The traditional organizational model is based on command and control. In practice, everyone is supposed to know their place and what is expected of them.
In his book The Challenge Culture: Why the Most Successful Organizations Run on Pushback, Nigel Travis argues that this model has no place in modern business. The command-and-control culture may serve to maintain discipline and managerial authority, but it also stifles creativity and silences the open and respectful dialogue that successful businesses have learned to appreciate.
The author’s inspiration for this book comes from the premise that when businesses are “challenged from without,” they respond by “squelching challenge from within.” Increasing technological challenges and competitive pressures combine to create a less predictable market. Business leaders seek to reset the balance by implementing intense leadership practices and measuring compliance to increasingly dictatorial policies.
The Status Quo
Even organizations that have embraced empowerment and employee engagement in the past appear to fall victim to this reaction. The need to preserve the status quo and maintain some sense of stability and control seems to take priority when your entire industry is changing. Travis learned this lesson the hard way when he was president and chief operating officer of Blockbuster Video, when they faced the disruptive force of Netflix in their industry. The anecdote of how Blockbuster blew a deal to buy Netflix for pocket change is a highlight of this book.
Travis argues that the imminent demise of your status quo is the very best time to embrace a challenge culture. That’s when you need to question everything –– the status quo itself, existing policies and procedures, and any long-held assumptions that continue to govern how the business operates.
The underlying assumption is that the questioning is positive and the discourse respectful and civil. There is no place for confrontation in this process. Aggression, intimidation, or the settling of old scores through bullying or demeaning behavior will only serve to reinstate and retrench the operational barriers that got the organization to this point in the first place.
The process of pushback is not meant to put anyone on the defensive (although some may need assistance in managing that natural reaction to intense questioning of their departmental practices). By keeping the discourse civil and respectful, a challenge culture can serve to generate learning and stimulate new ideas and new relationships that will rejuvenate the organization.
Cycles Within Cycles
Embracing the challenge culture does not mean that the organization can never settle on another status quo. Relentless questioning can seem just as intense as keeping up with a constantly changing market, but in practice, the challenge culture “progresses in cycles.” A dramatic shift in your market might lead to a period of intense challenge as you develop your response, but there may also be stretches of time when challenges are not really necessary –– what Travis refers to as “a slow lap.”
Embracing a challenge culture is a process that will threaten many established practices and procedures. It is not simply a matter of flipping a switch and releasing the corporate shackles. There will need to be clearly established rules of engagement as this new environment of civil discourse is put in place.
For pushback to be effective, it has to happen “up, down or sideways.” This will inevitably threaten a lot of fragile egos, and there will be many who will wait on the sidelines for someone else to take that leap of faith and be the first to speak out. The Challenge Culture proposes a more human-centered perspective on management and leadership. If you choose to value discipline and managerial authority over creative and respectful dialogue, you run the risk of stifling the creativity and insight that organizations need to survive in today’s business world.