The Challenge Culture: Why the Most Successful Organizations Run on Pushback
September 24, 2018
Nigel Travis finally found a role at Dunkin' Brands in which he could create the kind of healthy challenge culture he believes best serves pluralistic organizations—one that could have helped the two companies he worked for previously, which have encountered existential issues since.
In an appendix of his new book, The Challenge Culture: Why the Most Successful Organizations Run on Pushback, Nigel Travis offers a quick checklist of suggested questions to encourage fostering dialogue and challenge in your organization. The most powerful may be the final one: Have you anticipated your organization's potential demise?
To explain why, look no further that two of the companies Travis has helped lead in the past, Blockbuster and Papa John's. Neither have had the best time in the press lately—perhaps because they failed to institute the kind of challenge culture Travis champions in the book.
During his tenure as COO, global sales at Blockbuster increased 50 percent. It had record profits in 2004, the year he left to become CEO of Papa John's. It was also the year things started to fall apart at Blockbuster. ("Not just because I left," he insists.) Just six years later, the company filed for bankruptcy protection. Likely the only reason you've heard of them lately is that, after a franchisee in Alaska shuttered their final two stores, Blockbuster has just one store remaining—in Bend, Oregon.
The great irony is that, in 2002, we had the chance to purchase Netflix, our greatest nemesis and eventual obliterator, for the pocket-change price of $100 million. We passed. Even in 2002, as Netflix went public and headed toward profitability, Blockbuster focused on growth through geographic expansion and store proliferation.
Instead, in 2004, the year Travis left, Blockbuster embarked on a quixotic mission to buy Hollywood Video. It failed, but it didn't matter much. Hollywood Video closed its own stores in May 2010, the same year Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection. As Blockbuster has dwindled to one final store, Netflix has become the world's 10th-largest internet company by revenue, with a market cap around $150 billion.
Travis doesn't shirk his share of the blame, as a member of the executive team, for that miss. But it led to the realization that "The ability to ask why and to question leadership is essential to enterprise success." His background in human resources aided in the additional insight that an organization usually has the diversity of perspective and intelligence it needs to avoid such failings—it simply needs to be allowed to come out, to be captured and communicated. There needs to be a human, and humane, way to do that, to challenge the status quo, to challenge even one's own superiors' way of thinking, and to welcome that challenge all the way up through the bubble of hubris that so often surrounds the C-Suite where big decisions are made.
But what of Papa John's, and his brief tenure there? He doesn't write much of it in the book, but company founder John Schnatter took over as CEO when Travis resigned, which only confirms Travis's assertion that Schnatter "was still the ultimate authority, now matter what the organizational hierarchy looked like on paper" while he was there. Which meant, of course, that Schnatter would ultimately be the keeper of the culture within the company. He was open to new ideas, Travis writes…
But I think he would agree, the challenge pretty much goes one way. John challenges everything but does not feel that comfortable with a whole lot of pushback.
I think it's safe to say he's probably pretty uncomfortable at the moment. Schnatter himself resigned as CEO on the first day of this year amidst poor financial performance at the company, which blamed on the National Football League, and their inability to curb national anthem protests. He later resigned as chairman of the board when it came to light that he had used a racial slur on a conference call with a marketing agency.
One has to wonder if things would have turned out differently if Travis was elevated to CEO at Blockbuster, or had the true power of his position at Papa John's.
What we do know is this: Nigel Travis finally found the chance to embrace and institute his ideas that "Pluralistic organizations are, by their nature, particularly suited to and best managed through the development of a challenge culture" when he landed at Dunkin' Brands in 2009. Taking up the mantle of CEO at a company in which he could bring to bear the full weight of that title, he returned to his HR roots in an attempt to create a distinctly human-centered approach to leadership and establish a culture that welcomes challenge—even to those in power, perhaps especially to those in power. Almost a decade into his efforts, The Challenge Culture is his reflection on that time and that process, a chance for him to refine the ideas he put into practice, and a guide for you to create and maintain a challenge culture within your own organization.
We have 20 copies available.
This book giveaway is brought to you by Hachette Books Group.