How many times have you sat in a meeting in which not one of the attendees challenged the prevailing opinion about the issue being discussed?

A Challenge Culture Is an Imperative for All Organizations

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on December 18, 2018

How many times have you sat in a meeting in which not one of the attendees challenged the prevailing opinion about the issue being discussed?

What is it about an organizational culture that prevents at least one lone-wolf independent thinker from expressing a counter opinion? Does the leader voice a negative reaction to a counter-opinion, rather than encourage the attendees to speak their minds?

Former chairman and CEO of Dunkin Brands Group Nigel Travis was in Philadelphia recently to speak about the importance of establishing a challenge culture within organizations in which input from employees is welcomed. He was interviewed by thought leader and event host Karin Copeland about his recent book, “The Challenge Culture,” in which Travis shares the importance of leaders nurturing this type of culture.

Copeland asked Travis, “What is a challenge culture, and why is it so important in every organization?” Travis responded, “It’s a culture in which direct reports can challenge their bosses … and colleagues can challenge each other.”

Travis said, “A challenge culture is … [one in which] people have a say, where people understand what’s going on. The results are great business solutions and total buy-in, because people feel involved [and respected].”

A challenge culture is needed to ensure that the brutal facts of reality are recognized to arrive at the best course of action, and to create a sense of ownership in that course of action by those involved in its execution.

Of course, that culture needs to focus on attacking business issues and not people, so that challenging others doesn’t destroy working relationships. Respecting civil discourse is a key determinant for success in a challenge culture.

Working in a challenge culture requires individuals with the self-confidence to hear criticism of their ideas and not take it personally, and to have the ability to challenge others.

Leaders must listen to their experts, and not dismiss their input. Not doing so is at their peril. In August 2015, I wrote an article headlined, “How an independent thinker unearths brutal facts of reality,” in which I described how NASA ignored the Thiokol engineers who warned against the launch of the space shuttle Challenger due to cold weather conditions that could result in the failure of the shuttle’s solid rocket booster O-rings.

Challenger was launched on Jan. 28, 1986, and the O-rings failed 73 seconds after launch, resulting in the tragic loss of the lives of five astronauts and the shuttle.

That article also described the culture within the Rogers Commission (named for its chairman Willian P. Rogers), established to investigate the reasons for the Challenger disaster. The following contains excerpts of that August 2015 article.

The Commission found that NASA, concerned about their inability to meet an unrealistic launch schedule that might jeopardize their Congressional funding, did not face the brutal facts of their reality – launching in cold weather conditions would expose the Challenger to an unacceptably high level of O-ring failure risk.

Physicist Richard Feynman was the lone-wolf on the Rogers Commission. Feynman clearly saw that two issues within NASA were lack of communication and an understanding of risk. Through his own work independent of the Commission, Feynman learned that NASA management felt that the likelihood of shuttle failure was one in 100,000, compared with NASA engineers, who felt that the likelihood of failure was one in 100.

Feynman was the lone-wolf on the Commission, wanting to probe an organizational culture in which there was such a large disconnect between management and their technical experts.

Feynman was at odds with Rogers on many issues during the investigation, and when Feynman learned that the final Commission report would not focus on the issues he felt were key to the loss of the shuttle, he decided to write a minority report. If it wasn’t for Feynman, these issues within NASA might not have been identified and addressed, perhaps leading to future shuttle disasters.

So, how do organizations ensure that the brutal facts of their reality get addressed? It takes the leadership of the CEO to nurture an environment that values a challenge culture as advocated by Nigel Travis.

In the words of renowned Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coelho, “If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: Never lie to yourself.” Leaders, remember this when one of the independent thinkers on your staff reminds you to face the brutal facts of your reality.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

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