In a recent research survey amongst procurement professionals, on behalf of the Management Consultancy Association’s Consultancy Buyers Forum, I got quite a strong reaction to the question: How do you challenge the business? The overwhelming response was one of: challenge is not something that we do, or if we do, we would call it subtle challenge, or constructive challenge. Only one respondent felt comfortable with the word, and that was because it was written into her organisation’s guiding principles.

In the sales arena there has been a lot of focus recently on the need for sales people to be challenging their customers, but I really think we need to consider carefully our use of words here and what they might mean in terms of how people try to behave, both externally with customers, and internally within organisations.

The Oxford English dictionary’s definition of the verb challenge is as follows:

1) Dispute the truth or validity of something.

2) Invite someone to engage in a contest/ do something that they will find difficult/ make demands on/ prove testing to.

What is clear is that people seem to regard ‘challenge’ as an aggressive word, in line with the second definition above, which could lead to bullying, or patronising behaviour that would be completely inappropriate. The procurement respondents preferred the word ‘collaborate’ as their experience was that working together in a supportive way with other departments in the business was how they generated successful results. The idea of working together to jointly solve problems is also appealing to sales people – in Huthwaite’s recent Creating and Capturing value survey the most popular behaviour nominated by sellers across the globe was Joint-problem solving with customers.

But when you dig down into what happens when people collaborate and work together and what value procurement people felt that they brought then a common answer was “an alternative viewpoint” or “another way of looking at things”. Basically the value of two people working together is that they bring different ideas to the table, that they question what the other person says and that they provide an objective mirror for the other person to reflect and possibly modify their own ideas. So although collaboration and challenge may seem to be at two different ends of the spectrum in essence you need a degree of challenge within a collaborative relationship in order for that collaboration to be successful. On the other hand, as several procurement and sales people have noted, it is easier to challenge someone’s thinking where you have already established a strong collaborative relationship in that you have built rapport and credibility with the other person.

In summary our definition of an effective business challenge would be: ‘to provide a different viewpoint’. We would also say that collaboration and challenge need to go hand-in-hand – you need both to be successful. This applies to all business situations, both external and internal. The most effective business leaders are those that surround themselves with people who can challenge them with different ideas and points of view, but are also prepared to be part of the team. A business leader who surrounds themselves with ‘yes men’ will get plenty of collaboration but no challenge, and is more likely to fail.

So challenge is necessary for business survival, but knowing the right behaviours to use in order to challenge effectively and appropriately is also important. In my next blog I will take a look at some of the behaviours identified by Huthwaite research over the years as enabling effective collaborative challenge.

Janet Curran, Head of Thought Leadership, Huthwaite International