Prepare to provoke!

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Provoking others with new, bold and adventurous ideas is essential to winning in the marketplace. By being provocative, we can elicit conversations that engage and energize people to new heights of excitement and advocacy. It helps us differentiate our value in the cloud space beyond the commoditized status quo. I believe it is the right approach with all my heart and all of my years of experience.

Provocation is essential in pushing the leading edge business strategies and technologies of today and tomorrow. Cloud is one idea that is pushing people to think about their business—and the deployment of IT infrastructure—in new ways. So are social, analytics and mobile.

So I say to you: “Prepare to provoke!”

Some people are going to read these words and think I’m asking them to prepare for something painful. Like when the captain of a ship in a war movie shouts, “Prepare for impact!” because the torpedoes are zooming toward them.

And this makes sense, right? Being provocative can be seriously risky. Being provocative means disrupting people’s thought processes. You’ll have to say something controversial, something they weren’t thinking, or something that they might not want to hear. You’ll be doing this in front of many people, whether it’s in the meeting, on the con call or over email. You may be violating cultural norms. You may overstep authority. The results could be negative. They could dismiss you. They could laugh at you. Worse, you could lose the business. And perhaps never be invited back again.

“Prepare to provoke!” you hear me say. “Brace for impact!”

But that’s not what I mean.

Because the point isn’t to just blurt out something reckless for the sake of controversy. That would be foolish and harmful. That would be disrespectful to your colleagues and yourself.

What I’m suggesting is that when you prepare to provoke you prepare.

As an analogy, think of other jobs where people step up in front of an audience and attempt something risky. Imagine a stage actor who, instead of rehearsing his lines and blocking, goes on stage and just starts talking. Imagine a tightrope walker who, in front of the cheering crowd, takes her first step ever on a rope. How about a bullfighter deciding to try out some new moves for the first time in front a massive crowd and an enraged, thousand-kilo bull? They end up somewhere between embarrassed and dead. You get the picture.

How these people succeed is through preparation. Hours and hours of careful planning and practice. They consider every contingency. They have safety measures. By the time the curtain opens, they know exactly how everything is going to go.

They’ve essentially eliminated risk through preparation.

Can we do this in our business? Can we possibly eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, our risk through preparation? Absolutely.

Prepare to provoke ideas

Here are some thoughts on how a team might prepare to provoke. It’s not a complete list, but they should be enough to spark some ideas on how your team might best prepare.

Own the conversation: Toward the end of my last blog Exposing the Cloud Fallacy… I list some tips mostly about being prepared to engage, such as getting smart on your topic, having an exceptional point of view, putting it on paper, and getting people excited. These are all important and valid steps. I won’t re-write them in this blog, but please read them here if you missed it.

If you are looking for some idea starters, IBM recently launched a pretty neat case study website called “Made With IBM.”  Check it out to see some of the provocative stuff our firm is delivering.

Create your own permission and authority to speak: Some people are pegged or limited in what they seem credible talking about, and if your provocative idea is out of that scope, people will question why you are even discussing the matter. Through confidence, practice, experiences and studying, you can create your own permission and authority to discuss different topics that might be viewed as outside your purview. Don’t let other people determine this; instead, take the steps to create your own authority.

Work on it as a team: Don’t attempt to be provocative on your own. At the minimum, have your colleagues know and agree on what new information you plan to bring. The last thing you need is for your own teammates to be surprised and hurl objections at you. The best plan is to coordinate with the team, work through what the team’s point of view is, and prepare everybody to be active and competent actors in the conversation.

Calculate and understand your risk: How open-minded is your audience? What would be the consequences if you fail? How mature is the deal? What existing investments would your new ideas threaten? How much money is on the table? Figure this stuff out. Don’t necessarily make it a barrier to act, but rather a calculation in your preparation.

Predict and prepare for likely objections and reactions: Can you guess what they might say when they hear your new idea? Grab a whiteboard with your team and list out all of the possible objections or reactions that you might get. Purposefully plan for how you would address them with smart answers. Don’t let yourself be surprised or caught off guard.

Practice and role play: Get with your team and practice delivering your idea for your audience many times and long before you go live at the call. Have your teammates play devil’s advocate. Try out the ideas with as many different crowds as you can before bringing them to your audience. Go to your office and knock on doors and ask for a few minutes to get both reactions and to practice your pitch. Train like a fighter.

Bring prepared allies from both sides of the table: In my experience, you’ll likely have multiple people to pitch at different times and at different levels within the organization. Get some of those people on your side, ready to support your ideas, before you head into the meeting with the big boss.

Manage your emotions: Stay calm and affable even if the heat turns up. Know when to get excited, too (it’s important!). Just don’t let anything ugly or destructive take over your good sense.

Have a fallback plan: Have an alternate approach ready in case the provocative one doesn’t pan out. The provocation is only a failure if it was the only way to win and it didn’t work.

Engineer the conversation so everybody is a winner: Even though a provocative approach is controversial and unexpected, it can rarely be a situation where you are right and your audience is wrong. Persuasion only works when people arrive to the conclusion on their own. They have to feel like active participants and feel like they came to the right answer. It means their ideas have merit, too. The wise provoker knows how to make everybody a winner.

Now, I want you to “prepare for impact!” Not for torpedoes headed for your ship, but for the impact you’ll have after you prepare.

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