The power of provocation

The UK government lurches from crisis to crisis. They announce a policy initiative. There’s an immediate and fierce backlash. And then they fudge something to avoid too much humiliation whilst letting the powers that be go about business as usual. Hardly what I’d describe as ‘government’. However on one level I like the aspect of provocation, not that it’s deliberate in their case. It just needs to be coupled with competent handling of the response!

As facilitators we use provocation too little. Something to do with that impartiality ethic we often have? If we state something that sounds like a position we’re straying from taking care of process into content? Maybe because some of us fear the conflict we could provoke?

But it’s such a useful approach. Too often groups faff around, are too polite, too vague, too certain, or just not considering the full picture. Well placed provocative interventions can break through the mediocrity and open up a real and meaningful discussion. But unlike the UK government the response needs to be handled well. It needs to be met with a genuinely listening ear, a curious mind, more provocation (if needed) to open up all sides of an issue. As a facilitator I see nothing wrong with “just to play devil’s advocate here a moment….” or “has anyone considered that…” or “I’m very aware that some people argue that…”

Mostly I use provocation in the general dialogue with a group I’m facilitating, but there are some spaces and techniques that rely on provocation.

I’m thinking of spectrum lines (aka continuums)which are designed to present participants with an issue and help them formulate their own thinking on it. Often facilitators use a question to stimulate that thinking. I prefer a statement simply because it’s a more powerful provocation and people will bounce off it. Doesn’t matter where they bounce, as long as they do.

There’s also the reverse ideastorm (or brainstorm) – if you’re trying to get creative around attracting new members to a group, then ideastorm the opposite – “how could we put off as many people as possible from joining our group?”. It provokes a new perspective.

Edward de Bono also advocates what he calls a Po, a provocation operation – looking for solutions by beginning what may sound like an absurd starting point. You can find more on this, including a good example in his article Serious Creativity and a useful summary on the mycoted website. You can also find an exploration of provocation on the newmilleniumthinking blog.

I’d be really interested to hear how others get provocative and what they’ve learnt along the way.



Sharing values

I spent an hour and a half on the phone today to Jeannie and Steph, 2 of the facilitators that attended the Transition Network Dreaming Circle back in December. We were talking about meetings, more specifically trying to shape some meeting training agendas for transition groups.

Very quickly the conversation turned to values, and how we facilitate a process of helping groups articulate their values, shared or otherwise. Values seems to be one of the areas prone to assumption. We assume everyone else has the same ideals, beliefs and principles until we discover otherwise – a discovery that often leads to confusion and conflict and can be a real obstacle to groups functioning well. We noted that many groups hit problems when they expand. The founders are drawn together by a sense of shared values. Because that sense is strong they don’t feel the need to carefully articulate what they mean. Why should they? After all they all agree… Then new folk join and cracks begin to appear as the realisation dawns that there’s now a diversity of perspectives, and worse still of values. Sound familiar?

OK, time for a quick step back, because one of the problems is that it’s not always clear what we even mean by values. It’s a slippery word that can mean different things to different people… and as such I’m hesitant to try to pin down a definition here. I suspect for some it’s an emotional affinity with certain ideas or actions. For others a more cerebral yardstick by which to measure the ‘right way’ forward. As a facilitator I think it’s more important to raise the question “What do we mean by values?” than try to have the ‘right answer’. Phew, that’s wriggled out of that one.

Steph is facilitating a session to explore values for her local Transition initiative, so the whole discussion was given a definite context. We talked about tools and techniques for exploring values. The interesting thing, for me, was the realisation that we didn’t have a whole host of them at our fingertips. So we shared the ideas we did have, customising tools we’d used to for other more conceptual discussions. Many of the tools I use for this kind of discussion share a common approach – using some form of provocation, ie: a statement to bounce off that helps clarify our position. I’m thinking of spectrum lines, or of the process I co-facilitated with Rich from Seeds for Change last summer to explore the values people used to make strategic campaign choices. Here we used images of action, followed by a local radio-style interview using a few simple questions (see below) to provoke thinking and discussion :

  1. tell us about the action you’ve just taken part in
  2. what were you hoping to achieve?
  3. do you really feel this one action can make that kind of change?
  4. what would you say to those people listening that are thinking this is well-intentioned but won’t change the big picture?

It seemed to work, and it can’t be that hard to rework these or similar questions for different ‘values’ contexts. And I’m sure that provocation can be used Edward de Bono style for this purpose to.

The conversation also took in the work of John Adair, specifically his action-centred leadership model which balances the group’s task, with the needs of the group and the needs of the individuals. This could easily be rewritten as the group’s task, the values of the group and the values of the individual. Now I’m not a fan of top-down leadership, but strip out that assumption and replace it with a co-operative one and the model has useful implications for supporting groups to consensus through shared leadership. Clashes of personal and group values are often at the heart of blocks to consensus.

All in all an hour and a half well spent. As always, your thoughts, comments and, of course, tools and techniques are very welcome.