From ‘Thought Leadership’ to ‘Upstreaming Conversations’

May 19, 2010

in Knowledge Innovation, Networks, Knowledge and Social Media

The phrase ‘thought leadership’ has some appeal to me. So today, I was reading an insightful post by Jim McGee, which led to some reflections and a gut reaction on why ‘thought leadership’ is finished as a marketing, management or PR label. [image to the left, from here].

Jim McGee writes that Thought Leadership risks becoming an empty marketing phrase just when it is becoming essential to longer term success. He concludes that organizations need to rely on a steady stream of new ideas, and need a foundation of explicit reflection to continuously build and test mini-theories on how their actions lead to outcomes.

McGee’s Musings : Rethinking thought leadership as an operating principle

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.

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.

My own two cents: In a world of rapid change, instant real-time updates and network effects, managing or marketing ‘thought leadership’ seldom puts runs on the board. It is only when the organization becomes more collaborative, more effective at asking better questions and more agile at interpretation and at finding direction that organizational performance begins to improve. That appears consistent with Jim.

What Jim doesn’t stress enough is that many organizations have hired agencies and consultants for “thought leadership” rather than for “learning faster”. These are often different skill sets. This also runs the risk of alienating the very employees that should be empowered to learn on the job. Jim identifies the opportunity as at the “edges of current practice”. I’d agree. However, for thought leadership as a caption to remain relevant, the focus must turn towards ‘upstream conversations’. We can’t predict the future, and ‘thought leadership’ is unfortunately stuck in today as a case study or as a guess about tomorrow in the not-yet executed mode. Upstream conversations, on the other hand, enable an organization to follow pathways to improved reflection, and to the capture of new, better and more agile questions, ideas and solutions. [Image Credit]

In fact I’d argue that the real health of an organization and its leadership and strategy is anchored in the quality of the conversations it has. If an organization really wants long term ‘thought leadership’ which works as both a hiring platform and a customer / relationship / partnering strategy, then it’s best to look at more immersive approaches. That’s perhaps why marketing so often had the lead and various research approaches remain key. However failing to engage with upstream technical / technology advances, or changing standards, regulatory etc, any position the company had could be frittered away.

Those that understand the “upstream” opportunities and ramifications and can bring them first to market win. Whether fleshing out a new product or evolution of a current service. The real leadership is in how the organization has the conversation.

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