“To confront a person with his own shadow is to show him his own light.”    —Author Unknown

As professional change facilitators, we take on many roles when performing our duties: SME, educator, counselor, philosopher, etc. In my opinion, one that is among the most important in our profession, but not used nearly as much as it should be, is the role of provocateur. 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 qwasuo is disrupted significantly.

Change-related sticky issues center around certain topics, information, decisions, events, circumstances, etc. that have a bearing on the outcome of important initiatives, but clients are reluctant to discuss them. Instead of exploring causes, implications, potential responses, or resolution strategies, they prefer not to bring them up at all or to gloss over things in a casual, superficial manner.

Sticky issues come in two forms—those that are directly generated by a change itself and those that a change indirectly dredges up from the past.

  • Direct: Sometimes the introduction of change creates opportunities and/or challenges that never existed before. These discoveries are not always well-received because they can shed light on previously unseen complications, predicaments, vulnerabilities, troublesome questions, and other difficulties. Also, people find themselves in such delicate political or interpersonal territory that they are reluctant to be forthright about the ramifications (or even the existence) of what has emerged.

    It could be that they don’t have a history of addressing difficult topics or that they are normally gutsy people who are now facing entanglements and intimidations the likes of which they haven’t confronted before. Regardless of the past, these people need an impetus to come forward with the frankness necessary to resolve the situation. One of the roles we have as change practitioners is to provide that motivation.

  • Indirect: Sometimes, it’s not the change itself that muddies the water with sticky issues; it’s the secondary (often unintended) ramifications that stir up uncomfortable sediment from the bottom of the political/interpersonal pool.

    If negative issues go unattended long enough, they can become the gunk everyone knows lies beneath the surface of conversations and actions, but which everyone ignores, by mutual (and usually unspoken) consent. By not speaking openly about them, the issues can be conveniently tucked away out of sight, allowing people to pretend the difficulties aren’t important, or worse, that they don’t exist.

    When significant transitions hit, and the ripples of implications begin to spread, the resulting churn tends to dislodge these buried unpleasantries, making it much more difficult to keep up the sham. Despite the obviousness of their existence, without something to spur transparency and explicitness, many people will continue as if the elephant isn’t in the room. One of the roles we have as change practitioners is to be that catalyst.

The change agent provocateur sees his or her function as that of encouraging people to openly address and effectively resolve the sensitive political and emotional dynamics that can be the source of great discomfort to discuss, but which are vital to attend to in order to reach full realization. He or she must never, however, unilaterally decide what issues to open up or who should be involved in the dialogues.

A contract should be established with the client early in the engagement so there is a clear understanding regarding how issues of this nature will be raised by the practitioner and reviewed with the sponsor. Whether there is any further pursuit of the situation, and whom it might involve, is entirely at the sponsor’s discretion, but the agreement between them should stipulate that it is the change agent’s obligation to raise the tough (sticky) issues.

More specifically, when serving as the provocateur, the practitioner’s job is to:

  • surface any concern that might jeopardize realization, which people appear to be avoiding,
  • ensure the sponsor has the proper information to make an informed choice about what to do, and
  • provide any guidance and facilitation that may be needed to support the sponsor’s decision.

In this series, I will explore whether we as practitioners have the desire to embrace the provocateur’s stance when it is needed. I’ve chosen this theme because, despite the value this role has for clients, I find that many professional change agents are hesitant, if not outright reluctant, to take on this function. As a result, critical discussions that could impact change realization either don’t take place, or they do, but with insufficient candor.

Some lack nerve; others are just clueless.

Two kinds of change practitioners fail to take on the role of provocateur:

  • Those who lack the courage to provide the appropriate prodding
  • Those who aren’t aware that a provocateur’s perspective is even necessary

The result is the same, but the distinctions between these two mindsets are worth noting.

  • For some, there is a conscious decision to be complicit in keeping things under cover, here are a few examples of self-serving rationales applied by practitioners:

    • “They obviously aren’t ready to have this conversation.”
    • “I feel that raising the problem would violate their boundaries.”
    • “Nothing would be accomplished by opening things up and it would only make things worse.”
    • “The emotional discomfort it would stir up could distract from meeting our deliverable due dates.”

    These are self-serving justifications in the sense that they  are all about the client. There is no mention of what the practitioner is trying to avoid.

    These statements reflect a more honest portrayal of the agent’s view:

    • “I don’t want to risk the comfort they feel working with me.”
    • “I’m not willing to take the heat if it doesn’t go well.”
    • “Things are already a bit tentative around here and now is not the time to rock the boat.”
    • “I’m afraid I could get fired (or lose the account) if I say something.”
    • “I’m not very good at these tense, adversarial situations.”
  • For other practitioners, the problem is much worse—they don’t even consider surfacing issues their clients are reluctant to discuss. It actually never crosses their minds to broach a topic with a sponsor around something that has been clearly (though usually subtly and unofficially) put off limits.

    It’s good that those in the first group (who make outright decisions not to pursue sticky issues) understand what could pose a risk to change realization. They lack the backbone to do anything about the problems, but at least they spotted them. From a developmental standpoint, there is some measure of hope that someday they might deal with their lack of fortitude. With the clueless, however, there is no starting point from which to work. It isn’t that they don’t see something that should be addressed and then shy away from it; they fail to perceive the obstacle in the first place.

    When it comes to training agents, I’ll take the frightened and tentative over the oblivious and undiscerning any day. In my experience, there is some chance that, one day, timid practitioners might overcome their anxieties and gain the self-confidence needed to provide real value to their clients. I’ve never had much success, however, coaching or mentoring practitioners who can’t even recognize opportunities to promote candor and forthrightness.

    These are change facilitators so focused on doing what they are told and trying to keep the people around them happy that they can’t fathom extending past their client’s comfort boundaries. It just doesn’t occur to them. It’s not a matter of failing to exploit opportunities. They don’t even know they exist.

At the expense of being overly binary, it boils down to this:

  • Practitioners either tackle sticky issues when they come up in client situations or they don’t.
  • If they don’t, it is due to them either:
    • placing their own comfort and financial security ahead of what is best for clients, or
    • lacking a frame of reference for being influential in difficult, challenging circumstances, and not even registering when these opportunities arise.[1]

The willingness to be provocative is essential, not optional.

Serving clients by incorporating the provocateur’s role when necessary is never easy or pleasant, but it is sometimes vital to reaching realization. If you are willing to consistently face this risk and discomfort in order to do what is in the client’s best interest, I applaud your boldness and professionalism. If you aren’t, you are shortchanging your clients and lowering the value people place on our profession.

The provocateur’s role isn’t something to be included in your repertoire (or not) based on your personal preference. It is an essential component to functioning as a professional change facilitator. Just as physicians can’t “decide” whether to be honest with their patients, we must be direct and explicit with our clients about the dynamics affecting their initiatives. This is particularly true when their own uneasiness about discussing certain issues is likely to hinder others coming forward.

Furthermore, your obligation to employ the provocateur’s role has nothing to do with how often it is necessary. In some circumstances, the role should be injected into client exchanges on a daily basis, while other situations call for this stance to be taken infrequently. The bottom line is this—when it is needed, it must be applied.

Anything less means, in my opinion, that you are not practicing the craft. You may have the title of change agent. You may be taking up space on an implementation team with responsibilities that include change management duties. You might even be providing a useful service to your clients in some way. I’m not suggesting you can only create value for clients when you employ the provocateur’s role. I’m saying you don’t provide all that you should when this role is not part of your skill base. If you can’t (or won’t) act as a provocateur when that’s what is called for, you are not delivering on a fundamental component of what makes our profession the critical resource it can and should be. (And if you feel I’m being too harsh, please read the box below.)

There is no shortage of people who will cater to what sponsors want to hear or are comfortable discussing. A key facet to what genuine  professional change facilitators offer, however, is a readiness to genuinely put the client first. This doesn’t mean always keeping them pleased and contented. It means staying true to the axiom that our primary function is to help our clients make informed decisions. Sometimes, this involves providing information and perspectives about critical events/dynamics that may cause them to feel awkward or disagreeable for a while. And yes, this can place us in uncomfortable situations.

If you are not functioning as a provocateur when that’s what your client needs, you’re not doing your job…it’s as simple as that. As I said earlier, if this happens, it means you either don’t know enough about this profession to recognize what you are not doing, or you lack the fortitude to perform as you know you should.

  • If it is professional context you are missing, you should consider another job. Assuming you have been a change facilitator for a while (my intended readership), if you haven’t picked up by now that the role of provocateur is essential to clients’ realization success, it is unlikely you ever will. If you do stay in this line of work, I encourage you to limit your change involvement to tactical, low-impact, minimum-visibility-type projects so people won’t confuse you with truly serious change professionals.
  • If it is “true grit” you are missing:
    • You know what the provocateur’s role is and when it should be brought forth but falter when it is time to step up
    • You recognize how valuable it can be for your clients but aren’t sure how to manage their discomfort and your own
    • You know what should be said but become immobilized thinking about all the backlash and negative repercussions you’ll have to contend with
    • You get yourself psyched-up for direct, explicit conversations with sponsors but somehow keep coming out of the exchanges knowing you watered down the messages so as not to make them uncomfortable

If some or all of these statements reflect where you are, welcome to the deep end of the pool where the real work is done. Don’t feel just because you sometimes succumb to your fears when provocateur opportunities presented themselves that you are incapable of rising to the occasion. Even the most experienced of us feel apprehension and vulnerability when our necks are stuck out. The answer isn’t to reach a point of not being scared; it’s to keep our doubts and fears from overriding our ability to do what needs to be done.  

Being a professional change facilitator doesn’t make us immune to the tension and stress associated with filling the provocateur’s shoes. We all feel some degree of anxiety when it is time to push the limit with a client. Despite these discomforts, however, it is our responsibility to deliver the messages sponsors need to hear.

In the next post, I’ll provide a list of things we should keep in mind when tackling really sticky issues during major change.

Think I’m being too severe?

If it appears I’m being a bit harsh, you’re not misunderstanding me—it’s intentional. I have little patience for people who profess to be seasoned practitioners but who lack the courage to address the uncomfortable parts of our job.

Our profession has a responsibility to live up to its claim of providing guidance through the treacherous seas of major change. This can’t be done properly if we are unwilling to challenge ourselves and each other to rise to our full potential. In this light, it is my view that too many practitioners want the accolades that come with our profession’s status but are unwilling to perform at the level expected of a strategic asset. As a result, from time to time when writing this blog, I am deliberately pointed in my criticism of us as a professional community.

Keep in mind, however, who this blog is written for. I don’t mind that some subscribers are complete novices, some are still very early in their careers, and others have only a few years of experience. I welcome anyone who can gain from the observations and perspectives I share in these postings. That said, the constituency I want to communicate with is made up of a much smaller collection of change professionals.

Change Thinking has always been intended for seasoned practitioners (with lots of scar tissue) who are highly skilled but remain committed to raising the level of their game and that of our profession. Here is an excerpt from my first posting back in November of 2009:

Anyone is welcome to read this blog, but my comments will be aimed at advanced practitioners who have a broad understanding of the dynamics of change implementation and deep experience facing the challenges of executing large-scale initiatives. In addition, this blog is for those seeking mastery in this field—change professionals who relate to this aspiration as a journey, not a destination, and who are constantly improving their competencies while continually going deeper into themselves. They want to grow from being a change specialist to an artist, from knowledge to wisdom, and from doing to being.

In a later posting, I elaborated a bit more:

Basically, this blog is geared for experienced change agents who don’t think they have all the answers. It’s for seasoned practitioners who exhibit specific characteristics:

  • Are highly skilled but are more uncomfortable with how little they know than they are impressed by their  accomplishments
  • Are more attracted to their remaining questions than their unquestioned answers
  • ŸCreate value for those they serve, but know deep down there is much more to learn—about transformational change and about providing greater benefits to their clients—and they are committed to exploring these gaps as humble students
  • ŸHave much to say, but are eager to be part of, listen to, and be influenced by, a community whose collective wisdom is powerful

This means that, although thousands of people consider themselves change agents, this blog is intended for only a select few. Instead of trying to relate to a broad spectrum of issues of interest to all the ranks and experience levels, this blog is focused only on items of concern for practitioners with a broader, deeper vantage point than those newer in the field.

Yes, I’m aware my postings are read by more than the intended audience (and again, all are welcome), but it is only the seasoned professional I have in mind as I write. It is from this perspective that I take such a confrontational position regarding practitioners who don’t stand tall when it is time to engage the provocateur’s role. It is unfortunate when this happens with less experienced change agents, but it is unconscionable when it occurs with experienced professionals who allege to be seeking mastery in this field.


[1]Yes, I know life isn’t this cut-and-dried and that there are all kinds of variations to the two alternatives I’ve laid out here. I also know that when too many nuances are included in descriptions it is easy to miss the main point being raised. Here, to ensure there is no loss of focus on what I’m addressing, I’m opting to cut to the chase at the expense of oversimplifying the complexities associated with how we relate to clients.