The Challenge Culture: A book review by Bob Morris

The Challenge Culture: Why the Most Successful Organizations Run on Pushback
Nigel Travis
PublicAffairs (September 2018)

The almost unlimited power of purposeful questions, positive pushback, and civil debate

In our personal lives as well as in our careers, if we don’t know the WHY when undertaking a significant initiative, the WHAT and HOW really don’t matter very much, if at all. That’s probably what Socrates had in mind when suggesting that many people live unexamined lives. More recently, Henry David Thoreau suggested that many people “live lives of quiet desperation.” I was reminded of these observations as I began to read Nigel Travis’s book in which he stresses the importance of pushback. Consider: “The ability to create a culture of challenge in your organization — business, not-for-profit, governmental, academic — is essential to survival and sustainability in today’s chaotic world. Only through questioning, pushback challenge, and debate will you be able to stay relevant, respond to customer needs, and sustain yourself.”

So, what are the defining characteristics of a challenge culture? “People are expected to question the status quo, push back on long-held assumptions, and examine and discuss new ideas and proposals, always looking for more and better information, refinements, and more exceptional initiatives.”

Note: Under rigorous scrutiny, the status quo may be validated and new ideas and proposals may be rejected, deemed insufficient or inappropriate. Organizations need a continuous process that functions as a crucible. I call this the “alchemy of excellence.”

Back to Travis: “To do all this, people must be encouraged to challenge one another in every direction within the organization: up, down, and sideways. They must not be afraid to speak up, to question their bosses, their peers, and their board — and they should be confident they won’t face unfair repercussions if and when they do.”

In this book, Travis makes an immense contribution to our understanding of organizational health. It is no coincidence that the companies annually listed among those most highly-admired and best to work for are also annually listed among those that are most profitable and have the greatest cap value in their industry sector. However different they may be in most respects, all have a challenge culture. They don’t encourage principled dissent; they demand it. They train their people in the essential challenge skills: purposeful questioning, positive pushback, and civil debate. Near the downtown area here in Dallas, there is a Farmer’s Market at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I offer a selection of Travis’ insights, accompanied by a few annotations of mine:

o “Challenge cultures are not created overnight or by executive decree. They have to be modeled, shaped, and refined over time.” Think of a culture as a garden in which people’s growth must be nourished…and protected. (Page 13)

o “The sad truth is that too many organizations in virtually every arena of endeavor operate with authorities that discourage challenge and questioning.” Strong leaders understand that “good enough” is the enemy of great. Weak leaders feel threatened by what could be great. (30)

o “Challenging the status quo can be risky, then, but it’s important to understand that [begin italics] not [end italics] challenging it can be far more dangerous.” (48) Neglecting a minor cut could result in a major infection.

o “Collaboration is the ability to work productively with other people. This skill is fundamental to the challenge culture. It is the ability to listen to different viewpoints and to work in group settings for the benefit of the goal of the group, even if you have some reservations about the agreed plan of action.” Mutual respect and trust are imperative. (75-76)

o “So, just as the challenge can be broken down into core skills in soccer, challenge skills can be defined in the business environment, including purposeful questioning, civil discourse, and productive, explicit disagreement.” (83) Almost anyone can master these skills over time with supervision and repetition.

o “One fundamental cognitive bias is, ironically, the bias blindspot [i.e. denial]…Confirmation is another cognitive style that affects most of us, at least some of the time [i.e. seeking/accepting only what validates a pre-judgment]…A third important method of our thinking mechanism is stereotyping [i.e. defining people in terms of  being in a group rather than as individuals].” People can easily become hostage to comfort and custom. (116)

o Benefits of napping: It increases alertness, improves accuracy, facilitates better decisions, improves the bottom line, and boosts creativity. Most accidents and errors of judgment are the result of fatigue. (148).

o “Overcommunication is sometimes metacommunication. Communication about communication.” The WHY is at least as important as the WHAT and the HOW. (205)

o “The issue of succession [is] is another characteristic that I believe is a key to creating a strong, sustainable challenge culture: stability.” People need to feel secure when urged to be candid. (239)

Obviously, Nigel Travis learned valuable lessons from his senior-level executive experiences at Grand Metropolitan, Blockbuster, Papa John’s Pizza, and especially from Dunkin’ Brands (Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins). I commend him on the abundance of valuable information, insights, and counsel that he provides in this book. The material will help leaders in every organization — whatever its size and nature may be — to be well-prepared to establish or strengthen a challenge culture that thrives on purposeful questioning, positive pushback, and civil debate.

Grand Metropolitan, Blockbuster, Papa John’s Pizza, Dunkin’ Brands, Dunkin’ Donuts, Baskin-Robbins

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