Achieving success against the odds; turning challenge into strength

The pressure to embrace the digital revolution, deliver more with less, achieve culture change quickly, implement one change on top of another, whilst keeping everyone happy, is not only exhausting, it can seem simply impossible.


With the odds of achieving success against us, why not turn to unusual places for inspiration?

Believe it or not the world of elite sport is full of examples of teams and people succeeding when the odds are stacked against them. Ignite are working with elite sport to understand how challenge can be turned into strength and how we can apply this to organisational change management.

Neil McCarthy (British Skeleton Performance Pathway and talent Manager, former Leicester Tigers Academy Director and professional sportsperson) has shared some of his insight in this area. Neil has co-authored some interesting research that explores the factors that set apart the sporting almost greats from the greats. He highlights that the great and super great athletes share some common characteristics that include: commitment, reaction to challenge, the ability to utilise and make the most from social disadvantage and the ability to focus and reflect on performance with the aim of constant improvement in the face of challenge and adversity.

Sound familiar? Some of the most successful transformations and comebacks like Best Buy, Starbucks, Apple etc appear to have similar traits. Something special happens if a person or an organisation can tap into the mentality to not only overcome obstacles, but to use the disadvantage as an opportunity to innovate and push harder.

This all sounds great in theory, but realistically how can this winning mentality be created in an organisation or change project team? Here are two good places to start:

1. Build commitment to a higher purpose vision.

Both British Skeleton and Leicester Tigers have visions that are greater than just winning medals or being top of the league. They use their core purpose to create excitement, loyalty and alignment. If people believe that they are contributing to something important, they will continue to try and push through during periods of adversity. It is also important for any transformational vision to link directly back to the organisation’s core purpose. If the organisational or transformational programme or project vision is not inspiring enough, change it.

2. Treat challenges as opportunities to reflect, improve or try something different.

Make the organisation or team a safe place to try, fail, learn and try again. This is one of the most difficult areas for organisations and managers to grasp. Deep down we all know that the best ideas often fail first time round and it is almost never an easy ride to success. Yet how many leaders prefer to play it safe when designing their future organisations or implementing improvement ideas, citing too high risk, complexity or lack of evidence as barriers? Contrast this with British Skeleton who cannot do what their competitors are doing, so instead they focus on explosive start times, recruiting the right athletes, trialling cutting edge equipment and creating the right high-performance environment for their athletes to thrive.

So, what if we flipped the trend?


And put forward the boldest option on the table as first choice by default, and tried to implement most (if not all) of the ideas from suggestion boxes and workshops, rather than selecting just a few? Yes, even the ideas that sound a bit crazy at first.

It is also so easy for a negative, defeatist attitude to seep in when elements of a project do not go as planned or fail. Nip this in the bud quickly by bringing people together to do some blameless root cause analysis, offer challenge and innovate for improvements and changes. Keep everyone focused on improving things and getting a step closer to achieving that higher purpose vision. Get started on the improvements and new ideas promptly. People will be inspired to keep trying if they see movement and action.

Finally, recognise that people and teams will also have peaks and dips and rather than dismiss this as ‘low performance’ or failure and seek to marginalise or remove these people at the first hurdle, recognise that this a natural way to prevent burn out. Instead create some flexibility into planning to allow for the dips and support them to stay on track and still achieve what they have committed to.

Ignite believe that change managers should have the mandate, skills and tools to play a pivotal role in creating the environment where programmes can and will succeed. If a leader wants to try something remarkable or is just feeling the pressure that the odds are stacked against success, they should be able to turn to their change management expertise as a source to help make the ambition a reality.

In professional sport challenge is encouraged at every level. In coaching this is called entering the ZOUD (zone of uncomfortable discussions), a point at which you are having uncomfortable debate and conversations. In professional sport this extends beyond 1-1 coaching to every level in the organisation.