The Challenge of Leadership (Part Two) – Challenging with Success


In a previous article, I wrote about the importance of the leadership practice, Challenge the Process, described in the book, The Leadership Challenge.  In my mind, it is the practice of business growth, as it is hard to remain successful over time by continuing to do things in the same old way.  As they world changes (that is—changes in customer expectations and demands, technology, competition, etc.) so must organizations, or they will simply get left behind.  Although it is easy to talk about the value of challenging and changing processes, procedures, product offerings and the like, it is not so easy to make it happen.

Over the years, I have asked hundreds of people to identify role models who have been successful in Challenging the Process within organizations, and then to describe how those people were able to succeed while so many others struggle.  From this research, I have created a list of six factors for raising the probability of success in the difficult work of Challenging the Process.  I hope you find them useful in your own efforts.

1. Respect the Culture

How would you like it if someone barged into your home and started lecturing you on how to raise your kids better?  Most parents would be offended to some degree.  In organizations, similar resistance can occur to those who Challenge the Process.  You must be careful in how you confront and challenge accepted processes, systems, or behavioral norms.

It is crucial that you understand and appreciate the environment in which you are attempting to challenge the way something is currently done.  You just cannot barge in and criticize the other people for their use of a process you believe to be inefficient or archaic, or send the message that you are the savior of the organization.  Simply because you believe you have a better way of doing something does not mean that it is better in everyone’s eyes.

Respecting the culture does not mean caving in and demonstrating unwillingness to push back with innovative ideas and changes.  It does mean recognizing the past accomplishments of the people in the organization and not belittling those efforts because of a system or process that is no longer serving its purpose in the best way today.  In order to be most effective, you need to be mindful that there are appropriate ways to have your “Challenging” (vs. “condescending”) voice heard.

In spite of how well an organization is performing, there will always be an aspect of immense importance that is not performing well.  It might be a compensation system, an internal overhead allocation process, the way new people are on-boarded, the means by which customer information is gathered, or a host of other processes or procedures.  Leaders are willing to step up and take responsibility for addressing these opportunity areas.  And they realize and communicate that working to improve certain processes which may have flaws, does not imply that the entire organization is broken or poorly managed.

2. Understand the Process You are Challenging

Resist the urge to Challenge Processes you know nothing about.  This leadership practice requires homework.  A process can have many parts that touch many people in many ways.  A change to one part of a process can have unknown or unintended consequences in another part.  You must understand a process in its current state, so you can determine the impact your changes will have.  Remember that a solution to one problem often creates many new problems.

In addition, you must expect that you will likely offend or upset others when you initiate change.  The quote “reform is usually not popular with those who are in charge of that which needs reform” is something to think about.  Other peoples’ reputations may be tied to the original process you are trying to change, or they might be most effective in their work with the way the process functions today.  You need to know who may be negatively impacted by your proposed changes in order to figure out how to ultimately earn their support.

3. Build a Compelling Business Case (if you can)

This one is obvious, but not as easy as it appears. In our cost/benefit focused world, you must be able to prove your point.  However – and this is crucial – often, you cannot present a rock-solid case for the change you may be proposing.  Several years ago, I was working with a scientist from Bell Labs, back when it was a pure research lab.  He told me that if a solid business case for development of the transistor would have been required, the research may have been scrapped.  At that time, he said, no one could envision the varied uses that led to the transistor’s ultimate commercial value, so its development costs would likely have far exceeded the currently identified, expected value.

Whether this was fact or just one scientist’s opinion, his point of view provides a lesson we should grasp.  Part of your role as a leader is to help people go to places they have never been before.  That means you will be frequently blazing new trails, with great ideas for doing things differently, which have never been fully proven.  You still have to find and present evidence to convince people that a new and different approach is worth pursuing.  Gut feel or personal opinion is seldom enough.

Finally, be reminded that you may have to rely on evidence other than facts, because sometimes indisputable facts just don’t seem to pan out.  For instance the cost advantage for a high tech company to outsource its customer service might be relatively easy to prove.  But in another example, recall the surprising response when Southwest Airlines announced they were going to trial a dramatic change in their boarding procedures by offering pre-assigned seats.  (Given that every other airline does it this way, wouldn’t it be fair to say this process has proven to be most desirable?)  Who would have thought that SWA customers would raise such an outcry, when their airline wanted to adopt the industry norm?

4. Build Advocates Inside and Beyond Your Current Circle

Challenging the Process is hard and lonely work because it leads to change that can create discomfort and produce opponents.  You need to be able to build a ground swell of support for your process or procedure innovations.  Having key people throughout your organization carrying your message forth is a necessity to make progress.  If you are unable to get others to join in, you can easily run out of energy and your novel idea will forever remain simply an idea, not an implemented improvement.  A critical mass of supporters, from a wide variety of levels and interests, is often all you will need to be successful.

5. Build Credibility through Small Wins

In most organizations, being associated with a big idea that is a success is a great lift for your reputation and your career.  But you have to earn the right to be heard on the big, important items.  The second commitment in the definition of Challenge the Process refers to “generating small wins.”  Small wins allow you to build a track record with people, and to show that you can be counted on to deliver what you promise.  Following through on promises and commitments is at the core of credibility.  When you are viewed as credible, others will have more confidence when you propose a new way of doing something that is currently unproven.  Do what you say you will do everyday, deliver consistently on the small things, and very soon you will be involved with—and trusted with—some very large opportunities about which you are passionate.

6. Choose Your Battles Thoughtfully

It can be easy to become seduced by the dark side, where you become a constant critic of everything in hopes of demonstrating how smart or valuable you are.  Don’t become known as a whiner or complainer.  Accept the fact that you cannot Challenge every Process.  You must be selective and apply your time, talent, and energy toward improvements or breakthroughs that are an investment for you.

Like all aspects of leadership, Challenge the Process is about results.  It is easy to Monday-morning quarterback and call out problems or inefficiencies that need attention.  It is much harder to inspire and mobilize people to figure out and implement better ways of doing things.  Focus on a few opportunities where you can take some real and measurable action.

Copyright  © 2008 International Leadership Associates, Steve Coats