Success and Challenge Exercise

by Michael C. Kelly, MA


I've been working with a First-Nation organization called Migashco since 1995, and one of the things I like1 about it is its commitment to seven practical leadership principles.2 While Principle 7 - the listening principle -  ends the list, it opens the path to success for individuals and their organizations.

A great tool built on this principle is the Success and Challenge Exercise. It establishes trusting and meaningful narratives between individuals by building on their capability to "seek understanding first, before endeavouring to be understood."3 It celebrates accomplishment and helps identify challenges in a rational manner, then guides these with change strategies designed to create more meaningful successes.

Here’s how a Success and Challenge Exercise is facilitated.

1. List the successes.

Always start with the successes. Invite the other person or persons to list as many as possible4 and be prepared to appropriately celebrate them with behaviour-based acknowledgements.

2. List the challenges.

Invite the other person or persons to list as many challenges as possible. This time, however, it is important for the facilitator to stay quiet, except for two conditions. First, if the challenge (or success for that matter) is illegal, immoral or life threatening, then intervene or escalate promptly. Second, the facilitator stays quiet except to ask facilitating questions.

3. Ask facilitating questions.

There are three.

  1. What can you tell me about each of the challenges? Allow the person's narrative to unfold using active listening techniques. This will help create understanding and provides opportunities to appropriately celebrate successes.
  2. What would be the priority order of the top 1, 2 or 3 challenges? In this case it is better to deal with a manageable number of challenges first than to attempt to tackle too many at the same time. This does not mean the other challenges will not be addressed - they are simply parked, then revisited later.
  3. What would it take to move the top 1, 2 or 3 challenges to the success side? This step is often overlooked, and at great consequence. If left unattended the challenges stay and sometime fester into organizational frustration and resentment. It can violate Migashco's third principle - all work has meaning - by rendering things important as meaningless. Performance could suffer and quality degrade.

To avoid this, take time to delve deeper into the third question. Invoke brainstorming, affinity, story boarding, true north or other applicable exercises, then establish a follow-up plan.


This exercise works well in operational, design or project environments. For example, in project environments it is particularly good for facilitating debriefing meetings. In operational environments the success and challenge format helps supervisors conduct performance reviews. It's also a great to help guide learning talks with children.



  1. Another thing I like about Migashco? As a small organization Migashco is free of larger, often politicized, institutional performance pressures and better able to focus its full attention on the needs of its clients.
  2. The Migashco principles include:
    1. the greatest gift one person can give to another is to pay attention to their existence
    2. the better leaders lend meaning to life
    3. all work has value
    4. never leave anyone worse off than you found them, including yourself
    5. lead individuals, not groups
    6. keep responsibility where it belongs
    7. seek first to understand, then be understood
  3. Attributed to the 13th Century mystic, Giovanni Francesco Bernardone, commonly known as Francis of Assisi.
  4. This can get complicated if working with larger groups. In this case ask people to list only one to two successes and challenges. If they are repeated, put a check mark next to the listed item.
© 2011  Michael C Kelly