At some point in your tenure as a business leader, your company, department, or team is going to be shaken up. Even without the hopefully-once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, upheavals happen in every industry and with every business as markets flux, innovations emerge, economies adjust, competitors advance, and for countless other reasons. If you are in a period of reasonable calm (excepting, of course, the ever-present assortment of hiccups and fire drills that no company is without) you are likely relishing the chance to take a deep breath and enjoy some well-earned comfort. And you should … but not for too long. This is the perfect moment to initiate some healthy disruption of your own.
This is the fourth installment in our blog series, Taking up the Leadership Challenge about James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner’s classic work The Leadership Challenge. This blog is about the third of their Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® and goes by the name Challenge the Process. They affirm, “You can’t achieve anything new or extraordinary by doing things the way you’ve always done them. You have to test unproven strategies. You have to break out of the norms that box you in, venture beyond the limitations you usually place on yourself and others, try new things and take chances.” To do so, they say, leaders should actively search for opportunities and experiment, and take risks.
In our experience, the absolute best time for searching and experimenting is when things are going well. Why? Because it puts you in the driver’s seat. You control what you do, how you do it, when you do it, and all the other variables. You are able to decide to act rather than being pressured to act.
Preempt the Competition
One of our clients demonstrated this in exemplary form. The company’s products were sold exclusively through large retail chains such as Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart. Sales were steady and distribution went like clockwork. Why change anything, right? But this client agreed with Kouzes and Posner’s injunction to “Ask questions that test people’s assumptions … Asking questions is how you’ll continuously uncover needed improvements, fostering innovation.”
The question our client asked was, “What if one of our competitors starts selling their products on Amazon?” The answer was obvious: “We would lose market share.” They assessed that it was only a matter of time before the competition would diversify from selling only to retailers to offering personal sales on Amazon. Therefore, it would be in their own best interest to seize the opportunity to preempt the competition and get on Amazon first.
This decision did not come without risk. The company leaders knew that opening up sales on Amazon would cannibalize some of their volume to large retail outlets. But, because they were not under pressure to act, they had the time and space to make carefully-calculated decisions about how to act. They started small, with one product line where the risk was the lowest. The rollout was carefully planned, results were measured, and learnings evaluated. Based upon that experiment, additional products were steadily added to the Amazon portfolio at a cadence and in a manner that ultimately increased total sales and market share. Rather than waiting to be disrupted by a competitor, our client chose to be their own disruptor – and profited tremendously by doing so.
Is it hard to Challenge the Process? Unquestionably. After all, success is not always guaranteed when you try something new. Kouzes and Posner address that fact when they state, “Because innovation and change involve experimenting and taking risks, your main contribution will be to create a climate for experimentation, the recognition of good ideas, the support of those ideas, and the willingness to challenge the system. One way of dealing with the potential risks and failures of experimentation is by constantly generating small wins and learning from experience.”
One of the greatest bosses I (Rip) ever worked for knew how to create a climate that promoted innovation. Obviously, he celebrated wins when people experimented and succeeded. But he also celebrated failures. Literally, he celebrated failures. Rather than bury failures as quickly as possible – the typical corporate maneuver – he did the opposite. When an experiment didn’t work, he had the people involved report on what they did and share why it didn’t succeed so that others could benefit from lessons learned. He then praised them for having the creativity to come up with the idea and the courage to try it out.
The outcome was a culture where people were energized to try new things because they knew that even failures were considered stepping stones to success. In this atmosphere, innovation flourished and produced many winning ideas. As Kouzes and Posner observe, “It may seem paradoxical, but many echo the thought that the overall quality of work improves when people have a chance to fail.”
Take Control of Disruption
Challenging the Process is not about pursuing change for the sake of change. It is about having the courage to search for and seize opportunities to advance your business. So, if things are going smoothly for you, start asking questions to Challenge the Process. Which aspects of your business are in need of improvement? Now is the time to get to work. Which aspects are going great? Now is the moment to consider whether you can do even better. Are you comfortable with your products and services, customers and market share? Now is the time to ask what might make you uncomfortable – and proactively address those potential threats.
As we said at the beginning, disruption will come. It’s a sure thing. Why wait for external pressures to choose the time and place and possibly leave you scrambling? Take control by Challenging the Process and becoming your own disruptor!
Be sure to read the other blogs in this series:
- Taking up the Leadership Challenge.
- Leadership Challenge: Are you Anchored or Adrift?
- Leadership Challenge: Breathe New Life into Your People.