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  • Writer's pictureMaxime Fern & Michael Johnstone

Uncover the tensions in a team

Case Study


Our clients typically come to us because they want to solve a problem or improve something. They initially are apprehensive about our advances and eventually push back, argue, and storm against us. And yes, they argue amongst themselves. The differences, tensions, and fissures escape the confines of what our clients call “the real world” and infuse the so-called “unreal” discussions we have with them in the training venue, retreat, or boardroom. They will show us what they won’t consider or discuss, and which ideas are taboo- the early signs of what is holding the problem in place.

For example, a professional services firm (we’ll call them NextXa) were trying to rebalance their relationship with a major client. There was growing frustration on both sides, because NextXa was one of three vendors to the client, and from time to time, all three had to work together. Each player thought the others were not sharing information and were undermining the other. But the contractual arrangements made it difficult to collaborate and they were at an impasse. NextXa asked us to facilitate a problem-solving session which, in brief, went something like this:

We asked, “Who or what is benefitting from the impasse?” After looking at us as if we were crazy, there was a little exploration. The answer was revealing. “Well, it stops us from having to confront the client, and we keep things calm.”

Who among you does this most suit?” “Well, none of us. But it suits Harvey the project leader most because he can avoid the hard discussion.”

And how does that benefit the rest of you?” we followed. “Well, we can watch from the sidelines and not get our hands dirty,” Megan called out.

So, you're all in agreement that Harvey needs to talk to the client while the rest of you wait?

Well,” Megan answered, “as a matter of fact, I have contacted the other providers.”

You have done what?” her colleague Anthea yelled, “Who authorized you to do that?

And so, the discussion continued, with increasing heat, as the once aligned colleagues turned on each other. The fracture lines were on show, and issues of autonomy, boundaries and team cohesion became apparent. They were blind to the impact of their current approach, preferring to see themselves as the “good guys,”. However they discovered that members had very different views of how to respond under pressure. Having been encouraged to expand their view of their own behaviour and habits, they stepped back and and were able to see the patterns of avoidance and self-protection more clearly.

Our goal is to help our clients understand how their system (team, organization) operates, what the rules are (even if they are unstated), and which patterns of interaction and communication support learning and adaptation and which hinder it. We do this by using three core skills - observation, interpretation, and questions. These are the three foundations of provocation for adaptation and simultaneously are diagnostic activities as well as provocative actions which allow a situation to be assessed, the context to be productively expanded and the existing challenge to be framed for progress.

Extract from Chapter 2: Provocation as Leadership.

Our goal is to help clients understand how their system operates, what the rules are, and which patterns of interaction support learning and which hinder it.


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