Change Thinking

Despite all the business change knowledge uncovered during the last 50 years, many seasoned change management professionals still aren’t adequately prepared to serve those trying to navigate their way through today’s turbulence. Change Thinking is an effort to have an exchange with, and be part of, a community of practitioners committed to raising the level of their game and that of the field of change execution.

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When and How to Apply the Provocateur’s Role

Categories: Provocateur, Understanding

If you are not functioning as a provocateur[1] 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:

  • They engage change work without even attempting a discussion of desired outcomes, the means for achieving them, how the agent and sponsor will perform their roles and relate to each other, and/or the consequences if they don’t live up to the expectations being set.
  • They are intimidated by the sponsor’s personality, rank within the organization, sense of urgency about starting work on the project right away, etc. to the point that, after trying, and failing, to have a substantive contracting discussion, they begin work on the project anyway.
  • They feel unsure about what their role, or the sponsor’s, should be so they dodge anything specific about either one.
  • They doubt that the sponsor will agree to what role he or she should play, so they avoid the discussion.
  • They conduct the right expectation-setting discussions but use, or allow the sponsor to use, vague, equivocal, implicit, abstract, convoluted language when discussing expectation specifics.
  • They attempt to practice the craft in an environment where change facilitators are treated as “order takers” and are expected to do as they are told.
  • They overextend themselves by agreeing to more commitments than they can realistically deliver. 
  • They are seduced by how well-intentioned or busy the sponsor is and avoid saying anything about his or her unfulfilled promises.
  • They agree to expectations without having all the relevant information.
  • They consent to expectations under duress because they feel they have no option but to agree.
  • They agree to deliver something they don’t have sufficient influence over.
  • They fail to tell the sponsor as soon as they see that their ability/willingness to fulfill promises is in jeopardy.
  • They fail to give the sponsor feedback when he or she does not live up to promises made, or unilaterally changes what is expected of the practitioners.
  • They fail to ask to renegotiate expectations early enough so they can still meet the original obligation if the request is turned down.

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:

  • They try to address tough political, cultural, or personality-driven issues while at the same time attempting to keep everyone happy.
  • They accept more responsibility for an initiative’s success than the initiating sponsor does.
  • They try to resolve problems/opportunities by working on the symptoms instead of the underlying dynamics.
  • They fail to communicate what needs to be said (which, if said, would likely make a difference). There are two reasons practitioners fail to communicate:
    • They won’t. (They withhold what needs to be said.)
    • They can’t. (They are unable to convey what needs to be said and, therefore, are probably not the right person for the role.)
  • They fail to tell the truth. Change agents should strive to be truthful:
    • To themselves about themselves
    • To themselves about their clients
    • To their clients about themselves
    • To their clients about their clients
  • To be of value, practitioner truth-telling should be communicated in three ways:
    • With accuracy—correct, proper, just, and meticulous
    • With directness—straightforward, unequivocal, crisp, compassionate, and unambiguous
    • With understanding—empathetic, respectful, sensitive, and compassionate

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:

  • They feel caught up in what they consider negative situations but are unwilling to pursue resolution strategies they think are too expensive.
  • They are easily intimidated around authority, withhold their true thoughts/feelings, and say whatever they think will bring favor from those in charge.
  • They have trouble determining what they want but hold others accountable for their frustration.
  • They blame other people or circumstances for causing the struggles they find themselves in and don’t see themselves as contributing to the problems or needing to generate solutions.
  • They prefer to gossip about people or problems behind the scenes rather than to directly address them through open dialogue.
  • They overreact to events and, in the process, burden people with their emotional immaturity.
  • They engage in covert retaliation as “payback” for the injustices they feel occur toward them, rather than overtly confronting the issues in a way that brings them to a conclusion.

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:

  • complain about clients without mentioning any of their concerns to them,
  • blame clients behind their backs for projects not going well, and
  • resign themselves to how little influence they have with their clients.

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:

  • Being honest with themselves and the sponsor
  • Speaking the truth with accuracy, directness, and understanding
  • Openly declaring their biases, intentions, motives, etc.
  • Being authentic
    • Maintaining congruency between what they think/feel and what they express/do
    • Embodying what they promote (being a model for what they suggest the sponsor should do)
  • Standing firm despite adverse circumstances
  • Maintaining confidentiality (whether it is overtly requested or they apply discretionary judgment)

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

Change Agents Who Think of Themselves As...
Vendors Partners
Think it’s best to limit feedback/guidance to what the sponsor is comfortable hearing/pursuing Understand that feedback/guidance should include everything that needs to be addressed for realization to be achieved, regardless of how comfortable it is for the sponsor to hear
Believe it’s best to minimize risk visibility and keep a positive spin on progress Believe it is best to identify and acknowledge any substantive risk to realization early so mitigating action can be engaged
Think it’s best to promise whatever the sponsor wants even if it isn’t feasible Know it is best to work with the sponsor to jointly agree on realization outcomes after a sober comparison of the desired intent and the significant inhibitors that must be overcome

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.

Go to the beginning of the series.

[1] 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.

Posted on: October 23, 2012 04:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Understanding, Commitment, and Alignment

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of things brought together.”    
—Vincent Van Gogh

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:

  • The details of each project and how its success or failure impacts implementation of the other ones
  • The precise requirements for success
  • The level of demand that will be placed on the organization and its people
  • The dynamics of how transformation unfolds—both personal and organizational
  • The duties and responsibilities they carry as senior sponsors

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:

  • To what degree do we help increase commitment to a successful implementation?
  • To what degree are our activities associated with the organization actually reaching realization?

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?

Posted on: February 28, 2012 08:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."

- Oscar Wilde



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