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  • Helen Trinca

A leadership tool that shakes workers out of their comfort zone

By Helen Trinca, The Deal Editor and Associate Editor

Maxime Fern and Michael Johnstone are leadership advisers who have worked extensively in Australia and globally including at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

The couple, who are executive directors of Vantage Point Consulting based in Canberra, have built upon techniques of adaptive leadership developed by US academics Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky to develop their own approach – provocative leadership.

In their new book to be launched in December, Fern and Johnstone argue that to create deep change, “you have to disturb people, or at least risk doing so”.

Shaking people out of their comfort zones helps us “navigate unfamiliar waters” but leaders need skills to avoid “antagonising or shutting people down”.

What is provocative leadership?

Provocation doesn’t make much sense unless we put it into the context of the work it comes from, which is adaptive leadership, which is basically an approach to help people change in the face of unexpected or complex challenges.

We think our idea of provocative leadership is an extension of that, a next step. It’s provocation for adaptation and change. We see it as being not optional but essential for thriving and surviving.

The Latin word, provocare means “to bring forth”, so provocation may be something that you do, but it’s as much about your ability to think in a different way and bring something forth, to elicit something from others.

There are three reasons we see provocation being used by leaders.

The first is as a means to overcome the addiction we all have to the status quo. We all like things to be predictable. We see that in business, we see that in families. We don’t have much of a tolerance for disturbance. Politicians, for example, just love to calm things down, rather than to stir things up.

Secondly, provocation has got a bad name with the rise of authoritarian leaders, so we’ve tried to rehabilitate it, to see it as something constructive, something that can be used positively. And the third principle is that most people think of provocation as rude, demanding, awful, nasty, very unsettling. While it can be that, we see provocation as much more nuanced. It can range from asking a naive question to much more energetic and focused interventions.

It seems to run counter to current management ideas about a benign management that doesn’t send people into mental distress.

It’s interesting you note most leadership is about calming people down and keeping people happy. We would say that the largest percentage of management needs to be exactly that –showing the way, making sure plans are clear, looking after people so that they can do their best job. We make a distinction between what goes on most of the time – that everyday, necessary, fundamental work of management and what we would call adaptive leadership.

Provocation is for dealing with the challenges we haven’t met before, or those we don’t know how to solve; those that needs skills that are not part of our repertoire, that are not needed for our technical work. It’s when we meet something that we either don’t know about or haven’t expressed or haven’t considered.

You talk about needing “grittier leadership” but is this just for specific projects?

We give a couple of case studies in the book – one about Charles Massy, a NSW farmer who has challenged traditional farming; the other about David Gruen, the Australian Statistician, who disrupted the way the Australian Bureau of Statistics operated during Covid-19.

They are both examples of when people or organisations or groups face an unprecedented situation or realised options for continuing with the way things are becoming increasingly narrow. That’s when using provocation to test assumptions, to challenge the status quo, to experiment with new ways, is a critical pathway.

And Charlie (Massy) is an exemplar of that. He was forced by drought to confront the reality that the way he was farming was no longer sustainable economically or in the terms of land. That forced him to question all the assumptions about how traditional mechanised farming was undertaken.

Other case studies in the book are about situations and organisations and endeavours that go along perfectly well, until there’s a point at which they’re threatened by something in the external environment – climate change, or the war in Ukraine, or the pandemic, or something that has inadvertently occurred within the way they do business that means they are on the wrong trajectory. And they get increasingly uncomfortable, they are not fit-for-purpose. That’s when provocation comes into its own. But we are wary of people, particularly people in positions of power and authority, who misuse authority. We’re at pains to point to provocation for purposes that make the world a better place. It doesn’t mean it’s not unsettling or disturbing, but it’s not designed to exacerbate the problem.

You ask us to embrace our inner provocateur, but are we all built for this?

We would say there are varying appetites for provocative leadership, but all of us have the capacity to recognise what’s (not working).

We’ve written the book to make provocation an active choice rather than an accidental thing you do when you are faced with a problem. We’ve extended the work of our colleagues at Harvard – Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz who are the originators of adaptive leadership.

One of Marty’s favourite definitions, which is slightly tongue in cheek, is that real leadership is about disturbing people at a rate they can tolerate. We started at the Kennedy School in 2000. And then we went two or three times a year to work with Heifetz and Linsky at Harvard and other Harvard programs around the world. We worked for over 15 years in programs, including one called The Art and Practice of Leadership Development, that trained and developed practitioners.

Are corporations ready for this?

We think they are. We worked with senior teams, including for a big resource company, here in Australia.

And what’s surprising is, people would say things like, gosh, we haven’t had a really deep, challenging conversation like that such a long time, we need more of this kind of thing.

So, there’s a readiness, but it does take preparing people.

It’s part of the work as consultants and outsiders to come in and help people see what’s possible and teach them the skills.

The Public Service Commission in Canberra has been involving their deputy secretaries in programs on adaptive leadership, which gives a clue about their readiness. We’ve evolved provocative leadership particularly to be oriented towards business because it is capable of moving very much more quickly with adaptive leadership techniques.

Is it dangerous to be provocative in workplaces where there are so many rules around harassment, aggression, disruption?

One of the things about people in business is that they have learned to assess and work with risk. The main reason for us writing is to help people do it well and to minimise the risk.

In a thriving company, this work is more likely to be embedded gently over time.

What you say is true in environments where rules and regulations about workplace safety, personal safety and psychological safety are paramount.

The question then becomes, what are you provoking, rather than who, and raising questions about issues in the business that can be framed in all sorts of different ways. Is the strategy working? Is there a gap between what we say we want to do and what we do? That’s a very

different form of provocation than directly being rude or abusive to individuals.

You name key strategies – paradox, counterfactuals, humour, stories – as ways of provoking change. Can you expand on those?

There are a range of skills and capacities that are required and different forms of provocation. We speak about using questions as provocation, using your capacity to create an interpretation of what’s happening. There are different means by which provocation can occur. For example, rather than giving clear directions, you leave things more ambiguous. It’s provocative for someone in a senior management role not to run a meeting, or not to have the first ideas. And it can be provocative to not do anything provocative.

How do you use paradox?

Here’s an example of a paradoxical intervention. Some colleagues regularly turn up late to team meetings and people are annoyed.

A paradoxical intervention would be for the team leader to say, “let’s learn more about this problem, let’s all agree on Wednesdays and Fridays, to turn up late. On the other days of the week, we will do our best to come on time.” That’s called prescribing the symptom, and it’s a form of paradox, because you are asking people to control the very thing that they say is uncontrollable.

What happens is that within a couple of weeks people turn up on time because they feel the repercussions of turning up late on purpose.

Another example: sometimes when there is a new intervention to be undertaken, and people are fired up and excited, it’s a paradoxical intervention to say to people, “when you leave this meeting, do nothing differently”. What happens is they can’t help themselves and they act.

Tell me more about Massy and Gruen.

Charles Massy is a very good example of someone who had an established position in his industry, he wasn’t just someone who blew in from outside. He started to challenge himself because of the disaster happening on his land. Once he put his mind to doing something differently on his farm, he began to see the dysfunction and the inadequacy of many aspects of his industry. He sought out people to partner with and found Jim Watts from CSIRO, and they developed this radical intervention around mulesing and a new method of breeding sheep. Everyone thought it was outrageous: now it’s conventional practice. He took on the Wool Board because he couldn’t stand the way the board was working against innovation on farms, and then, ultimately, he took on the prevailing practices around mechanised farming.

Charlie is a very good example of being willing to provoke and challenge on numerous fronts over time. He was personally abused and attacked, people who had worked with him for many years shunned him because the questions he was asking really overturned decades, centuries of attitudes and farming practices, and even threatened farmers’ livelihoods.

And Gruen?

David was definitely the right person in the right place. In February 2020, as Covid-19 was spreading, David realised there was an opportunity for the ABS to offer data in a completely different way than had ever been considered. It was deeply provocative.

He needed to confront people beyond his organisation, but also people from within, who were initially very shocked at the idea that they could do “quick and dirty” surveys that allowed people in wider government and business to respond quickly. He built up a feedback network to provide data that made a huge difference to the way information was available: people could see what was actually happening in Australia in much shorter time intervals. And it brought together some very unexpected pieces of data that would never have emerged if the bureau had continued to behave in the conventional way.

Why do we need this change tool now?

McKinsey did a survey in 2020 that found 75 per cent of companies agreed there are opportunities for innovation but only 25 per cent said they were trying to capture any of those opportunities. In other words, at a time of huge disturbance to business, businesses were hunkering down. At a time when there was a need for things to be done radically different

(they weren’t acting). If it’s a relatively simple problem, businesses will solve it, but it’s where the status quo is more entrenched, where attitudes or ways of doing things are so entrenched, that something different is required.

We need from time to time to be provoked out of what we already know, and as humans, we

prefer not to do that.


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