One of the surest signs that an organization is sliding into decline--entering the stage we call Treadmill--is the gradual erosion of the challenge function, usually as a direct result of previous success.

The pattern is predictable: A CEO--sometimes an entire management team--has some success, and begins to believe their own PR. Convinced of the rightness of their ways and the accuracy of their godlike judgment (or, sometimes, simply being arrogant jerks), they slowly begin to quash dissent, strangling healthy debate and discomforting anyone who questions their decisions.

Then, over time, what starts as a 'my way or the high way' attitude solidifies into something even more insidious--eventually, it becomes a cultural norm. It's at this point--when a lack of a challenge function is no longer just one leader's behavioral quirk, but has instead morphed into becoming part of who we are as an organization--that the business starts its inexorable slide into decline.

Worried this might be your problem? Here are four telltale signs that your challenge function is on life support, and that your business may be on the way to irrelevancy:

Nobody argues.
Sure, there are debates, but they're polite, and subdued, and if there's any passion there, it's likely expressed somewhat passive-aggressively. It just isn't done to call anyone out or make a stand anymore.

All the oddballs are gone.
Look around--it's all a bit bland out there. No mavericks, no lone rangers, certainly no wackos or weirdos.

Maybe there's a court jester left--someone who goes way back, knows where the skeletons are buried and can have a little fun at your expense--but he's been defanged, has little or no authority, and everyone knows they're just waiting out their retirement or payoff.

You employ an overabundance of Processors.
What there is a lot of is compliance--the folks you employ are great at adhering to process. In fact, that's what they devote much of their time to doing.

Innovation is dying.
What's the most natural result of all of the above? The death of innovation. Sure, you're still great at your core, legacy business, but once change comes, you'll likely be dead in the water. It might take some time for that to become apparent--decades maybe--but it's as inescapable as Jenna from HR's pursuit of your February expense form.

The solution? Hire and / or promote some Visionaries. More importantly, protect them from being rejected, like an organ transplant gone wrong, by the very culture you're trying to change.

How can you ensure your organization is headed in the right direction? Download a free chapter from the author's WSJ best-seller, "Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization On the Growth Track--and Keeping It There" to learn more about building a world-class culture that will rapidly accelerate the growth of your business.

Published on: Mar 17, 2015
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