If you are not functioning as a provocateur when the need arises, you’re not doing your job. It’s as simple as that. You either don’t know enough about this profession to recognize what you are not doing, or lack the courage to perform as you know you should. (If you think this is too harsh of an indictment, please refer to my last post.)
From the very first post of this blog in 2009, and on a fairly routine basis ever since, I have made references to the provocateur’s role (though I haven’t explicitly labeled them as such). In some posts, I described what it was like to function as a provocateur; in others, I explored why we fall short of living up to this responsibility and I exposed what happens when we falter. In various ways, I’ve been writing all along about performing the provocateur’s role.
What follows are a few excerpts from previous posts where I raised provocateur issues without using the specific term. I have not included all the related references, but I hope there are enough here to properly highlight some of the inhibitors that tend to deter us from functioning as provocateurs when we should. I also address what we can do about them. By the way, I’ve taken the liberty of occasionally editing what was originally published so the connections to being a provocateur are as obvious as possible.
1. Establish clear expectations.
From the Contracting Series
Given the critical role contracting (and recontracting) has in practitioner/client relationships and how basic the mechanics are (be clear about what you promise and then deliver or renegotiate before the due date), it is amazing that poorly established expectations and/or weak follow-through occur so often. Based on my observations, most of the problems change agents experience with sponsors are directly caused or exacerbated by inadequate setting and/or fulfillment of expectations.
Here are some circumstances where practitioners should invoke the provocateur’s stance but often don’t:
2. Keep your initiatives from becoming stuck.
From the Getting Unstuck Series
Initiatives routinely become stuck. Many times the problem could be resolved, if not prevented, if the practitioner took on the role of provocateur.
Here are some of the ways practitioners contribute to an initiative becoming stuck:
3. Don’t be a victim.
From the Victimization Series
Many challenges and roadblocks hinder the successful execution of major change but few rival the obstructive power of victimization. Victimization is a disease that destroys the confidence a person needs to sustain a transformative journey, and it has reached epidemic proportions among not only targets, but sponsors and agents as well. Change practitioners are no less susceptible than our clients are, and we have no hope of battling the plague of victimization among our clients if we are carriers of the blight ourselves.
As I’m using it here, victimization is a mindset characterized by feeling trapped in negative circumstances with no option but to endure. It’s the antithesis of a person believing he or she has choices to make that can affect the outcome.
This mindset plays out in all aspects of life, but one of the most common forums is the work setting. Victimization on the job is not hard to spot. People prone to thinking and acting in this way exhibit some or all of the following tendencies:
Organizational change only makes things worse. Significant organizational initiatives magnify existing victimization and also stir up any predispositions that might have been lying dormant.
With change dynamics fueling the victimization fires, we have an obligation to examine our own culpability in spreading the victimization virus.
Our profession is a magnet for self-reliant types who think of themselves as “take no prisoners” independents but who then:
These are change practitioners who pride themselves on talking the talk about being direct and explicit with clients but then can’t seem to walk the walk when the opportunities actually present themselves.
How can we possibly be a useful resource in addressing our client’s victimization if we manifest some degree of the same affliction? Victims can’t administer to other victims except to participate in and foster the very sense of impotence that needs to be addressed. Our ability to assist clients with their victimization issues is in direct proportion to the extent to which we have faced them within ourselves. Professional and personal ethics require that we acknowledge our own victim vulnerabilities and learn how to manage them in ourselves and encourage the same with colleagues within our professional community.
4. Operate with integrity.
From the Trusted Advisor Series
Change practitioners must display an extremely high level of candor at all times. Among other things, this means:
Trusted advisors are expected to tell the truth regardless of the circumstances. Nothing short of complete honesty will allow them to fulfill the practitioner’s prime directive—to help the sponsor make informed decisions. Truth-telling should always be expressed with respect and kindness, but never at the expense of failing to convey their genuine perspective on a situation.
This means they can’t stop with being “merely accurate” in their exchanges. (This includes making statements that can later be defended as correct but that clearly lead the sponsor to a different conclusion than full candor dictates.) Sponsors will grant trusted-advisor status only to practitioners who consistently convey the truth of situations, not just accurate information.
5. Relate to clients as a partner, not a vendor.
Unless a practitioner is straightforward, true partnerships with clients aren’t possible, leaving vendor relationships as the only option.
From the Sponsor/Agent Relationship Series
In my next post, I’ll continue with the last five things that inhibit practitioners from taking on the provocateur’s role, and describe what to do about it.
 Unlike an “agitator” who intentionally stirs up trouble or a “pacifier” who seeks tranquility at all cost, the provocateur (as I’m using the term) focuses on helping clients recognize, acknowledge, and take action on the various “sticky issues” that inevitably arise when the status quo is disrupted significantly.
“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of things brought together.”
Helping Leaders See Eye to Eye
As professional change facilitators, we are often asked to provide guidance to leadership teams when they find they don’t have sufficient unified support among themselves for certain key change initiatives. A common request is, “We don’t have the alignment we need. Can you help us?”
Many practitioners try to work directly on the problem just as the client states it—lack of sufficient alignment. Unfortunately, this means they often end up treating symptoms, not the actual, underlying cause of the unproductive circumstances clients find themselves in.
Of course, this isn’t unique to alignment issues. Much of the work in which change practitioners are asked to engage is symptomatic in nature. It’s our responsibility, not the client’s, to distinguish between indications of problems and the root cause of problems. Doing so sets the stage for interventions at the right level and provides meaningful, sustainable value from our efforts instead of the superficial relief clients tend to ask for. In this case, we must properly set the stage so alignment can be taken on with a greater prognosis for success.
In this post, I’ll share how I approach these kinds of requests for alignment assistance. I invite you to offer what has worked for you.
Laying the Groundwork for Synergistic Alignment
In this context, “alignment” relates to the dynamics associated with more than one person trying to accomplish a common outcome. In a previous series of postings, I detailed some specifics around how this kind of collaboration can be fostered through synergistic teamwork. As outlined in that series, common goals and interdependence are essential ingredients to synergistic alignment.
In this series, I’m adding another layer of interpretation and intervention possibilities around teamwork by exploring how deep alignment is actually formed. As a standalone factor, alignment describes how a team functions together toward a collective desired state. It doesn’t, however, address how each person interprets the sought-after outcome or how committed each person is to reaching full realization. The point I want to stress here is that the road to alignment is paved with understanding and commitment. We must attend to these two issues first if substantive alignment is to materialize.
People won’t create a collective effort around making something happen unless they are first individually committed to the stated outcome. (See my series on the dynamics of commitment.) When they bond their individual commitment, they form a more powerful force than would otherwise be possible if they operated as devoted but separate influencers for change.
Meaningful commitment isn’t possible if people don’t understand what it will take for successful implementation. What sometimes appears to be easily won support for major change is actually people responding enthusiastically to something for which they have only a superficial comprehension. As soon as their naïve zeal faces the harsh realities of the change’s true implications, a more somber view emerges. Reliable commitment is possible only if a full picture is available of what will actually be achieved and at what cost.
With some change practitioner interventions, the sequence of activities doesn’t really matter as long as all the key concerns are addressed. This is a case where the order in which issues are addressed does matter. It has been my experience that practitioners who tackle understanding and commitment first have a much higher success rate of fostering deep alignment. Only after a thorough and clearheaded examination of what is at stake can people be expected to develop any meaningful commitment toward success. This commitment, however, is separately based. That is, each person is independently committed before the group begins to unify its resolve into a common and more powerful form of influence called alignment.
Here’s an example. Let’s say a senior executive team is trying to collectively sponsor a portfolio of critically important strategic initiatives.
The sponsors first need an understanding of the true scope of the initiatives they are chartered to execute. This is done by examining specific issues that include:
Each sponsor then needs to develop and demonstrate an unwavering, personal commitment to achieving full realization of the entire portfolio. Only then is it meaningful to focus on creating a synergistic alignment among the individual’s commitment to form a united front dedicated to accomplishing the stated objectives.
Commitment Is the Core
Though all three are essential, it is commitment that is critically important when building understanding, commitment, and alignment. In fact, our job as professional facilitators of organizational change can be summarized as an attempt to foster only one thing—commitment to realizing the true intent of what sponsors are hoping to accomplish. Understanding is a prerequisite to commitment, and alignment is what is done with commitment once it forms. Change execution as a function can be thought of as measured by two fundamental metrics:
This means understanding, commitment, and alignment are intrinsically linked, but they are not on equal footing. Our professional reputations are based on whether or not we are seen as contributing to the creation of commitment. This is where we live or die as trusted advisors of strategic resources.
It’s Not a One-Time Process
Regardless of the roles involved (sponsors, agents, or targets), people are constantly learning more about what a major change entails and the implications for the endeavor’s success or failure. Each time a person learns enough to deepen his or her commitment—and then alignment—with others to ensure realization, the reality of taking the next steps in the implementation process becomes more clear. With new information, the sequence starts over again, so the cycling between understanding, commitment, and alignment is always in some state of flux.
Our Prime Directive
Of course, there are times when a new understanding doesn’t lead people to deeper commitment—just like renewed commitment doesn’t always lead to strengthening alignment with others. At each of these junctures, there are circumstances that will either bolster or undermine a person’s resolve toward change fulfillment. As practitioners, we are in service to sponsors who always want people to advance their determination for change success, but we must keep in mind that there is an even more primary obligation for us to maintain. If we are truly dedicated to practicing our craft, our ultimate pledge is not to safeguard that people will always move toward deeper levels of resolve. More than anything else, we must remain unwavering in our stance that we are here to ensure people make informed decisions… wherever those decisions lead.
In summary, when clients describe their “alignment” problem, generally speaking, they are presenting the symptom they can identify, not the larger, underlying causes. I have found that taking the necessary steps to lay down a proper foundation of understanding and commitment before addressing alignment significantly increases the chance of me providing real value to my clients.
What has been your experience around helping leadership teams deal with their alignment problems?