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  • Writer's pictureMaxime Fern & Michael Johnstone

Overcoming the threshold of resistance

Case Study


Many clients tell us how unproductive their meetings are. They question just how productive strategy conversations, planning sessions and even performance discussions are. Part of the reason for this lies in the failure of leaders and mangers to delve below the surface and their continued use of safe approaches.

The inclusion of occasional provocative in work, problem solving, or meetings can increase the chances that your ideas will jump over the resistance threshold, a principle that was reinforced during a strategic thinking exercise we facilitated for a senior team. In these activities, we usually see have at least two roles. First, as facilitators who assist a group discuss their challenges but who are neutral to the outcome. Second, as pattern interrupters, whose job is to help people see how their behavior either enhances or constrains exploration and deep discussion.

The inclusion of occasional provocative in work, problem solving, or meetings can increase the chances that your ideas will jump over the resistance threshold.

In the early conversation, the executives did two things. First, they blamed resource cutbacks for their current problems and then focused most of their attention on what was working and why it should continue. The resource issue might have contributed to the slow pace of change, but it was an insufficient explanation for the problems the group listed. We deviated from our original plan offering a simple framework, a different lens, to invite another view.

We asked the group to determine what activities they should keep, those which were core to the business and what could be modified or discarded. The framework, taken from Adaptive Leadership, is inherently provocative because it requires people to consider threshold issues, such as what is a priority and what is not. The Trojan Horse in this simple design is that change requires something to be discarded or lost in order to move forward. It is common to work to keep everything as it currently is, to ensure no one loses anything, guaranteeing the status quo is reinforced and retained.

As the conversation became focused and productive, it became clear that the group had been avoiding their disagreements. But now people spoke honestly and contested ideas vigorously. The exercise breached the threshold of the existing narrative to highlight what was being kept invisible by the exclusive focus on day-to-day activity. No one wanted to give anything up, but everyone agreed that something needed to shift. The group began to name the potential losses required for their survival and acknowledge their uneven impact. That is, they named the inevitable and uncomfortable truth that not everyone would be affected evenly.

Our intervention nudged existing ways of doing business toward an alternative means of operating, allowing activation of new and underutilized behaviors. A unique quality of interaction emerged in response to our challenge, helping the group overcome its threshold for change.

Overall, you can choose from a wide range of provocative responses to target thought patterns and behaviors that help maintain the status quo. Each type of move has its own impact depending on form, timing, and intensity.

Excerpt from Chapter 1: Provocation as Leadership


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