The Power of Provocation

Liberating Creativity: a session from SXSW 2023 led by frog Head of North America, Anthony Pannozzo

The best provocations go beyond asking questions.

It’s clear that disruption is the new normal, and the concept of digital transformation is dead, being rapidly replaced by continuous evolution. In a recent panel at SXSW I led called ‘Liberating Creativity,’ panelists and I explored the power of provocation, stimulating thought around the issues organizations face today. Panelists included David Lee, Chief Creative Officer at Squarespace; Brad Zabroski, Senior Director of Design at Expedia; Heather Carroll Cox, Chief Digital Health and Analytics Officer at Humana and Nate Zager, Director of Design Operations and Program Management at AT&T.

Organizations understand that change is a constant, yet many still struggle to free themselves from their current mindsets. They need elevated creativity—to make effective, confident use of the creative know-how they have. Corporate aspirations and visions are often too platitudinal and abstract, making it difficult for organizations to know what future they’re working toward.

They are imaginative, speculative futures, informed by trends and insight, which challenge the fundamental assumptions of an organization, unlock creativity and catalyze action.

Creativity, design and critical thinking fuel ideas and provocations. Just ask David Lee, Chief Creative Officer at Squarespace, who explains, “This is the golden age of humanity. Disrupting and coming up with ways to shine is what we’re meant to do.”


Why Provocation?

The Power of Provocation is to Inspire

Provocations are speculative futures that are intended to challenge the mindset of an organization, unlocking creativity and catalyzing action, so they can be the disruptor, not the disrupted.


  1. Not every company has a Steve Jobs or Akiro Morita at the helm.
  2. Mindsets need to be challenged.
  3. Futures need to be concrete (not platitudinal).


Change usually happens when people hurt enough and they feel they have to…

or, when they see, learn and understand enough, they are inspired to.



What makes a good provocation?

A provocation challenges and organization’s ethos and its fundamental assumptions about the value it brings and the people it serves. It is informed by insight and trends that provide confidence. Note: there is no way to predict the future or produce evidence that a future will happen. Instead, a provocation expresses itself with concrete and accessible stories about possible futures that can be translated into a blueprint and roadmap.

Surprise and delight through the power of provocation
There are three elements of a perfect provocation to shift the dominant mindset of an organization.
1A provocation challenges the status quo.

A provocation may ask: Is there another way to provide that customer experience? Why does our organization exist? Too often, asking questions about purpose invariably addresses the what. This is what we do. Not so much the why. 

Consider the example of a professional membership organization that might run conferences, publish newsletters and provide information to its membership. When examining its function and purpose, the objective should be to not only unlock what the organization does, but why it does it. Is this still what people value—showing up at conferences, receiving newsletters, receiving information? It would require asking, “Is this what your membership cares about?”   

After probing deeper, we might uncover that maybe the organization doesn’t exist to run conferences, publish newsletters or provide information. Maybe it exists to support and serve its members in a more profound and meaningful way. 

Brad Zabroski, Senior Director of Design at Expedia, says we should ask questions to understand how we’ll exist in a future defined by the transition of technology and the pervasiveness of internet access. “How do we start to question that future and then start looking at near-term to understand what’s our role in that future?

2A provocation is informed by data and insight.

When you challenge conventional mindsets, you have to bring with it some form of insight and data to support it. Without that, most organizations won’t believe the challenge. This means accessing trend data, demographics and other insights to unlock creative thinking about the future.  

Again, there are no reliable predictions of what the future will be. But we have trend data. We know demographics. Take, for example, insights from the health and aging space. We will know how many people will be eligible for Medicare in 20 years. We will know how much that would cost with the current model. We also know that one of the most important things that anybody who’s aging is thinking of is losing their independence. With this in mind, there’s plenty of opportunity to provoke new ideas that can unlock a whole wealth of creativity and thinking about the future. 

Panelist Nate Zager, Director of Design Operations and Program Management at AT&T, affirms that business metrics have shown us that “when you start with design in your DNA, and by building things customers actually want, the business can win and the customer can win.” 

3A provocation must be concrete and accessible.

By concrete, we’re talking about telling a story—something you can visualize, saying, “Here’s what this will actually look and feel like.” This is in contrast to a vague ambition, such as “We’re going to be a partner in healthcare.” That’s nice. But what does it mean? It’s not concrete.  

When individuals look at the future, they need to see themselves in that future, and the organization needs to see that, too. That’s the accessibility. That’s the future we can be a part of—the future we want to be a part of. Without that accessibility, the future becomes scary and out of our control because we don’t see our role in it. Fundamentally, the right provocation for the future needs to be one that everyone says, “I want to be a part of making that future happen.”  

So, if an organization aims to serve the profession, it has to always know exactly what the profession values and cares about. This exploration can start small. As a member of the organization, you can start performing and executing in a manner that is provocative, to get your organizations to think differently. Heather Carroll Cox, Chief Digital Health & Analytics Officer at Humana, said it best: “Provocation opens the horizon.” 

At frog, we’re focused on exploring new horizons that harness the power of provocation across multiple industries. Contact us to find out how we can help you bridge the gap between provocation and business solutions. 

Anthony Pannozzo
Head of frog NA
Anthony Pannozzo
Anthony Pannozzo
Head of frog NA

Anthony leads a talented team of designers, strategists and data scientists in creating more thoughtful experiences for clients and customers around the world.

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