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Challenger Safety

Am I Challenging the Status Quo?

What is Challenger Safety?

Challenger safety satisfies the basic human need to make things better. It’s the support and confidence we need to ask questions such as, “Why do we do it this way?” “What if we tried this?” or “May I suggest a different way?” It allows us to feel safe to challenge the status quo without retaliation or the risk of damaging our personal standing or reputation. As the highest level of psychological safety, it matches the increased vulnerability and personal risk associated with challenging the status quo. When we create challenger safety, we give air cover in exchange for candor.

When you have it

Challenger safety provides respect and permission to dissent and disagree when we think something needs to change and it’s time to say so. It allows us to overcome the pressure to conform and gives us a license to innovate and be creative.


If your team never asks questions such as, “Why do we do it this way?” or  “What if we tried this?” than your organization will always be stuck in the same failure patterns. You will fail to innovate at a pace fast enough to keep up with your competition.

The Process of Innovation.

Innovation is embedded into every job because really only two things occur in organizations, execution and innovation. Execution is delivering value today and innovation is figuring out how to deliver value tomorrow. There are two types of innovation.

The first type of innovation is incremental and derivative innovation. Incremental represents the small steps based on what organizations have already accomplished or are accomplishing, and derivative means that the innovation is built and based on what industries are already doing. The majority of innovation (in fact, 99% of it) falls under incremental innovation.

The second type of innovation is radical and disruptive, and it covers the risky and cutting-edge ideas and experiments. All other innovations fall under this category.

The goal of an organization isn’t necessarily to have radical new ideas, but to continue to get better and providing value to their customers. It can happen in big leaps but almost always happens in small incremental steps over a long period of time.

Type 1

– Incremental

– Derivative

Type 2

– Radical

– Distibution

Increase Intellectual Friction and Decrease Social Friction.

Intellectual friction is the raw material that you need to solve problems, to create solutions, to make breakthroughs, and most importantly, to innovate. You want intellectual friction to be as high as possible but, at the same time, you've got to keep the social friction down. If you let the social friction rise as the intellectual friction is rising, you're going to have a problem. At some point, the social friction will shut down the intellectual friction. Why? Because social friction means that we are getting temperamental, we're getting defensive, and human beings have a tendency to do that.

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Formally Assign Dissent.

The enemy of innovation is the homogenization of thought. How will you protect against it? You must assign dissent. Formally assigning dissent allows groups to identify and see their own flaws. By doing so, they are able to then innovate and improve their entire structure. Ultimately, the best practice is to assign team members to take a dissenting position from the beginning. Formally assigning dissent from the beginning allows individuals to trade personal risk for institutional permission.

See also:
Tiger Teams (NASA)
Red Teams (Silicon Valley)
Pre-mortem & Mid-mortem
Loyal Opposition
Devil’s Advocate
White Hat Hacking (IT)

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Apply the Disruption Question Sequence.

There are two kinds of inquiry used in organizations: The first kind is explanatory inquiry. Explanatory inquiry explains cause and effect relationships. It identifies what is happening and what has happened in the past. The second kind of inquiry is exploratory inquiry. Exploratory inquiry is about the future and identifies what could be done, what is possible, and what should be explored.

Applying the disruption question sequence allows for inquiry in organizations and consists of three parts:

1. WHY? [The “why” question activates the process.] ---------- “Why do we do it this way?”

2. WHAT IF? -----------------------------------------------------------“What if we tried something else?”

3. HOW? ----------------------------------------------------------------“How might we do that?”

By asking these three questions, leaders signal to their group that there are no limitations or constraints in challenging the status quo. The disruption question sequence is the heart of innovation, and it fuels an organization’s ability to engage in divergent thinking and developing Challenger Safety.

Do You Practice Challenger Safety?

It’s time to take a step back and look at your own life. Ask yourself these questions and evaluate how you are doing in putting Inclusion Safety into practice.

  • Do you allow others to challenge you?
  • Do you give them a license to dissent and disagree?
  • Do you get defensive or take things personally when someone gives you constructive feedback or suggests an alternative course of action?
  • Do you maintain your poise and composure under pressure?
  • Can you tolerate a high level of candor?
  • Can you really debate issues on their merits in a stress-filled environment and not resort to personal criticism?
  • Can you bring humility to your team interactions and lay down all of your ego defense mechanisms?
  • Can you keep the intellectual friction up and the social friction down?
  • Are questions welcome on your team?
  • Do you feel the risk of ridicule on your team?
  • When was the last time you were brave and challenged the status quo?
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Concrete Behaviors That Create Challenger Safety at Work.

It’s not enough to understand Challenger Safety; you must put concrete behaviors into practice. These behaviors are examples of how you can increase Challenger Safety.

1. Take your finger off the fear button.
Fear triggers the self-censoring instinct and causes people to retreat into silence and personal risk management. When a leader uses fear, it’s normally a punitive response borne of frustration and insecurity. More importantly, it’s an abdication of leadership.

2. Assign dissent.
If you assign specific members of your team to challenge a course of action or find flaws in a proposed decision, you remove much of the individual's personal risk and replace it with institutional permission. This allows intellectual bravery to become the norm rather than the exception. Be explicit in telling the members of your team that you have given them a license to disagree and you expect them to use it.

3. Encourage others to think beyond their roles.
Inviting your people to venture out of their tactical and functional silos creates more opportunity for divergent thinking, allowing them to connect things that aren't normally connected. Of course you must manage the process carefully and discern when constructive dissent is giving way to destructive derailment.

4. Respond constructively to disruptive ideas and bad news.
Your positive emotional response to disruptive ideas and bad news is a clear signal that you have a high tolerance for candor and will protect your people in their right to dissent.

5. When you reject feedback, explain why.
When you reject a team member's input or suggestion, explain why you didn't adopt it . Your considerate response will embolden the individual to continue giving feedback.

6. Weigh in last.
Speaking first when you hold positional power softly censors your team. Listen carefully, acknowledge the contributions of others, and then register your point of view.

7. Display no pride of authorship.
Make it clear to your team that your ideas are no better than anyone else's. Sometimes team members are too deferential to the ideas of the leader because he or she is the leader. Don’t let that happen, and don’t overvalue your own ideas. Welcome criticism of your own ideas. Reinforce the fact that just because you are the team leader doesn’t make suggestions inherently superior. In fact, admit that many of your own ideas in the past have led nowhere.

8. Model vulnerability.
Remember that vulnerability is exposing yourself to the possibility of harm or loss. If you model and reinforce a pattern of vulnerability, others will do the same

9. Reward vulnerability.
Remember, challenger safety must project the individual and the team at the highest point of personal and interpersonal vulnerability. Challenger safety is about generating and then harnessing diverse perspectives and even disagreement without emotional escalation and destructive social friction. If you reward a pattern of vulnerability to challenge the status quo, that will become the norm. Use your positional power to escort them through the vulnerability by encouraging them.

10. Reward shots on goal.
This means rewarding your team members with recognition and enthusiasm when they attempt to challenge the status quo. Not all ideas and suggestions will have merit, but if you encourage the attempts (shots on goals), those shots will increase and you will be more likely to have some successful challenges (goals) that add value and move the team forward.

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How to Handle Tough Feedback

To create incubators of innovation where divergent thinking, creative abrasion and constructive dissent thrive, we must learn not only to tolerate, but actually invite and welcome constructive feedback. This may feel like an unnatural act at first, but it’s a skill you can develop. Here’s how:

5 Behaviors That Foster Challenger Safety

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5 Behaviors That Foster Challenger Safety

Challenger safety satisfies the basic human need to make things better. It’s the support and confidence we need to ask questions such as, “Why do we do it this way?” “What if we tried this?” or “May I suggest a better way?”

5 Steps to Create Innovation With Your Team

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