Acknowledge that others may have a vested interest in keeping the status quo. Just because the solution seems simple to you, there may be many other factors at play that you are unaware of. Staying objective requires you to present your case with an air of diplomacy.

Knowing What You Don’t Know Isn’t Enough

At the end of the day, action is what creates change.

Specialist Thomas Wilson’s courageous statement all those years ago changed the course of my life and the lives of thousands of others. He challenged the way things were done in a respectful and professional way, which in turn, kicked off a series of events that pressured the US government to find a way to make positive change quickly.

It is possible. My challenge to each of you is to work with your colleagues and leaders to find opportunities to create change in the areas that you have control or that you can influence. Test your beliefs and assumptions. Work together to identify what is within your span of control and your sphere of influence. Use the tips in this article to create little victories that can build upon each other over time. And most of all, have some fun doing it!


This article originally appeared on Forbes.