Simon Geale

23 October 2019
Topics in this article
  • Capability & Skills
  • Transformation

Think Differently – think like a challenger

How do small and innovative companies suddenly appear from nowhere? How are entrepreneurs able to create incredible opportunity from seemingly overwhelming limitations? What makes some people able to see problems from a different angle? And why can’t you? (Assuming that you can’t!)

Some of the answers may lie in the art of Challenger Thinking; something that you can use in your professional and personal life to change the way you think and the results that you get.

Before we talk about you, let’s get the definition straight

Challenger Thinking is a technique used by those who want to innovate or achieve despite the perceived barriers in their way. They accept that these barriers often seem insurmountable, but rather than give up, they use them as the motivation or inspiration to succeed. The process should create an outcome which uses a new approach to overcome the barriers, and/or creates new features which nullify the existence of the barriers. This has been used successfully by both individuals and companies in the pursuit of goals, which at the time may have seemed unobtainable or unrealistic.

If this sounds confusing then we can use the classic (and easily searchable) example of Richard Branson and the birth of Virgin Atlantic. While there may be some urban legend attached, let us not let that get in the way of a good story that perfectly explains the theory.

Richard Branson started an airline without owning an airplane in an era where the biggest constraint to starting an airline…was the ownership of an airplane. Furthermore, on completion of the maiden flight (on a chartered plane) a ‘passenger’ turned to Branson when departing the aircraft, and made a comment or joke about “the great service” and how he should “do this for a living”.

In that moment, a challenger thought was set in motion, and an airline was born that would compete on customer experience. In short, Branson was able to make ownership of the airplane less important (by renting) and customer experience look like the benefit that was worth paying for, thus ripping up the traditional business model.

That is how you use the challenger concept. You make your competitors’ advantages less important, and you make your unique differentiator more important. It takes great understanding of the customers’ real drivers – it’s customer centric at its core- and builds from there.

Other great examples of challenger companies include the Ubers, Air BnBs, and Facebooks of the world, but also some genuinely interesting tales from brands we were already familiar with many years ago;

  • Audi – winning Le Mans from a standing start by thinking differently about racing.
  • Dyson – making turning corners so important, and the inability to do so, so damning.
  • Nescafe – moving us from cheap instant coffee to expensive “instant” coffee and hardware.

Challengers may become champions overnight but, more likely, it will take time. In order to maintain champion status, successful challengers seek to maintain a “challenger culture”. Innocent drinks calls it “thinking like a number 2”. You read about this a lot in sports, but perhaps this is also variation on Simon Sineks “infinite game” theory, something else well worth reading.

How you can become a challenger

While the company examples are easy to understand, challenger thinking is often down to the individual and, in actuality, is something we can all practice, regardless of our positions. We are not born challengers. The techniques can be learned and practiced by the individual in both private and professional lives.

Eat the Big Fish (a consulting firm promoting challenger thinking) talks in terms of defining your “propelling question” through a deep understanding of both your greatest ambitions and the seemingly insurmountable constraints.

So, what do you want to achieve, and what’s stopping you to achieve it?

This could be something at work like “I want to become a Commercial Director but I don’t know how to get the experience”, or something at home like “I want to run a marathon, but I am overweight”.

By focusing on the constraint, you can contextualize what a challenger approach might need to look like and how you can work around the obstacles that you believe prevent you from achieving your goal. It simple terms you switch your thinking from “I can’t because” to “I can if…”

Challengers do this well, and while Richard Branson, James Dyson and Mick Jagger (look it up) are great examples, I promise you that we can all do it. You have probably already done it.

“Can if” is both a technique and often a mindset shift. There are numerous models, but one useful for innovation project and program thinking, often used in business coaching, is pictured.

The model explores this theory of ambition and using the biggest constraint as an accelerator (of thinking and action). In using this model, a team can ask themselves challenger questions to think around the problem, identifying solutions that resolve, remove, or simply make the constraints less overwhelming. Now imagine this model being applied to new product development or process improvement.

Now try applying this approach, with different questions, to one of our two more personal aspirations above, becoming a Commercial Director or running a marathon. It should enable you to reframe the size or the constraint through asking yourself logical and sequential questions, plotting your path by understanding that you “can if…”.

It’s just an example – but try it yourself

Innovation and change are not always successful, and challenger thinking lacks regular checks and balances. You are not suddenly going to be able to fly, for example, but you may identify some near possible alternatives that give you the same outcome you sought.

Applying ‘Challenger Thinking’ is the process of;

  1. Having ambitions that exceed your current resources
  2. Not challenging the person – but challenging the situation
  3. Transforming your limitations into an advantage – or a solution

Give it a go; you might just achieve something great.

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