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.

Cycling to Palestine

3 months cycling to Palestine, engaging with communities along the way, especially communities of resistance. Sharing stories, creating a story. Using performance and art, perhaps building up an international troupe of performers. All the while highlighting the struggles and resistance of the Palestinian people. Sound exciting?

On Sunday I was working with a group of activists planning just such a venture. The conversation had started during an outreach cycle ride to the Rossport Solidarity Camp this summer. The cyclists were moved by Israeli forces attack on the peace flotilla bound for Gaza to deviate from their planned focus and stop to take action in solidarity. The idea of an outreach ride to Palestine was almost inevitable.

We met to begin to explore a vision for the project. It’s a real pleasure to play a useful role at the start of projects such as these. Another pleasure was the absence of pressure to have it all done and dusted in a day. This was an exploratory day and decisions could be deferred to the next meeting.

I used several of the tools used with the Bridges group and added a spectrum line discussion to provoke thinking on some of the major issues behind the purpose of the ride. Once again using a simulated media interview to invite reflection and analysis of a project worked a treat. I’d been asked for a creative day that avoided a ‘big circle’ meeting.  We possibly went too far the other way, as there was an evaluation comment that “more plenary discussion would have been appreciated”


The group was tired and a little worse for wear from the Just Do It fundraiser the night before, which impacted on the later activities. But with regular energisers we got there.

In terms of what worked well on the day, the group said:

  • we got to know each other on a personal level and had opportunities to relate as humans – not something that most meetings provide the chance to do
  • the spectrum line exercise was good, leading to useful discussions
  • the media interview activity was good especially for putting ourselves into other roles
  • having an external, neutral, facilitator worked really well
  • the energisers actually energised
  • we were clearer at the end than at the start of the day (!) – it was good and exciting shared space

Inevitably there were things that worked less well

  • we could have found time to work out a strategy for people who want to support the ride from here in the UK, but not actually join the ride
  • the ‘splurge’ (as the ideastorming somehow became known!) and 6 thinking hats sessions were frustrating because I wanted to talk as a full group
  • I would have liked to hear everyone’s ‘who we are’ conversation
  • the timing of the day wasn’t great – it’s Sunday and some of us are hung over

3 months in the saddle ought to sort out those hangovers…