George Bernard Shaw once said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Leaders venture out and are not afraid to challenge the status quo. They step into the unknown, looking for opportunities to grow, innovate and inspire. All the stories collected by Kouzes & Posner involved leaders facing a challenge and no one claimed a personal best by keeping things the same.
Leaders who challenge the process are willing to challenge the system to get new products, processes, services and systems adopted – even if there is a risk of failure. And if they do fail, they learn quickly from their actions.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this powerful practice, ‘Challenge the Process’ can be broadly summarized in the following manner. It is the practice in which:
They look for innovative ways to improve the organisation or the world. In doing so, they experiment, take risks and achieve small wins.
Leaders search for opportunities and seize initiative in order to change the status quo.
And because leaders know that risk taking involves mistakes and failures, they accept the inevitable disappointments as learning opportunities.
The concept is relatively easy to grasp.
Leaders have to search for opportunities by seeking innovative ways to change, grow and improve. Each leader has to ask himself, “How do I go to work today and do something that will move the enterprise and myself another step in the right direction?” Although there has never been a time when a company could rest on its laurels and survive, it is even truer today that if you are holding your own, everyone else will be passing you by.
To search for opportunities, leaders must use the four essentials:
Seize the initiative
Initiative is one of the tenets of army operations. To be effective on the battlefield or the boardroom, you must gain and maintain the initiative. It is essential to make your competition react to you, not you to them. Once initiative is lost, all control of the situation goes to your opponent. The first of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits is to “Be Proactive”. Proactive leaders are able to seize the initiative and gain control of their personal and business environment.
Make challenge meaningful
This ties right back into “Inspire a Shared Vision”. When people understand why they are doing things, they buy into it and are much more motivated to accomplish their objectives.
Innovate and create
Routine work drives out non-routine work and smothers to death all creative planning, all fundamental change in any institution.
Look outward for fresh ideas
We need to leave behind the not invented here (NIH) attitude. There are all kinds of sources of information and knowledge that we have not yet tapped into. Continually question the status quo and look to see how others are handling their challenges. Experiment and take risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from mistakes.
Self-imposed limitations and beliefs hold most people back. The only true project constraint is a lack of imagination. Leadership is learning by doing, adapting to actual situations. Tennis star Martina Navratilova lost 21 of her first 24 matches against Chris Evert. She decided to accept more risk and hit more freely and beat Evert in 39 of their next 57 matches. No woman tennis pro has ever won as many matches or tournaments as Navratilova.
Create a learning environment
The best leaders are the best learners and the best creators of a learning environment. Some of the ways we can create a learning environment are by:
Get others involved. Learning involves more than a few people.
Ask if anyone of the group has had experience doing this before. Have that person share their knowledge.
Simulations or trials. Test things out before you put them in place. Everything can be a pilot.
Keep track of the process and were a mistake was made. This will reinforce the learning environment.
Celebrate each correct move.
derail the challenge
‘Challenge the Process’ is more easily preached than practiced, often resulting in a strong feeling of hypocrisy about leaders. On numerous occasions, people have told me, “My boss says she wants us to be creative, challenge the status quo and think outside the box. But when we question why certain work must be done the way it is being suggested, we hear something akin to, “If you have a problem with it, no one is forcing you to work here!”
How would you translate that message? It can certainly come across as controlling, duplicitous and quite disabling to creative efforts. It is usually much easier for you to challenge something you believe needs improving than to have others challenge something you believe does not. There will always be operations in an organisation that are untouchable at the moment. But, you will lose your credibility as a leader if you declare yourself immune to change or your favourite things off limits to the scrutiny of others.
Sometimes, the practice is communicated as “challenge only the little things”. There are organisations that seem to allow people to dabble, tweak, fine-tune or slightly improve but any change that might be considered too big is off limits. There is nothing at all wrong with continuous improvement. It just does not require the same degree of leadership that more ambitious opportunities call for.
Inherent in this practice is the need to experiment and take risks. Challenge the Process is never completely safe. Remember, if there is no chance of failure, there would be no risk taking, only sure thing taking. Leaders must continue to work at creating an environment which promotes the taking of a few chances.
In some companies, challenge is positioned as additional work vs. part of the job. I remember hearing a boss actually say, “If people around here think they have time to go off and look for new ways to do things, maybe they don’t have enough to do right now.”
Challenging the process is not “something else” that people need to do, on their own time. It is the only way to keep up with change occurring every day—from competitors, technology, economic conditions or whatever. If change is not done by you, it will be done to you and leaders know on which side of that statement they most want to be.
In closing, here are three pieces of advice when attempting to bring forth the full power and value of Challenge the Process. First, keep yourself and others focused on the specific behaviours associated with it and do not get caught up in the various misinterpretations of the word “challenge”.
Next, remind others that the practice is ultimately about taking action to create change. It requires preparation, dialogue, respecting others and cooperation because change usually produces some level of discomfort for those affected by it.
Finally, remember that Challenge the Process is a two-way street. You cannot expect others to enthusiastically pursue growth in this practice if they are repeatedly shut down every time they offer a new or different approach.
(Lionel Wijesiri, a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial experience, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)