An Argument for the Future Tense

Posted on May 29, 2014


In his excellent book, Thank You for Arguing, author Jay Heinrichs provides a thorough and entertaining view of rhetoric, the art of argument and influencing the future behavior of others.  One of Heinrichs’ key points is:  the most influential arguments are done in the future tense.  Past tense rhetoric is known as forensic; it focuses on blame and justice.  Present tense rhetoric is deemed demonstrative; it focuses on values and whether something is good or bad.  Future tense rhetoric is termed deliberative; it focuses on choice and achieving mutual goals.

Earlier this year in March, I sat in on a conference keynote speech at the annual PDC Healthcare Summit that rather effortlessly broached my main concern in most improvement-oriented efforts: too much present tense (what), not enough future tense (how).  This time, someone else’s words, not mine.

In this case, the speaker was referring to how hospitals can improve to survive, and he was right.  All over the place we can read about ‘strategic initiatives shaping healthcare today’—present tense—but no one is willing to sit down and pitch solutions—future tense.  Fluff and blather are easy to generate; solutions are hard.

This is a pretty universal complaint, incidentally.  It is why lots of folks will help brainstorm to solve a problem (present – what), but execution and implementation (future – how) for real change are so elusive.  It is why disruptive innovation is so prized outside healthcare, because it is future-oriented, and even growing in desire within healthcare.

At the conference, the speaker related improvement functions an organization undertakes, and how those activities increase in value and complexity:

  • Reporting – what happened
  • Monitoring – what is happening now
  • Data Mining – what led to what happened
  • Evaluation – why it happened
  • Prediction – what will happen

Thus, the translated value curve of these efforts:

  • Reporting – what happened = Past tense (low value)
  • Monitoring – what is happening now = Present tense (medium-low value)
  • Data Mining – what led to what happened = present tense (medium value)
  • Evaluation – why it happened = Present tense (medium-high value)
  • Prediction – what will happen = Future tense (high value)

Why are we so uncomfortable taking a shot at prediction, at the future, when this offers the most valuable, high-impact opportunity?  Is it because no one knows the future with certainty?

With data at our fingertips, everyone from an architect to an administrator can help run through the value chain above and collaboratively land in the future.  Now we have the tools, like process analytics and simulation modeling.  We can, with a fraction of the cost of actually living through it, model what the future will look like, using today’s data, and make decisions today that will positively impact tomorrow.

And companies that can help hospitals predict the future with data, and help them earn millions more in revenue or save millions more in operations, will be in demand in the future.  I’m excited and ready.  I’m in!

Who else is ready to shift to the future tense?


Posted in: Design Zeitgeist