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.