Think­ing that mat­ters

The Gart­ner Group iden­ti­fied thought lead­er­ship mar­ket­ing as a ma­jor busi­ness trend that has rapidly be­come an es­tab­lished field in mar­ket­ing and a ba­sis of com­pet­i­tive dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion when well-in­formed buy­ers see lit­tle per­ceived dif­fer­ences be­tween sol


Fas­ci­nat­ing, en­thralling, and scin­til­lat­ing. These are some of the at­tributes we as­sign to in­di­vid­u­als such as Ram Cha­ran, Noam Chom­sky, J K Rowl­ing, and Stephen Hawkins; and or­ga­ni­za­tions such as Ap­ple, Google, NASA, and Khan Academy. Not only do these in­di­vid­u­als and or­ga­ni­za­tions ben­e­fit from am­ple me­dia cov­er­age and lime­light, they are the go-to, top-of-mind peo­ple that oth­ers seek for in­spi­ra­tion, in­sight, in­for­ma­tion, and in­no­va­tion.

They are the peo­ple whose books grab your at­ten­tion at the air­port book­store; they are the or­ga­ni­za­tions that ig­nite trends that rip­ple through in­dus­tries and shape the fu­ture. Their ideas have a vi­ral qual­ity to them and TED is full of them.

But what does it take to be­come a thought leader and how can or­ga­ni­za­tions de­velop in­ter­nal thought lead­er­ship ca­pa­bil­i­ties for su­pe­rior value gen­er­a­tion and per­for­mance?

thought lead­er­ship in ac­tion

Be­ing a rec­og­nized au­thor­ity in a par­tic­u­lar field is more than just mak­ing great pre­sen­ta­tions. Cred­i­ble thought

lead­ers are vis­i­ble, in­tensely ac­tive, and ‘on the pulse’ around key top­i­cal is­sues emerg­ing in their field of ex­per­tise. They use key­note pre­sen­ta­tions, con­fer­ences, high vis­i­bil­ity plat­forms, and rel­e­vant pro-bono work as op­por­tu­ni­ties to am­plify their ideas and cre­ate a strong, ded­i­cated fan base ea­ger to road-test their in­sights. Fur­ther­more, they for­tify their think­ing by pro­vid­ing cut­ting-edge re­search that re­veals sur­pris­ing and some­times counter-in­tu­itive per­spec­tives, new value-gen­er­at­ing pro­cesses, and op­er­a­tive prac­tices that ac­cel­er­ate the tran­si­tion from idea to re­al­ity.

What makes thought lead­er­ship par­tic­u­larly in­trigu­ing and cap­ti­vat­ing is the abil­ity to re­veal pre­vi­ously un­seen or hid­den re­la­tion­ships in com­plex sit­u­a­tions. The abil­ity to make con­nec­tions that oth­ers can­not see cre­ates new worlds of pos­si­bil­ity. Google is a case in point. The ge­n­e­sis of the firm started with Larry Page tak­ing a dif­fer­ent view of the emerg­ing po­ten­tial of the in­ter­net com­pared to the get-rich-quick star­tups at that time. View­ing the in­ter­net as a uni­verse of nodes (com­put­ers) in­ter­con­nected via web pages gen­er­ated new pos­si­bil­i­ties of nav­i­gat­ing the new in­for­ma­tion medium.

de­vel­op­ing unique per­spec­tives

Cen­tral to the prac­tice of thought lead­er­ship is cu­rios­ity— the abil­ity to ex­plore phe­nom­ena across mul­ti­ple, di­verse dis­ci­plines, and per­spec­tives. This im­plies that thought lead­er­ship is not a soli­tary ac­tiv­ity. It is not about some guru sit­ting atop a moun­tain hav­ing ‘ah-hah’ mo­ments.

The prac­tice of thought lead­er­ship in­volves col­lab­o­rat­ing and cat­alyz­ing pow­er­ful ‘what if ’ think­ing with other ex­perts. In the process, they use other peo­ple’s minds to ac­cen­tu­ate their own and cre­ate new depths of thought.

Put an­other way, thought lead­ers stand out as unique in­di­vid­u­als be­cause they carve out new paths through an ocean of con­form­ity, very of­ten by us­ing oth­ers as in­spi­ra­tion or muses.

Boston Dy­nam­ics, a US-based en­gi­neer­ing firm, is an ex­am­ple of fu­ture think­ing. At the nexus of their prod­ucts is the in­ter­face be­tween mo­bil­ity, agility, and dex­ter­ity found in an­i­mal move­ments and cut­ting-edge technology. Us­ing sen­sor-based con­trols and ad­vanced com­pu­ta­tion, they have been able to un­lock com­plex or­ganic mech­a­nisms to cre­ate re­mark­ably life­like hu­manoid ro­bots ca­pa­ble of per­form­ing com­plex tasks with ap­pli­ca­tions in both mil­i­tary and at home.

To earn the re­spected sta­tus and stature of ‘thought leader’ re­quires the per­son or or­ga­ni­za­tion to ef­fec­tively ad­dress and over­come any po­ten­tial neg­a­tiv­ity. Their ideas must pow­er­fully ad­dress the likely re­sis­tance and in­er­tia they will en­counter, es­pe­cially from other in­tel­li­gent minds.

rat­ing thought lead­er­ship

Not all thought lead­er­ship is the same. The best and most at­trac­tive ideas share the fol­low­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics:

01 The idea is both cred­i­ble and rel­e­vant to the is­sues be­ing tack­led

The prac­tice of thought lead­er­ship in­volves col­lab­o­rat­ing and cat­alyz­ing pow­er­ful ‘what if’ think­ing with other ex­perts.

02 A new ‘open­ing’ is cre­ated that ad­vances, improves, or solves prob­lems fol­low­ers of the idea are fac­ing

03 In­dus­try prac­ti­tion­ers per­ceive the idea as worth in­vest­ing their time, ef­fort, and money

In­deed, the best game chang­ers are those ideas which start as pix­els of pos­si­bil­ity and are then crowd-de­vel­oped into a range of ap­pli­ca­tions. This is the case in ar­eas such as ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI), big data, IoT, ro­bot­ics, and plat­form think­ing. The com­bi­na­to­rial im­pact of these emerg­ing fields is ruth­lessly rewrit­ing the fu­tures of many tra­di­tional in­cum­bent busi­nesses. The im­pact is widerang­ing across many in­dus­tries as dis­rup­tion be­comes the new nor­mal.

de­vel­op­ing the cor­po­rate mas­ter­mind

Used ef­fec­tively, thought lead­er­ship can be a po­tent ap­proach to driv­ing cor­po­rate growth. Shar­ing valu­able knowl­edge with ex­ist­ing and new clients can fuel new op­por­tu­ni­ties for col­lab­o­ra­tive con­sult­ing, busi­ness model rein­ven­tion, and pack­ag­ing of new busi­ness prac­tices.

a case study

In­fu­sion­soft, an Ari­zona-based on­line sales and mar­ket­ing startup that has grown sub­stan­tially into a half-bil­lion-

Used ef­fec­tively, thought lead­er­ship can be a po­tent ap­proach to driv­ing cor­po­rate growth.

dol­lar com­pany us­ing in­no­va­tive think­ing to drive its own busi­ness as well as its cus­tomers’, is a prime ex­am­ple of a vi­sion-driven com­pany.

Founded in 2001 and backed by a num­ber of lead­ing in­vestors in­clud­ing Gold­man Sachs and Bain Cap­i­tal, the busi­ness has ex­panded from a tiny, strip-mall of­fice to a modern, high-tech cam­pus in Ari­zona’s Silicon Desert with an­nual rev­enues ex­ceed­ing $100mn and over

650 em­ploy­ees.

Co-founders Clate Mask, a New York Times best-sell­ing au­thor rec­og­nized by the small busi­ness com­mu­nity as a vi­sion­ary leader, and Scott Martineau are con­stantly search­ing for ex­ter­nal thought lead­er­ship that would pro­vide the firm with an edge—from high-pro­file speak­ers such as Si­mon Sinek for their an­nual ideas con­fer­ence to provoca­tive per­sonal ex­ec­u­tive coaches.

keep­ing thought lead­er­ship im­por­tant

Thought lead­er­ship can mis­tak­enly oc­cur like a ‘lux­ury’ in times of an eco­nomic slow­down or crises. Dur­ing trou­bled times, it is nat­u­ral for busi­nesses to re­duce costs and fo­cus on sales gen­er­a­tion. What is of­ten over­looked in these mar­ket con­di­tions is the im­por­tance of pre­par­ing for the next cy­cle of gen­er­at­ing new direc­tions and us­ing thought lead­er­ship as a driver for prod­uct/ser­vice lead­er­ship. Those firms that use thought lead­er­ship to spur in­no­va­tion have an ad­van­tage.

De­spite their re­cent neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity, Uber an­nounced its plans to team up with avi­a­tion com­pa­nies to demon­strate fly­ing cars, in Texas and Dubai by 2020. For those of us old enough to re­mem­ber, the Jet­sons life­style is rapidly be­com­ing a re­al­ity.

As the busi­ness re­al­ity shifts, it is im­per­a­tive that or­ga­ni­za­tional think­ing does the same. Sur­vival is about cap­tur­ing the fu­ture. In the ma­chine-learn­ing al­go­rith­mic fu­ture ac­cel­er­at­ing to­wards us, en­hanced mar­ket per­cep­tion and imag­i­na­tion are the men­tal fac­ul­ties that will mat­ter most. It is those thoughts that shift growth pat­terns and craft new busi­ness nar­ra­tives that will de­fine the next era. ■

As the busi­ness re­al­ity shifts, it is im­per­a­tive that or­ga­ni­za­tional think­ing does the same. Sur­vival is about cap­tur­ing the fu­ture.

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