The Power of Challenge

Reflecting today on the death of Neil Armstrong, I am recalling growing up in an era defined by “challenge.”

Armstrong walked on the moon a few weeks after my 13th birthday. My room was full of model rockets, and I knew everything published about the Saturn V by heart. It was an exciting time for me, and I felt a part of it.  (So today’s news did tear something out of my insides, even though I knew it had to come someday soon.)

The challenge that this nation issued to itself in May 1961 was one of those rare events that galvanized an effort in ways that could never be predicted. No one knows for sure what challenge will trigger that kind of mobilization. There was certainly nothing imperative other than “Let’s prove we can do this, and do it in front of the whole world.”

“Challenge” is a core tenet of “The Toyota Way 2001” and, at least according to authors who are in a position to know, defines a huge piece of that company’s culture.

To be effective, though, a challenge cannot be a hollow directive. It has to be “I think you can do this, and I’m going to support you along the way.” Anything less is fear based motivation where the person or team is working to avoid a negative consequence (losing a bonus, a bad review, etc) rather than pursuing something exciting for its own sake. (That is why I am not a big fan of “setting the platform on fire.”)

In other words, if people recoil instead of stepping up, then either they aren’t ready, the challenge is too big, or the person issuing the challenge lacks credibility that the course will be held in the face of inevitable setbacks.

While Project Apollo was certainly much more than Neil Armstrong, he was the guy literally on the pointy end of the program, and so he represents all of people who stepped up to do something truly extraordinary.

“One small step…”

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