What is a "healthy challenge?" To some a healthy challenge is running a marathon or riding the BP MS 150 to Austin. But that's not the type of healthy challenge I'm talking about. It's a feedback mechanism for organizations that will constructively challenge and test their line of thinking about a process, project, innovation or problem. A constructive challenge can be healthy since organizations, like people, need fresh and objective thinking around difficult decisions, changes or problems.

When a Healthy Challenge Makes Sense

  • Building or expanding a plant
  • Possible acquisition or disposition of a line of business
  • Quality or on-time delivery improvement opportunities
  • New product or service ideas
  • Lack of strategic or organizational alignment
  • Customer satisfaction and loyalty need to improve

Examples of Healthy Challenges

Example #1

A project team at a chemical products manufacturer had developed their plan to expand a plant and engineer some debottlenecking solutions for the existing facilities. The project cost estimate was $46 million. The project team had already received initial authorization but would need to complete design engineering, a detailed cost estimate, risk management plan, etc. if they were to receive funding approval. The company's leadership would not approve the funding unless the project team had a peer review on their plan.

A one-day Peer Review session was held with "peers" from inside this worldwide chemicals manufacturer. This group of peers included engineers focused on the same product but in different facilities, engineers focused on similar chemical processes, financial managers, operations managers from other chemical plants, etc. The project team presented to the peers the key aspects of their plan including the business case, project objectives, project scope, project status and the risk mitigation plan. The peer review did identify some potential "showstoppers" (significant concerns of the peers where funding would not be recommended unless concerns were mitigated). The project team also received some great feedback on concerns that were not considered "showstoppers" as well as suggestions for improvement by the peers. The project team also shared some lessons learned for the peers that they might be able to take back to their business unit or plant.

For this project, the possible "showstoppers" were mitigated following the meeting and project funding was approved.

Example #2

An outsource provider of services onsite at a large corporation was told by their client that they were receiving numerous user complaints that might cause them to terminate the contract with the service provider. The complaints included poor quality work product, slow turnaround and poor service attitudes by service provider representatives. The manager representative from the large corporation recommended that the provider have an external assessment to see if they could resolve these issues before contract termination would have to be considered.

The service provider contracted with an external consultant to conduct an assessment that included interviews of users, process analysis and gathering employee input/suggestions. In the consultant's report, he challenged the site's procedures for ensuring quality of work, their onsite hours of operation, and their commitment to improving the competency of their staff. The service provider developed an action plan to respond to the consultant's recommendations and then the service provider, the large corporation representative and the consultant met to discuss the consultant report and the service provider's improvement commitments.

The service provider turned around their performance and not only retained the account but expanded it. The service provider then had an external healthy challenge once a year to ensure they resolved user satisfaction issues and to prevent internal issues from impacting service to the client. The service provider also received a referral from the large corporation that resulted in a contract with a new client.

Roles in a Healthy Challenge

  • Challenge Leader - Summarizes the findings and formulates the recommendations based on the feedback/input of the challenge. In some cases this may be the primary recipient of the challenge feedback and in some cases it will be an objective third party such as an internal or external consultant. In example #1 above, it was the project team leader. In Example #2, it was the external consultant.
  • Challenge Facilitator - Facilitates input/information/data gathering and collects the feedback for the challenge. In day-to-day challenges, the leader often is the facilitator. However, certain challenges will need an objective facilitator either from inside the organization or from an external consultant when the issues require one.
  • Challenge Participant - Participates in the challenge - to provide input and feedback. The participants may be customers, internal/external experts, peers, professional advisors, a Kaizen team, etc. They are adding value to the challenge when they give direct, specific and factual input (given with care for the recipient). Personal attacks or broad generalizations do not challenge in a healthy manner.

Not all stakeholders will see challenges as healthy. For a challenge to be healthy, the following characteristics should be present:

  • Clearly communicated purpose and deliverables of a healthy challenge to those participating including a description of the scope of the challenge
  • Involve as many stakeholders as possible in all the stages of the challenge. Our experience has been that more healthy change occurs when stakeholders participate (those affected/impacted give feedback or have an open dialogue). If experts are involved and stakeholders aren't allowed to collaborate in the challenge, there will likely be less buy-in, less understanding of the real opportunities to improve and less vigorous implementation of challenge points.
  • Communicating with an understanding of the undercurrents and interpersonal dynamics
  • Confidentiality for those providing input
  • Making the recipients of the challenge feel "safe" to participate
  • Feeding back the findings to the stakeholders and participants
  • Communicating progress in the execution of the improvement plan

Asking for help whether it's from inside or outside the organization is not an easy thing to do for many business leaders. Some company cultures support a challenge-oriented culture to improve performance while some business cultures see a challenge as a threat. Some company cultures see a challenge as negative and critical while others see it as constructive opportunities. Great leaders know they need to ask for help or a challenge either from inside or outside the organization.

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Stephen Covey must believe in a healthy challenge since his 7th Habit in his 7 Habits for Highly Efffective People is to "Sharpen the Saw." Dr. Edwards Deming must have believed in a healthy challenge. Point 5 of his 14 Points for Management was to "Improve Constantly and Forever the System of Production and Service."

How might your organization benefit from a healthy challenge?

© Michael R. Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Associates, Inc., 2003

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