Challenge the Process: How to Become a Successful and Positive Change Agent stephen hoel

Challenge the Process: How to Become a Successful and Positive Change Agent

When  delivering a Leadership Challenge® Workshop, one of the most effective ways to introduce the Practice of Challenge the Process is to start with an experiential activity. 

Specifically, during a two-day workshop Koosh® Ball is often the activity that I’ve found to be especially engaging when introduced at the start of the second day, just prior to the Challenge the Process module. 

This fun activity, with great debriefing opportunities, is an excellent way to begin Day 2 and reinforce the connection to the Two Commitments of the Challenge the Process: search for opportunities, and experiment and take risks.

Note:  Complete instructions and resources for implementing this activity can be found in the Activities section of The Leadership Challenge Workshop® Facilitator’s Guide, Fourth Edition. The key steps are outlined here with suggestions for three important points to emphasize during your debrief.

Step One:     Begin by showing the slide provided in the Facilitator’s Guide that explains the rules of the Koosh Ball activity. Alternatively, you could post the rules on a flipchart or whiteboard:

  1. Everyone in the room must touch the Koosh ball  once and only once
  2. You can’t pass the Koosh ball  to someone seated at your table

Once the Koosh ball has passed completely around the group for the first time and the group has established a pattern, it’s now time to see how much faster the group can go to complete the activity. 

Step Two:     Instruct the group to begin passing the Koosh ball around again—adhering to the same set of rules.  Note the time it took the group to complete the activity on a chart. This allows you, as the facilitator, to ask, “Can you do it faster?” 

Step Three:   Continue the activity until the group completes it in a fraction of a second. This may take a few rounds but groups always seem to get there. 

From here, this is where the learning begins with my three debrief tips:

Phantom Rules.  This first debrief point usually occurs as the group continues to pass the Koosh ball around in the same order, even though that is not one of the posted rules.  Calling the groups’ attention to this pattern of behavior allows you to make the point that in organizations processes typically are not challenged because “it’s always been done that way”.

Here is where I often use the “Asking the Five Whys” technique.  Ask “why” five times to get to the root of the question:  “If a change is not considered, is it really against organizational policy, procedure, or rules? Or has it just become the way the organization behaves?”

A great example of this “Asking the Five Whys” technique can be found in the book It’s Your Ship  by Captain Michael Abrashoff.  Upon interviewing all of his sailors on the ship, Captain Abrahoff found a huge morale drain was coming from his youngest sailors who had to paint the ship six times a year.  Why?  Because the ship had to look good.  Why didn’t the ship look good?  Because there was rust that needed to be sanded and repainted.  Why was there rust?  Because of the ferrous-metal fasteners used, which were required to meet specification and the only fasteners in stock.  Why don’t we use stainless steel fasteners that don’t rust?  Because when the specification was written, ferrous-metal fasteners were all that was available and stainless steel fasteners didn’t exist.  Why don’t we just go out and buy some stainless steel fasteners?  In fact, that’s exactly what they did and, as a result, saved a huge amount of time and money in repainting the ship and caused the entire Navy to adopt the practice of using stainless steel fasteners.  And by the way, this idea came from one of the youngest sailors.

Try Something New. The second key point to make in debriefing this activity has to do with trying something new.  When new ideas are presented, something must happen to move the idea forward; someone has to take a risk and create movement.  Many times this happens during the Koosh ball activity when someone says something like, “Why don’t we just get up from our tables?”  Nothing happens.  And then someone else says, “Why don’t we just stand up?”  Again nothing happens. More new ideas--good ideas--may come up and yet again nothing happens. That is until one very important thing occurs: someone moves.  Someone has to take a risk and create movement.  Someone has to try it first.  Once one person stands up or tries something new, others will follow.  This, of course, links directly to the second commitment of Challenge the Process:  experiment and take risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from experience.

Theory of Second Responder. This third key debriefing point is a concept coined by Dr. Sue Easton, an associate of Diversity Leadership Consultants and Professor of Communications at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. This theory suggests that how we respond to an idea is more important in moving the idea forward than the idea itself. For example, someone suggests an innovative idea or an opportunity for change and gets a negative response such as “that’s a stupid idea,” or “we tried that years ago, it didn’t work then and it won’t work now.” Or perhaps the reaction is “just do your job, forget about coming up with new ideas.” As a result of this negative feedback, the idea will die and not move any further.  However if we, as leaders, respond in a more positive way, such as “that’s an interesting idea,” or “let’s talk about that,” the idea will move forward. 

The key debriefing point to make is this:  as leaders we have the ability to create an environment where it is not only okay, but where people are encouraged to think about trying something new.  Great leaders know when to lead and when to follow.  And when new ideas are presented, how we respond to those new ideas will either create an environment where new ideas are crushed, or where constituents are encouraged to look for innovative ways to improve.

I have found this Koosh Ball activity and these three debrief points to be an excellent way to introduce Challenge the Process, to demonstrate what moves new ideas forward and creates an atmosphere where people build mastery and feel the autonomy to Challenge the Process. And when summarized on a slide or chart, you can clearly help your aspiring leaders understand what it takes to become a successful or positive change agent: 

  1. Understand Phantom Rules
  • Is it really a rule or is it just because we’ve always done it that way?
  1. Try Something New, Create Movement
  • What moves a group/team/organization to try something new? Someone has to take a risk and try it first.
  1. Theory of Second Responder
  • How others (and we as leaders) respond to a new idea is even more important to move it forward than the idea itself.

Stephen Hoel is a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge and president of Diversity Leadership Consultants, a leadership development organization focusing on improving the effectiveness of leadership and team skills. Experienced in both operations management and human resources with Walt Disney World Resort, Hilton, Marriott and other independent hotel and restaurant organizations, he has designed and delivered leadership and team interventions and multicultural leadership development initiatives. He can be reached at or at


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