David Pilbeam

Challenge the process: Shaking up the status quo

Challenge the process - Quest Leadership blog

The best leaders have the courage to discard the obsolete. But that doesn’t make them wrecking balls who go about trying to fix what isn’t broken.

Exemplary leadership walks a thin line, shaking things up to create order from the chaos surrounding us. We call this Challenging the Process, one of the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership outlined in James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s book, The Leadership Challenge.

Here, we’re examining how to make this work in practice, and how rocking the boat can make for smooth sailing in the long run.

The search for opportunity

Stagnation is death for a business. Blockbuster in the face of Netflix, Nokia in the face of Apple. Both clung to outdated methods while the world changed around them, and paid a heavy price.

Meanwhile, film and television are awash with maverick heroes who throw the rule book out the window to get the job done. In fairness, this isn’t a terrible approach. Evidence shows that effective leaders get straight to work when they identify a problem, winning buy-in with results.

However, there are some caveats.

Yes, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, but don’t isolate yourself by doing so. Take steps to ensure your peers and teammates feel as free to challenge the process as you do.

Communication and transparency are key, an extra half hour meeting to explain why you’re changing something could net you allies and in-house evangelists.

Of course, introspection never goes amiss either. Consider why you’re challenging a given structure or hierarchy? If it’s unjustified, then by all means seize the initiative.

However, if you’re doing so to raise your own internal profile at the expense of a functional process, there may be better ways of achieving this.


  • Don’t wait for permission to change things
  • Include others in the process
  • Make sure you’ve got a worthwhile goal in mind

A fresh perspective

Insight gets a good press in business, but outsight is more elusive, and arguably even more important to challenging the process. Seeing your organisation with fresh eyes is hard, but yields big rewards.

Get out into the field and see how things look from the ground. What do you see when you’re beyond the received wisdom of your usual environment?

For larger organisations, find out what frontline staff are saying. No, not the frontline staff who middle management hand-picks for meetings; ask the troublemakers, the disruptors.

Encouraging diverse perspectives and asking questions lets you be curious together. If this creates a sense of vulnerability, so much the better. People open up when they feel like the status quo has been suspended.

What you’re looking for here is a spirit of adventure. Unworkable or out of date systems or processes are what rob your working day of that spark of magic; apply some magic and you’ll find what needs to change.


  • Get an outside perspective of your organisation
  • Listen to dissenting voices, especially on the front line
  • Rediscover a sense of adventure

Generating small wins

Now you know it’s time to act, but change is hard and you’re likely to meet resistance on the road. Breaking a change management task down into manageable chunks focuses the mind on achievable goals, not the daunting big picture.

This is habit-forming. Small, repeated successes foster a positive mindset and build resilience against inevitable setbacks. When these setbacks do occur, sure, focus on lessons learned, but spread those lessons around.

Sharing what you learn with the whole team makes a big visible statement: progress is being salvaged from defeat, so don’t despair! This small change does wonders for morale, making sure the cycle of positivity is a company-wide phenomenon.


  • Break your change project into small chunks
  • Cultivate lots of small, positive moments
  • Share the lessons learned from failure

The failure paradox

We’ve seen how failure can breed success, but success brings new opportunities, new chances of failure. Incorporating this paradox into your work creates a culture of learning.

This is important. Right off the bat, it tends to cut down on the kind of stagnation which leads to obsolete structures forming in the first place. By challenging one, you stop others springing up.

It’s also a huge motivator for your team. When failure isn’t just tolerated but embraced as part of the cycle, people feel free to try new things. If they’re punished for not succeeding first time, they’ll stop trying at all.

To reinforce this message, try gamifying it. Wagering something as simple as a cup of coffee on a given outcome removes some of the personal sting of failure.

However, be careful not to completely depersonalise the process. It’s important to learn personal as well as professional lessons from challenging the process. Letting the power of positive disruption into your own life helps you grow as a leader, but also as a human being.


  • Embrace failure and learning as part of the cycle
  • Gamify the process to make failure easier to swallow
  • Take personal lessons from your leadership journey

Quest can help you find a fresh perspective to revolutionise your organisation. To understand how, book a call and let’s get started.