Rethinking thought leadership as an operating principle

Thought leadership risks becoming an empty marketing phrase just as it becomes essential to long term success. In an idea economy more and more firms understand the importance of getting credit for being on the leading edge, but getting credit is best preceded by actually being there. Organizations that depend on generating and exploiting ideas need to become more systematic about integrating thought leadership into their operating principles and practices not just their marketing.

Value of thought leadership

How many of today’s successful organizations are built on top of better ideas? Some, like FedEx or Southwest Airlines, were built on top of a powerful core idea. Others, like Amazon or Apple, were built on a powerful core plus ongoing extension and elaboration of that core with new ideas. Still others, like the best professional services firms, depend on a steady stream of new ideas.

If you’re fortunate enough to come up with a FedEx or Southwest quality idea, ongoing thought leadership isn’t much of an issue and you can focus your organizational energies on execution. On the other hand, if you’re in an organization or industry where the half-life of ideas is continuing to shrink, then you need a more explicit strategy than waiting for the next flash of entrepreneurial genius.

There have been many attempts to make thought leadership more manageable. These range from the full fledged research labs of large organizations (e.g.,  Xerox PARC, Microsoft Research, IBM Research, Bell Labs) to various research centers in professional services firms (e.g., Deloitte Center for the Edge, McKinsey Global Institute, Accenture Global Research).

Most of these examples separate research from practice and model themselves along academic lines. While they often produce excellent work and contribute to the overall market reputation of their parent organizations, they have been less successful at leveraging the experience of their parents or at feeding their insights back into their organizations. These examples also stamp thought leadership as a luxury available only to the largest and most successful organizations.

Where we went off track

While we can recognize the value of thought leadership as a component of innovation and of attracting new customers, we’ve had less success in transforming thought leadership into something systematic and manageable. While the end products of thought leadership are attractive, they shed limited light on what practices contribute to those end products.

Thought leadership presents a situation where working backwards isn’t helpful. Seeing the marketing and reputational value of a published article, senior executives will call their Chief Marketing Officers and order an article for the next issue of the Harvard Business Review. Wise CMOs, recognizing that this request has not come from someone named Gates, or Buffet, or Welch, will negotiate a more plausible timeline, identify some plausible topics, and search for potential authors within the organization.

With a great deal of luck and effort, this approach might yield an article in a year or so. Successful or not, marketing has now come to own the thought leadership problem. If the focus remains on the end products, which is likely, marketing will pursue opportunities to create materials that can easily be used as marketing and sales collateral. Perhaps they will enlist help from customer service or training groups to leverage their materials as input to the process as well.

This is a classic confusion of form over substance. At an extreme, we see such nonsense as Gartner Group trumpeting TLM (thought leadership marketing) as the next frontier for IT services marketing. Somewhat more sensibly, we see a variety of marketing and PR consultants pushing thought leadership as a key marketing strategy. Some good recent examples include:

Getting back on track

Whatever the marketing value of thought leadership, it is secondary to the operational value of increasing the effectiveness of how an organization learns from and disseminates practice. When you recast thought leadership as a core operating principle instead of ancillary marketing program, several implication follow. First, it changes what you recognize as relevant data. Second, it changes the kinds of support you provide to your front line practitioners. Finally, it shapes the practices you promote among your workforce.

Where you see data

A survey of current customers or prospects often passes for data in faux thought leadership attempts. Or, a few thin paragraphs passing as a case study. The insights that fuel real thought leadership flow from the interaction of rich data and penetrating questions. Those are typically found at the edges of current practice.

Organizations will find their richest data in the histories and traces of those projects that challenge their capabilities and are placed in the hands of their most adept staff. It’s often difficult to know in advance which projects will fall into this category. More often, it’s easier to predict that certain efforts will likely be routine.

How you support the field

The best time to collect this rich field data is as it’s being generated. The greater the delay between action and reflection, the more that real insight is displaced by revisionist history. Organizationally, you can provide systems and tools that make it simpler to capture and catalog working papers and work products as they are created. Second, organizations can set aside the time and create expectations that professionals will reflect on their work as they perform it.

What practices make a difference

Despite the fervent wishes of bureaucrats, the kind of reflection and learning from practice that fuel meaningful thought leadership won’t map into standard operating procedures or fixed processes. It is much more fruitful to think in terms of practices to encourage. At the team level, for example, After Action Reviews are a simple practice to amplify learning among the team.

Individual practices can range from debriefing a meeting over a beer to maintaining a journal of questions and reflections. The journal could be as simple as a Moleskine notebook or as extensive as a private blog.

Payoff to knowledge workers and their organizations

Treating thought leadership as a marketing responsibility does create organizational value, but at a significant cost in terms of effort and disruption within the organization. Marketing staff need the full support and participation of those line contributors generating the experience on which thought leadership must be based but if they drive thought leadership efforts from their immediate needs they risk alienating those on whom they most depend with requests for substantial incremental work.

On the other hand, treating thought leadership as an operating principle better aligns the demands on those core contributors. Now, rich, high quality input to thought leadership efforts are relevant components of ongoing work. Moreover, this approach enhances individual and organizational learning as a primary goal; thought leadership becomes a valuable side effect of doing work, instead of being an onerous additional requirement.

Professionals grow and develop through reflective practice. They build and test mini-theories of how their actions lead to outcomes. In a simpler world, that reflection was built on the slow accretion of experience. In today’s world, it is more effective to build on a foundation of explicit reflection.

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Odds of being a terrorism victim on a flight

What this graphic and the underlying data analysis show more than anything else is how little evidence and rational analysis have to do with most decisions by most people.  We can lament that all we want. If you’re running a lottery, you make money off this predictable irrationality. On the other hand, if you’re committed to seeing more decisions based on evidence, then you’ve got a challenge.


Nate Silver of collected the data for this handsome infographic designed by Jesus Diaz of Gizmodo. It shows your odds of becoming an airborne victim of terrorism. Maybe the new TSA rules will decrease the odds of being a terrorism victim from 1 in 10,408,947 to 1 in 10,408,948. Let’s hope so!

The True Odds of Airborne Terror Chart

Odds of being a terrorism victim on a flight
Mark Frauenfelder
Wed, 30 Dec 2009 22:09:37 GMT

On not being surprised by the future

The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed
                            William Gibson

A recent discussion about bad television science fiction versus what good science fiction can be illuminates the challenge of coping with today’s technology environment in everyday organizational reality.

It started with a recent speech by Star Trek writer Ron Moore:

At his recent keynote speech at the New York Television Festival, former Star Trek writer and creator of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ron Moore revealed the secret formula to writing for Trek.

He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they’d have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we’d just write ‘tech’ in the script. You know, Picard would say ‘Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.’ I’m serious. If you look at those scripts, you’ll see that."

Moore calls Star Trek’s tech "meaningless"

This triggered an excellent rant by Charlie Stross, one of today’s best science fiction authors, on his blog about Why I Hate Star Trek. Here’s the key point for me:

…I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects much as integrated circuits are useful and allow the mobile phone industry to exist and to add cheap camera chips to phones: and cheap camera chips in phones lead to happy slapping or sexting and other forms of behaviour that, thirty years ago, would have sounded science fictional. And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.


The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don’t tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context…

Why I hate Star Trek
Tue, 13 Oct 2009 11:01:45 GMT

There are two common responses to thinking about how technology impacts today’s organizations. In Pointy-Haired Boss mode, the constants of human behavior and motivation are ALL that matter. The background sets might be shinier, but it’s still just a soap opera and being in tune with human drama and politics is what separates winners and losers. In technology singularity mode, there are no people to clutter up the shiny sets. Neither of these common approaches is very useful, although both have the useful property of not requiring a great deal of thought or work. Unfortunately, it puts pointy-haired bosses at the mercy of snake-oil salesmen and marginalizes technocrats.

The third way requires that you become more comfortable operating where technology and people collide. Depending on your own background and predispositions you may need to invest time in learning more about people or technology. Both benefit if you get your experience first hand whenever possible. Second hand experience can also make a difference. That can take the form of tracking down the better case studies of organizations succeeding and failing with new technology. I would also advocate adding a dash (or more) of good science fiction, if you have a taste for fiction in general. Here are some suggested starting points:

What have you found helpful? Either in terms of recommended reading or in terms of useful practices?

25 Words on Social Media Wisdom

D winning

Liz Strauss offers up another of her provocative challenges; to craft 25 words of advice on social media.

Here’s my 25 words:

Social media wisdom, like all wisdom, comes from experience. Engaged, mindful, reflective experience. Deliberate and intentional practice will yield wisdom. Other experience need not apply.

The picture is of my coxswain son and his crew just after winning a 1500 meter race after months of work and practice to get to that point.

danah boyd on new habits in a connected world

I have got to meet danah boyd in real life one of these days. Her work, as revealed through her blogging, shows what can happen when you drop a well-trained, smart, and articulate observer into new environments. We all learn from her sharp attention to what is really going on. So much better than listening to what others think is going on.

She’s just posted an illuminating perspective on her recent experience at an academic conference in Italy that brought together a combination of young Turks and old farts. It’s a reflection on the slow emergence of new habits and behaviors in shared public settings; a look at how and why blackberries, twitter, backchannels, laptops, and iphones might actually be making meetings better for all concerned. Here are just a couple of quick excerpts. Go read the whole thing.

There’s no doubt that I barely understood what the speaker was talking about. But during the talk, I had looked up six different concepts he had introduced (thank you Wikipedia), scanned two of the speakers’ papers to try to grok what on earth he was talking about, and used Babelfish to translate the Italian conversations taking place on Twitter and FriendFeed in attempt to understand what was being said. Of course, I had also looked up half the people in the room (including the condescending man next to me) and posted a tweet of my own.

Blackberries and laptops are often frowned upon as distraction devices. As a result, few of my colleagues are in the habit of creating backchannels in business meetings. This drives me absolutely bonkers, especially when we’re talking about conference calls. I desperately, desperately want my colleagues to be on IM or IRC or some channel of real-time conversation during meetings. While I will fully admit that there are times when the only thing I have to contribute to such dialogue is snark, there are many more times when I really want clarifications, a quick question answered, or the ability to ask someone in the room to put the mic closer to the speaker without interrupting the speaker in the process.

My colleagues aren’t that much older than me but they come from a different set of traditions. They aren’t used to speaking to a room full of blue-glow faces. And they think it’s utterly fascinating that I poll my twitterverse about constructs of fairness while hearing a speaker talk about game theory. Am I learning what the speaker wants me to learn? Perhaps not. But I am learning and thinking and engaging.

What will it take for us to see technology as a tool for information enhancement? At the very least, how can we embrace those who learn best when they have an outlet for their questions and thoughts? How I long for being connected to be an acceptable part of engagement.

I want my cyborg life
Mon, 13 Jul 2009 18:16:26 GMT

Visualization of US Airways 1549

Here’s a fascinating animation reconstructing the flight of US Airways 1549 and overlaying the conversations between air traffic controllers and the flight crew. it really brings home the extraordinary job the crew did. A testament to the value of experience and training in responding to a crisis.

(h/t to Chris Carfi at the Social Customer Manifesto for the pointer]

Was being a fast follower ever a viable strategic option?

[cross posted at FAST Forward blog]

How often do you run across organizations that claim they intend to be “fast followers” when it comes to some dimension of strategy and innovation? Maybe I’m simply cranky because it’s Monday, but is there any way to make sense of such an approach in operational terms? The image of “fast follower” is intended to evoke a NASCAR driver drafting behind the leader, carefully waiting for the right moment to streak past and across the finish line. It’s deeply rooted in a notion that strategic success is a function of execution.

Any fast following strategy assumes learning from the leaders as a necessary first step. If you actually believe that the strategy can work, you need to be operating with something along the lines of the following as a theory of learning over time:


In this model, watching a first mover and waiting allows you to start your learning at a higher level and sometime later pass the first mover as their learning process peaks and levels off or slows down. I have two problems with this model. First, it assumes that the lessons learned by our first mover are easily observable and quickly transferable. Second, it still denigrates learning as an ongoing requirement. In this model, learning only needs to happen long enough to figure out the new strategic game and we get back to execution as the only relevant differentiator. It encourages you to undervalue and under invest in learning as a strategic competence.

I suspect that strategic learning is much more likely to follow a logistics curve of some sort. Early learning is relatively slow, followed by a period a very rapid learning, and ultimately a leveling off. If you accept that model of learning, then a fast follower strategy becomes even more suspect. In that environment, first mover advantages are likely to be more pronounced, with something like the following representing that situation:


At this point, being early in my own learning process, I mostly have more questions, not answers. Among them, in no particular order, are:

  1. What’s the relative value of competitive secrecy vs. the internal organizational drag on learning imposed by attempts to preserve secrecy?
  2. What can you do to shorten the slow ramp stage of learning?
  3. Under what circumstances would fast following remain a viable strategy? Are those circumstances strategically interesting?
  4. How do shortening learning cycles alter this argument?