6. Be a provocateur, or prepare to be part of the 70%.
From the Dirty Secrets Series
Practitioners who don’t provide a provocateur’s perspective when needed contribute to the 70% failure rate in the following ways:
7. Don’t just “help.” Practice the craft.
From the Practicing the Craft Series
Providing “help” is what practitioners do when they accommodate what their clients ask for or are comfortable with, instead of what is needed for change to succeed. Practicing the craft means staying true to what your chosen approach indicates should be done, even if that runs against clients’ expectations and predispositions.
This view is foreign to many in our field so I’ll elaborate. Many practitioners assume we should follow the same customer-service adage other service providers do—in order to generate the maximum value, deliver whatever the client wants. This axiom, which has become doctrine for other professions, is not always good guidance for us. There are times when we should actually maintain the integrity of our craft over supplying the help clients request.
It doesn’t matter what approach to change is being used. If it is based on creating genuine, lasting benefit instead of political safety for the practitioner, there will be times when what is asked for or expected by the client doesn’t match what is needed. Similar to the physician/patient relationship, professional change facilitators shouldn’t be constrained by recommending only what their clients are ready for. You wouldn’t want your doctor to withhold the biopsy results of a malignant tumor, just because he thinks you will be upset and unwilling to deal with it. Neither can we fail to be explicit about what our clients are dealing with and what needs to be done to accomplish their change aspirations.
Like some ill patients, clients are not always fully prepared to act on what is required to reach their stated objectives. Yet, both doctors and change practitioners owe it to the people they serve to provide an honest portrayal of the circumstances at hand, a plan of action to deal with the real issues, and, finally, a prognosis for success.
In order to practice our craft, we must be prepared to state definitively and in a straightforward manner what needs to happen for intended outcomes to be fully realized. When, instead, we do what a client asks and, in the process, hedge on giving full and explicit feedback, or pull back from our actual recommendations because we believe they “aren’t ready” to embrace reality…we have opted to “help” them instead of staying true to what we believe is in their best interest.
It is not our role to impose our will on clients. However, we can’t maintain our professional standards if we quietly assist them as they avoid or deny what is honestly needed to realize their change aspirations. No matter what methodology you use, practicing the craft of change facilitation demands that you be both courageous and disciplined. Without these traits, functioning as a change professional is a hollow way to make a living.
We are not here to argue or engage in power struggles with clients; we are here to do all we can to ensure they make informed decisions. The best way to do this is to remain consistent with the axioms and guidelines that comprise your chosen change implementation approach (whatever it may be).
The benefits of such a stance are paradoxical in nature. By placing a higher priority on maintaining the integrity of your professional convictions than on keeping your clients comfortable (and you protected), you’ll generate significantly more value to them. The more value you are associated with creating, the more secure you’ll be professionally. The intriguing twist here is that by standing firm on practicing the craft as the foundation for your work, rather than helping when clients ask for the wrong things, you will more likely build a strong following of people who want to work with you. (This is just as true for internal practitioners as it is for outside consultants.)
Granted, this way of relating to clients doesn’t always make you popular with those looking for someone to do their bidding. However, in my opinion, this is the best way to find people who are seeking change practitioners with deep convictions and the courage and discipline to be honest about what it really takes to successfully change.
Helping is when we curtail our guidance to be consistent with what clients will see as acceptable. Practicing the craft is when we bring forward, with unvarnished truth, what our chosen implementation approach calls for. The less we try to help and the more we practice our craft, the better it is for our clients and ourselves.
8. Confront clients to help them see new perspectives.
From the Reframing Series
For many change facilitators, being direct and explicit is the most difficult part of trying to reframe people. Challenging the way clients look at the world is risky, both personally and professionally. People can become trapped in their existing perspectives and lose their ability to adapt to important changes. Not only do most people tend to believe only what they see, but they also see only what they believe exists.
Sometimes, the way to effect movement from the status quo is to “confront” people with the true price for what is required to accomplish the desired outcome. I am not implying we should be argumentative or insulting. Rather, we should metaphorically hold up a mirror so they can see and face the implications of their current mindset and/or behaviors. Here is an example:
“I understand how you view this situation and I can see how it has led you to have the priorities you do, take certain positions, and do the things you do. That said, the current course you are on will lead to consequences that I don’t think are in your best interest. The same circumstances, however, viewed differently, could provide some alternatives that may work more in your favor. If you keep your present mindset, you will probably not solve the problem (or leverage the opportunity) the way you ultimately want. You’ll need a different perspective to accomplish that. I know it’s difficult to redefine your view of things, but I believe it is important to try because I honestly believe you will not be satisfied with the result otherwise.”
The confrontational aspect of reframing means we care enough about the individual to be completely honest about the downside of their current perspective and to offer an alternative view.
From the Sponsorship Series
Here are some examples of situations when practitioners, acting as provocateurs, should confront sponsors:
Something true about all of us—experts and novices alike—is that, at various times, we all fall prey to the trap of not doing what we know to be the right thing. There are only two kinds of practitioners in this regard: those who admit it and those who don’t.
In addition, we can't get off the hook by saying, “Well, I tried to raise the concern but the sponsor wouldn’t listen,” or “I couldn’t get on his calendar,” or “I had to be subtle so as not to ruffle any feathers and I guess she didn’t get my point.” None of this reduces our responsibility to be explicit, direct, and even forceful, if necessary, to ensure sponsors understand what they must do to reach realization of their desired outcomes.
What I mean is, we are often aware of what a situation calls for us to do or say but find ourselves sometimes reluctant to engage the actions we know we should.
9. Step forward to handle the deep emotions triggered by change.
From the Catharsis Series
Sometimes practitioners are hesitant to be challenging when emotions run high. Even during those cathartic moments when clients are past their zone of comfort, the provocateur should do the following:
10. Engage difficult discussions.
From the Tough Conversations Series
As change practitioners, we spend a great deal of time learning skills that help us facilitate deliberations, guide conversations, and manage relationships with our clients. We hope things go smoothly and that both we and the client have relatively comfortable interactions as the change process unfolds. For the most part, we would prefer to avoid any tough, unsettling debates.
There are times however, when we find ourselves in situations where keeping everything smooth won’t yield the results we need. Sometimes we have to go into a zone that is uncomfortable for the other person. There is no other way, if we want to serve our client and create the value we agreed to provide.
When this happens, it’s important to have a blueprint, a process to help navigate the difficult waters. I’ve found that many change practitioners, however, don’t have a contingency plan for tough conversations (other than to avoid them as much as possible). As a result, they are surprised when they find themselves in one and often over-react by coming on too strong, or under-react by backpedaling as quickly they can. Neither is acceptable when facilitating major change.
What follows is a description of some of my lessons learned when dealing with particularly arduous client discussions. Tough conversations have many aspects to them. I’ll focus on what is relevant about being intentionally provocative in order to advance the client toward his or her desired outcome.
There are times in client interactions when it becomes necessary to determine whether the dynamics at hand are important enough to escalate the tension by becoming more provocative (intentionally pushing the client past his or her comfort zone) or whether you should let things remain as they are. This decision to become more challenging could go one of two ways:
When you are at this point, consider your next step carefully. Although being more confrontational is risky, failure to do so might keep the client from addressing something that could jeopardize the project’s success. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself, “Can I truly stay dedicated to the client’s best interest without intentionally prodding him or her past where either of us would prefer to go?”
What circumstances would necessitate a tough conversation? This is another of those junctures where each change practitioner has to find his or her own answer. Speaking for myself, I’ll say that if I’m not consciously engaging clients in uncomfortable conversation at least some of the time, it’s likely that I’m opting for pleasantries and financial security over doing my job.
Being a professional facilitator of major organizational change requires a wide range of communication styles. Some are informative; others are more supportive and nurturing; still others require pushing the edge and even exceeding what clients are used to and comfortable with. As professionals, we are there for clients to guide the change process and ensure they make informed decisions along the way. We can’t fulfill this obligation unless we are skilled at and willing to use many different ways of communicating, including those that are seen as bold to the point of sometimes being unpleasant for clients to experience.
Leveraging Explicitness and Intensity
As professional change facilitators, our role isn’t to ensure clients are comfortable; it’s to help them realize their change aspirations…sometimes despite their discomfort. As awkward as it is, there are some circumstances when change practitioners should intentionally create uneasiness in their clients to help foster realization.
Two levers can be used to increase another person’s level of attention to an issue he or she is reluctant to explore: explicitness and intensity. Used separately or in combination, these enablers can have the effect of advancing the other person’s awareness of the issues at hand. Unfortunately, discomfort is usually accelerated along with this positive result.
Let’s look more closely at these two mechanisms.
The more serious the implications for the client, the more important it is for the practitioner to fill in gaps, vividly state facts, be emphatic about conclusions, etc. so there is no misunderstanding of what you are saying. The purpose here isn’t to be harsh for its own sake; it is to be precise in proportion to the gravity of the consequences. When a client’s actions could jeopardize the success of a vital change initiative, it’s important to reduce the amount of work required for him or her to draw the proper conclusions, and fully understand the ramifications of what you are saying. This can only be done by communicating more explicitly.
Ordinary conversation includes a spectrum of expression. This is conveyed by our tone of voice, body language, volume of speech, and other indicators. In situations where people feel strongly about a particular issue, the perceived passion, or “emotional charge,” of their speech usually increases. Volume, eye contact, hand gestures, motion, the angle of our body, our physical closeness to the other person…all can be used by the practitioner to increase the intensity of his or her communication.
The specific cues vary. One change agent may display intensity with concentrated, measured speech and a high degree of physical focus. Another may express it with animated motion, raised voice, and emotionally loaded words. Both are attempts to convey the importance of what they are communicating to their client.
The Bottom Line
To summarize, professional change facilitators must be willing to take on the role of provocateur when “sticky issue” discussions are necessary to further realization. The skill is not optional, and failure to do so when it is called for is a level of professional weakness that is unacceptable for seasoned practitioners.
Go to the beginning of the series.
 Antabuse® is a registered trademark of Wyeth-Ayerst Labs for a drug designed to assist recovering alcoholics. Once taken, any subsequent ingestion of alcohol within the next 24 hours results in dizziness, aching muscles, and nausea, which the alcoholic avoids by not drinking. Antabuse is not a subtle feedback mechanism; it’s a powerful vehicle for delivering direct, explicit, self-imposed consequences for failing to adhere to an important commitment. “Antabuse,” as used by Conner Partners, is a metaphor for relationships where one person asks for, and receives, direct, explicit feedback from another as part of the cost to succeed on the journey toward mastery.
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.