Ch 7 & 8 “Challenge the Process – Search for Opportunities/Experiment and take Risks”

While reading CH 7 of Leadership Challenge, “Search for Opportunities”, a few underlying themes came to mind. The themes I saw taking shape included taking the offense, attack, forward looking, advancing. The idea of not standing still and moving forward are easily seen in the subheading throughout the first part of the chapter (Seize the initiative, Leaders Make Something Happen, Encourage Initiative in Others, and Challenge with Purpose). The practice of constantly keeping yourself, and others, moving forward and taking challenges head on is a great way to approach things both professionally and personally. When you are competing with others for a finite resource, whether it be customers or donations, not challenging the status quo and the mentality of “doing things the way they have always been done around here” can set organizations up for failure. The example of Arvind Deogirikar of Sun CIS in Moscow capitalizing on painting the city buses with the company logo and a number of other things that had not been done by others resulting in sales growth to $30 million speaks directly to the idea of seizing the initiative and challenging the status quo (167-168).

When seeking new possibilities for an organization, one must be proactive and careful to not only listen to ideas generated internally, but to also be outward looking. The authors hammer in the point that effective leader’s listen to external sources of information continually so as to not become narrow minded. In “Creating the Conditions for Success” Mumford et al. brought up the need to have diversity when building a Leadership team in order to generate more ideas from different perspectives. The need for the diversity within the system is obvious, but this alone is not enough. I believe that Kouzes & Posner would agree with Mumford et al., but take it one step further and add that failing to look for diverse ideas and accept different sources of information from outside the organization can be self destructive for any team. An organization will be more open to change and growth if they follow the practice of allowing outside ideas into the company, just the practice of accepting something from an external source can show that a group is ready and capable to change.

Kouzes and Posner end the Chapter with the big heading “Challenges Often Find You” and come to the conclusion most change situations were not initiated by the person who led the process. They see the importance in accepting the challenge and the choices made after tackling the problem. On the surface this makes sense, we all work for someone and deal with new projects assigned to us on a regular basis. But I feel that the authors should go a step further and explain that even though the source of the challenge may be from a superior, the one who undertakes the assignment or project must make it theirs. When meeting that challenge the individual executing the change must strive to be so invested in the project that when it is completed they feel that it was theirs from the beginning. The leader of any new project needs to be the one who is keeping things on track and fully behind the process. Leaders can easily lose all support from their subordinates and the project can lose momentum the minute their team believes that the leader is not fully behind the project. A leader should not accept a challenge they cannot fully support.

Questions from chapter 7

1 - Do you believe in the idea the authors bring up about challenges finding you? Do you, or would you, accept challenges that take you out of your comfort zone? 2 – What are your perceptions of seizing the initiative and leaders making things happen? Do you see it in a negative light or positively?

In Chapter 8, “Experiment and Take Risks”, Kouzes and Posner hit on two key areas when dealing with an organization that is going through change – Generate small wins and learn from experience. The first idea goes hand and hand with Kotter’s fourth error “Not Systematically Planning and Creating Short Term Wins”. I immediately identified with Kouzes and Posner where they talked about “breaking down big problems into small, doable actions”. To put it in other words, create milestones or benchmarks that can give the team small wins and objectives to meet throughout the process from beginning to end. In my experience milestones are extremely effective in helping members of the team break down large and daunting problems into small slices that are easily completed individually. When dealing with long term projects, people can lose focus easily unless something is keeping them on task and small achievements help. Using milestones is also an effective tool a leader can use to ensure their team is staying on task and meeting the short range goals necessary to achieve the desired end-state.

In learning from experience, the authors again touch on a key area in which leaders must pay attention to if they want to become more effective. Organizations and leaders need to avoid the zero defect mentality when it comes to the actions of their teams. We learn from making mistakes, the key is to identify where the mistakes were made and not accept the repetitions of the same mistake. Kouzes and Posner briefly discuss the military’s AAR process (After Action Review). In my many, many experiences with this process I can say that it works and it backups much of what the authors talked about in learning from experience. In an AAR everyone has a voice, no idea is ignored and the format is followed to encourage everyone on the team to learn what they did right and what went wrong. Key is identifying those things that must be done the next time to achieve success and ensuring they are followed. In this process leaders are the active learners that the authors talked about being. The key to success in AAR’s is not identifying issues without also identifying the solution or work around and implementing that into the way things are done.

Question from Chapter 8

1 – Have you ever been part of a “postmortem” where much of the blame for failure fell on your shoulders? How did you respond? Did you find the process helpful?


On the Chapter 8 question - I have conducted post-mortems many times at the conclusion of a project. There was one time in particular that a good share of the responsibility for the failure of one piece of the project fell to me. I was acting as the scribe for the post-mortem and was not an official part of the team but was an internal consultant (I was an employee). It was difficult to take the criticisms but the group did not get personal and the project manager kept things light throughout the discussion. Also, our criticisms were focused on the failure of the process and not the person. As someone who believed strongly in what I was doing, however, it was still a bit stinging to be criticized so publicly. And since I was moderating the discussion it was especially uncomfortable. Overall, I was able to take away some very key learnings and not get too caught up in the initial emotional resistence to the feedback. I prefer not to call these post-mortems though because it sounds like someone died. I call them project conclusion or project wrap-up sessions.

I was also interested in the concept of "pre-mortems". I have not tried doing this projection at a project kick-off but can see the value of it and would like to try this next time.

I am going out of order but on the question in Chapter 7 regarding challenges that find us, I think that as much can be learned from "assigned" challenges as from those we seek ourselves. I have had many occasions where I was designated a project or task and was not particularly excited about the work. But after digging into the project and pulling the team together found ways to leave my mark on the project mine or to find something in it that I had passion about and that matched my personal values. Sometimes it was delivering value to the customer, sometimes it was "creating a buzz" around the new initiative, or mentoring new team members. I think that tying some component(s) of the project to my personal values was key as it helped motivate me and also allowed me to stay open to new possibilities I had not imagined before. With this openness, I was often surprised that something I previously thought of as "boring" actually held some key learning for me.

I have found the concept of challenging the process and taking risks in various environments quite fascinating. For instance, something that is commonplace in one environment could be considered quite novel and risky in another. The dichotomy between the small privately held company I worked at for nine years and the large public organization I have been at for three years is quite large.

The culture of the two organizations is also quite different. To use Geert Hofstede's model, the private company had a very low power distance, valued individualism, had a shorter view of time, operated within a fair amount of ambiguity, and was decidedly masculine. Pretty much everyone had and accepted the authority to challenge the status quo and take risks.

Compare that to the large public institution. The power distance is quite high, collectivism seems to be preferred, as a whole does not like ambiguity, and has a longer term orientation. In my experience, this type of an environment does not encourage challenging the status quo or taking any kind of risks. It is extremely political, at all levels.

I agree with Kouzes and Posner that challenges can find you but would add the you have to have an openness to both recognizing and accepting them. I believe that some people are more aware of challenges that present opportunities and so seize the initiative to take and run with them. These people tend to emerge as leaders. Therefore, I believe that a key characteristic of a good leader is taking the initiative and making things happen.

By definition, a challenge takes us out of our comfort zone. One of the values of a debrief/post-mortem/AAR is that it helps us recognize how we have learned and grown as a result of the challenge. Unfortunately, many organizations do not make this a regular practice and if they do, it results in some of the finger pointing that has been mentioned.

On looking for small wins. Last week we talked about the cycle involved in implementing change and some of the places it can get stuck. I think that this demonstrated some of the reasons why it is important for both the leaders and followers to have small wins. However, it can be frustrating for the leader. Because so many leaders are results-driven and have the ultimate end in mind, the time it takes to get there can be much longer than desired.

I do believe that challenges some times find you and that it is good to accept challenges that take you out of your comfort zone. As stated in chapter 8, often these challenges result from making a mistake and then learn what you can do differently or better from it. Challenges don’t find you all of the time. Often leaders are required to think outside the box and do things differently to create change or to challenge the status quo. This is a proactive way of finding a challenge that does exist but doesn’t necessarily find you. Challenges that take you out of our comfort zone seem to be the most rewarding. You sometimes think going into the challenge that you’re not sure how to complete the task or challenge or don’t think that you can. Kouzes and Posner recommend in chapter 8 to look at challenges in smaller pieces. Once you do this and are able to successfully complete the smaller pieces, the next step becomes more hopeful and optimistic. You are amazed at what you can take on; especially for something that once made you uncomfortable or unsure.

For question two, seizing the initiative or challenge is important and does make change happen. This is a learned process. Many of us come into a new position or career having to learn the skills of how things are done, why they are done certain ways, to stay on task, and ensure you are doing what is expected of you. The experiences gained throughout this learning process are key because it gains the support and respect from your colleagues. Understanding the in’s and out’s of the organization as it is and how people work as they are allows them to feel understood and appreciated once you begin to seize the initiative. This also helps you to understand the direct impact on your colleagues and how they may react to a change. Once these basics are learned a leader should take the opportunity to look at things differently, question the way things are done, and challenge the status quo. This may result in a change to a current workflow process or create a new initiative all of which impacts those you work with.

Leaders should keep in mind the way things are when they want to make something happen. I agree full heartedly with change implementation and improving the way we do things, thinking outside the box, and really opening yourself and others to all ideas. These key factors are needed in order for successful change to take place. In order for the change to remain positive the employee engagement piece is key. Persuasion to get everyone on board is an attitude the leader should carry forward with implementation. I clearly saw this behavior in Kouzes and Posner case study of Jean Campbell and her computer-based medical billing company that was destroyed by an earthquake. “Jean organized, planned, listened, reassured, and motivated the employees and contractors…” Jean and her team seized the initiative and energized the partnership of employees, suppliers, and customers so powerful that it overcame the forces of devastation unleashed by nature,” (169). Jean’s mission, passion, and drive inspired others to get on board and work their way through the destruction that impacted her company.

I definitely think challenges can find you, but it is your decision to take on the challenge or leave it for someone else to tackle. I went to a small private Christian Liberal Arts University in Chicago for my undergraduate studies. Of the 1700 or so students, there was only a half dozen or so who openly identified as Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual. Although the University was not a hostile environment for LGBT students, I would not consider it open and accepting by any means. One would hear someone calling someone else a faggot, or saying that this or that was “gay” and rarely were issues of sexuality discussed in class. There had been a few attempts in the past to create/start an LGBT student organization, but all attempts had failed or been “forced” to disband. The problem I saw from these past attempts was that the people organizing did not reach out to their straight allies. It was clear to me that an open dialogue needed to be started on campus about LGBT issues. I felt like this challenge found me, and I did not accept it/deal with it for a while, as I knew it would be hard, but eventually faced the challenge and decided to start a Gay/Straight alliance. Since there was a large number of students and faculty that had a negative view towards LGBT people, I knew I had to handle this challenge very delicately. I took about 9 months of networking with students and faculty, which I knew would be supportive of this idea, to assist me in making sure I followed all of the “rules/procedures” that were involved in starting a new organization on campus. I scheduled meetings with the President and Provost of the University to get them on board with my plan and to create an alliance with the “higher ups” in the event of resistance from other faculty or students. Eventually everything was in place and although there was resistance from some students and staff we had our first successful meeting and many more to come as our organization continued to grow.

Chapter 7 & 8

Michael gives a good example of “searching for opportunities.” It is apparent that he “seize[d] initiative” although he mentions that the challenge first found him. And by seeking alliances and engaging the “higher-ups” he also “exercised outsight.” Challenges find all of us, thus, we decide to engage or not to engage. Often, when we do decide to engage, we find it is well outside of a comfort zone—finances, reputation, limited time for relaxation. Thus far, I find that I’m someone who gets physically sick with myself when I’m just coasting or too comfortable. This often leads me down the path of introspection and then I determine what I should be doing to make change—usually when I’m comfortable I find that there were/are a host of things that need my attention!

Fortunately, I have found more positive experiences with leaders that seize initiative than otherwise. I think of the controversial American leader, Malcom X and the way he chose to lead the latter part of his life. In choosing to depart from the Nation of Islam (NOI)—what would have represented the “status quo” for him—he chose to challenge the process and rhetoric he had embodied for so long. When he did this, early 1964, it was evident he was taking steps encouraged by Jean Campbell (p. 169). Working very closely with a select few he made a clean break with NOI on the ideal that the current path for African-American progress was doing a disservice. So he: 1.) organized—got his information on the negative concerns of the NOI, 2.) planned 3.) reassured and 4.) motivated and restored faith by publicly apologizing for some of his incendiary remarks. He also asked and welcomed partnerships from those groups he had earlier excluded.

Chapters 7 and 8, I found, asks the reader to challenge themselves beyond the status quo, move forward, take things to the next level. Black History Month ended over the weekend, and it was also a time of introspection—looking at the past and seeing how leaders like Malcolm X took his passion for equality to heighten the political consciousness of the day. In trying to generate small wins on civil rights, equality and fairness, I look to learning what worked and didn’t, and remembering that failures only help clarify things further.

I too believe that challenges find you- the key is being open and ALLOWING challenges to find you. Kouzes and Posner say that “Leadership demands breaking down the business-as-usual environment.” I take this to mean that the more you change things up and throw the cycle, the more positive challenges are going to come your way. Nothing will be accomplished with the same “stuck in a rut” mentality, because there is little opportunity for change. I also agree that a big part of this is allowing outside sources and ideas into the team. This helps to avoid the dreaded groupthink cycle, where everyone operates the same, and nothing ever changes. The more deeply imbedded an organization is in this cycle, the harder it is for change to break through. By thinking outside of the box, more prosperous ideas will form, and in turn, more positive challenges will come your way.

The key here seems to be being proactive. Just as in any other situation, a leadership role calls for the leader to make proactive decisions and to take initiative. In the Sun Systems example, what do computers have to do with buses? Nothing really, any other company could have done this (if they had the funding) and made themselves into a household name. It’s just that Arvind thought of it first, and he took the initiative to have the logo painted on. Being proactive is important to everyone, not just leaders. It shows effort, caring and importance when a person is proactive in any given situation. For example, during a job hunt, (in most cases) the person who is the most proactive, i.e. who shows initiative, excitement and effort, is the person who ends up getting the job. These same qualities carry over into leadership in organizations. Kouzes and Posner say that the success rate related to proactive people is because they tend to work hard at what they do, and strive to achieve goals. A person such as this is excellent as a leader, because they can inspire the same initiative in other members of the group. The more people excited about the goal of the group, the higher the success rate. These leaders often encourage people to believe not only in the goal of the group, but in their own personal efficacy to complete the goal. Those who believe in themselves are also more likely to act upon their ideas.

I also agree with Michael about challenges finding you. Before becoming part of the faculty at the U of M, I was at the halfway point with my degree in radiography. I was on schedule to graduate in the Fall of 2007 with my second degree, and I was planning on working in an pediatric orthopedic clinic after graduation. My second career was in place and my life was on schedule, or so I thought.

One day while studying for one of my final exams, I received notification that a position had opened at the U that may interest me. I was interested, but I thought about how much time and energy I had already put into the radiography program, and how could I just give it up? After a long process of thinking through all of the pros and cons of this new position, I decided to apply for the position thinking that I would not get it anyway, so I said to myself, "What the heck." I applied and I received a call back to come in for an interview, and then I was asked back for a second interview. Again, I had little faith that I was actually going to be offered this position, but life has a funny way of surprising all of us. I was offered the position and I counted this position as a surprise. I felt so fortunate and so afraid at the same time that I had a difficult time wrapping my head around this new and challenging endeavor that I was about to embark upon. In general I never liked speaking in front of people, no less a large classroom, and I had little confidence in my abilities and in myself. Suffice to say I conquered the challenge and I am very glad I did.

The challenges keep coming. Sometimes I search for them other times the challenges find me, but I know at least for myself, that the challenges that found me so far have been good ones.

I would like to respond to two of Michael's questions.

Do you, or would you, accept challenges that take you out of your comfort zone?

Life would be dull if there were not new challenges to be worked out or overcome. It seems that one of the regrets that I often hear people discuss is that they did not take advantage of opportunities to pursue a dream or face a challenge because of a myriad of reasons; many of them come to feel like excuses in hindsight.

It is often that we may find ourselves entering different comfort zones, such as, when we take a new position or start a new career. Not too much time later we may find that we are very comfortable where we are and we may be unwilling to face the discomfort of facing challenges. It would seem important for a leader to be willing to take on new challenges and relish the experience of working with others to overcome the challenge.

What are your perceptions of seizing the initiative and leaders making things happen?

Seizing the initiative is important for leaders, even if they are not in a "leadership" role. The leader who is able to recognize and capitalize in these opportunities may be in high demand. One experience that I have had with this recently, was in the course of hiring a new person for a position in our organization. Although I am not in a hiring position at this time, I have learned that it is possible and important to be involved in the process. I volunteered to contact recruitment firms and to bring in potential candidates. This is not part of my current position but is something that I have done in the past, by participating, I am getting a chance for show skills that I have acquired earlier in my career and more importantly it gives me the chance to provide input into a process I would not usually have the chance to accomplish. To me this is a small dichotomy of taking the initiative and although in most cases taking he initiative can be a very positive experience.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs