Provoke the Future

Provoking the future means breaking out of the analyze-and-decide loop. Imagine your desired future state and act despite the uncertainties. 

By Geoff Tuff and Steven Goldbach September 14, 2021
Provoke the Future

The call to action for all leaders today is to DO SOMETHING! Provoke a better future—and, if you're a business, a better future means one in which you are advantaged. Whether that advantage is a competitive one held by your organization alone, or a socially oriented one in which the benefits accrue to many (higher and more equitable standards of living, less systemic racism, lower carbon emissions and so on), the future we desire will likely not come to pass unless we have a hand in influencing it. It is up to us to provoke the future we want.

To provoke is to take action with multiple different timeframes in mind. Small acts of provocation in the short term will create new knowledge and have a cumulative effect in the longer term. But all provocations take advantage of the fact that time is our scarcest resource. It is easy to convince ourselves that waiting until we have enough information to act is a safe move because we can, for example, either avoid wasting money on something that ultimately doesn't succeed or follow the lead of our competitors and end up with a comparable market position at a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately, as we've examined previously, because of several biases, humans have a bad habit of assuming the future is a linear extension of the past, and thereby also assuming that the same conditions will exist for the fast follower as existed for the first mover.

But by waiting and watching and collecting data, we are constantly wasting our time—using up one of the only currencies we know of that simply cannot be replaced, no matter how successful or well-funded we might be.

The trick—and the key to creating a better future—is to provoke with purpose.

Avoid Data-and-Decide

As a first principle, our concept is intended to be causal. As such, it is different from many of the well-established decision-making methods in use around the world today that tend to be more reactive. Those models are based on the idea of gathering as much information as quickly as possible and incorporating that data into a continuous loop of decision-making and action. 

The problem with those models is that the primacy of being able to act fast in the face of new information has natural limits. We are trending toward a world of perfect and instant information. How and when we reach that point varies by industry and situation, but it appears inevitable that we will get there. It's a "when," not an "if." And when we do, the opportunity to create advantage via speed of response will present itself less and less frequently. That's why we need to learn how to provoke. 

There are three key differences between the data-and-decide approaches and our idea of provocation. First, they rely on someone else as the primary actor or require new information as an instigation to act. Many business leaders have been brought up mired in the orthodoxy that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The problem with this purely reactive approach to management is that it presumes that you can see the forces of change working around you. Historically, this has been largely true, with industry boundaries reasonably stable and sources (not to mention rate of flow) of information reasonably predictable. But with the rise of exponential change, those conditions disintegrate. If you leave it to someone else to be the first mover, or for new information to act as a lever to overcome organizational inertia, it is increasingly likely you'll be left behind.

Move Beyond Analysis

Second, such data-driven approaches are based on the notion that advantage can come from having better processing power and/or analytical techniques to make better use of new information. This compounds the first problem by focusing activity and management attention on analysis. Perversely, in the face of potential disruption, many turn inwards and seek more data and more confidence in what the algorithms are telling them, instead of outwards to understand the new forces of change at play. If we rely on better insight through better analytical techniques, inevitably the focus turns to higher and higher burdens of proof instead of a push to look at the world differently.

A Bias for Action

Third, they presume that lessons from the past can guide action in the future. By definition, all data is retrospective. It's a good way to take risk out of decisions that approximate those that we have faced in the past, but it's useless in facing the brand new or the wholly uncertain. The only way to add contours and "knowability" to an uncertain situation is to provoke a reaction in your market—in the broadest sense of that word: the field of play that you're on—by taking action.

Why is it that in business settings, hardly anyone ever screams, "Do something!" Instead, the caricature in a movie, novel, or cartoon would show someone thoughtfully leaning back in his chair and asking a subordinate—in a very measured way—to "run the numbers again" or "go study X." Is this scenario different from the first one because the existential threat is to the business rather than to the person? Or is it because the threat feels less proximate? Either way, we all need to start building muscles that will help us overcome these barriers to just take action in the business setting.

Knowing Here from There

Acting with purpose is impossible unless you know where you are and—roughly—where you would like to be. That doesn't necessarily mean always having a comprehensive view of your optimal future. But it does mean knowing what constitutes the most critical aspects of your desired state and what uncertainties will impact the likelihood of it coming to pass. For example, consider these desired states: 

  • If market demand for desalination in India takes off due to rising sea levels to [this level] by [this date], I am well-positioned to make a killing if I invest in brine technologies today.
  • If population growth in Africa represents roughly half the global population increase set to occur over the next ~30 years, venture bets placed by large tech companies (and others) will likely result in substantial returns.
  • If the cost of travel to outer space continues to fall over the coming decades, certain industries (e.g., mining of heavy metals and minerals) can place bets to take advantage of this new frontier. 

The key is to be able to frame your desired state in sufficient detail so that you can name the uncertainties. What distinguishes successful provocateurs from timid analysts is the confidence to act and the ability to recognize the phase change as a trend solidifies to become inevitable—that is, when you stop asking "if" something is going to happen and start asking "when"—and what the trend means for you. That is one of the most important factors to consider as you choose how to provoke. 

Excerpt adapted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Provoke by Geoff Tuff and Steven Goldbach. Copyright (c) 2021 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. 

Geoff Tuff is a Principal at Deloitte. 

Steven Goldbach is a Principal at Deloitte and serves as the firm's Chief Strategy Officer. 

They are the authors of Provoke: How Leaders Shape the Future by Overcoming Fatal Human Flaws (Wiley; September 14) and Detonate: Why—And How—Corporations Must Blow Up Best Practices (And Bring a Beginner's Mind) to Survive.

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