Re-Thinking Thought Leadership

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Part I: Organizing for Innovation

As the World Turns

Just as industries across the globe are facing — and even embracing — the unparalleled technological disruption at force today, Thought Leaders must also Re-Think traditional approaches toward the creation and distribution of their Points of View (POVs). Not only are businesses being forever transformed by the advent of exponential technology, so are Thought Leaders changing the way they both speak — and share — with customers.

Never has it been more important for Thought Leaders to deliver insightful, provocative and actionable information to clients. And also, to deliver and share in accordance with how customers consume data today. If modern Millennials want to digest content by reading other influencers’ POVs on Social Media via their phones — then that’s where your content should be.

Today’s customer cohorts are tough — but wait until you see the expectations of the next Generation, “Z”. Weaned on the web, Generation Z wants a collaborative, peer-to- peer discussion with providers — demanding that direct sales pitches be left at the door. The tectonic shift across industries today gives Thought Leaders an incredible opportunity to capitalize on new modes of communication and dissemination — as well as a formidable challenge to keep pace with the changing world of content.

10 Simple Steps to Light Your Thought Leadership on Fire

1) ANALYZE: Analyze the current state of your Thought Leadership capability. Assess whether you can share dynamically to keep up with the velocity of today’s technological transformations. Review how you are competing for the attention of frantic, fickle consumers, in the face of mounting customer demands. Determine if your messages and content are resonating with your audience.

Two Things Happen

Often, when I build Thought Leadership capabilities at large organizations, I notice that at times the creation of Thought Leadership is largely removed from the realm of the practitioner, or sales force. I’m sure it seems like a good idea at the time. Reasons are usually: ‘The company is too big. Our people don’t have the time to concentrate on writing Thought Leadership. We need them selling.’ But two very dangerous things happen when Thought Leadership is separated from the business — and neither of them are good.

The first thing that happens when you remove front-line, customer facing teams from the Thought Leadership process is — you begin to get less pertinent Thought Leadership. Lost are the fascinating recounts of the human struggle that is keeping up with screaming technologies in changing industries today. Clear, practical, calls-to-action, that resonate with readers, start to disappear, with the potential of leaving in their mist vague cliché’s lacking usability.

In my experience, the second thing that happens is, some professionals start not to show up to client with a Futurists’ view — with, if not an absolute answer about what’s coming around the bend, at least a keen understanding of emerging considerations. And things to watch for. Without being encouraged and supported to imagine and comment on the future through the creation of Points of View, professionals can quickly fall into a dangerous knowledge slump — especially during a time with this velocity of change.

2) ORGANIZEIn large organizations (and small!) communication can break down. Divide your enterprise into manageable groups, built around areas of interest. Create an environment that supports innovation, and be sure to provide resources to implement processes that make production and publication of Thought Leadership easy, fast and seamless.

The Dunbar Number

In psychology, there is a theory called “the Dunbar Number”. It basically states that when organizations get too big — communication breaks down. The number researchers assign is 150, but no matter the specific amount, the theory holds true. To improve communication, your first move is to organize the ranks — and get them ready for lots of creative collaboration — and some Serious Storytelling.

Meet Me at the Forum

It’s essential to get a buzz going throughout an organization — and that would be the job of The StoryTelling Team (STT). The teams I create usually consist of one Chief Story teller (who works as writer and editor,) a Deputy (who edits, and runs the business) and a revolving group of smart college grads to help us make a splash on Social Media. A team of this small size can support a fairly large number of Subject Matter Experts, as long as there is clear process in place.

To get on with the organization of the business, my team starts with the Leadership. We ask them to describe their business. We talk about where they are now — and where they want to be in the future. How you form your Subject Matter Expert groups, or ‘Forums’, is an important strategic decision. Usually what professionals find is that what you study, you solve and what you solve you sell. In this way the time and energy put into your Storytelling initiative is actually an investment in achieving your strategic goals.

Start a Movement

If you are building a modern Storytelling Team and Thought Leadership capability essentially from scratch, it will be imperative to initiate an enterprise wide ‘Movement’ within the firm, and organize to collaborate. We work with management teams to determine the various subject matter areas they would like covered, based on the work they’re doing now, and also the work they feel will be important in the future.

Next we appoint an array of business leaders intimate with the topic areas chosen, who help groups stay on track and drive the right agendas. It always helps to launch an initiative that lets the people choose in which subject matter area they would like to become experts — and futurists. You want your organization to feel a part of the program — and be empowered by the new support they are getting to tell their stories.

Our goal is always in lock step with the leadership team which is usually — ‘get our people writing and publishing so that when clients inevitably google them in that magical, pre-meeting moment — our people actually ‘Google-up’. And with something unique and provocative to say! Our goal is to imagine the future for our clients and for their customers. We also want to elevate the eminence of our people by sharing their good work.

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself…

Next up management asks business leads to introduce themselves to the practice. We ask for two things — a one-pager elevator pitch to explain what their ‘Forum’ is about — and what business problem they are endeavoring to solve. We also ask them to do a short video, telling us why we should join their ‘Forum’. The results are always… Colorful! We have a great time during what we call ‘Forum Rush’; a two-week period in which we release two Forum Introductions each day.

We then set up a ‘Survey Monkey’ tool so that everyone in the organization can sign up for the Forum of their choice. At our last, extremely successful, initiative for IBM GBS, we organized well over 600 people into 16 Forums in only 2 weeks time. The practice was electric with the promise of getting extra help and support to make their ideas become a reality that they could share with others.

3) ARTICULATE: Provide your teams with an efficient way to move from ideation to distribution. Aim to limit the time needed of SMEs, by having a clear process in place which allows fast turn arounds and dynamic distribution. Actively work to turn POVs into real-life offerings and business solutions.

Practice on Fire

The sincere coming together of these ‘Think Tanks’ is moving to witness. We work with teams as they arrange calls, set up slack channels — and begin to talk about their views of what is pertinent for their clients to realize, and re-act to in the market. We give the teams a very simple and repeatable process with which to bring their ideas to the fore, and create beautiful, insightful pieces of Thought Leadership. We streamline this process so that, the whole ‘Forum’ could be involved, the time investment of the Subject Matter Experts (SME) was less than 2 hours, and a POV could be turned around, looking great, in a week’s time.

A practice that may have authored only one white paper in the entire year prior, can now generate at least 2 POVs/week.

The research, the thought formation and the articulation by Forum members, of what they believe to be of key importance for the future of their industry, quite naturally turn into well-formed solutions to take to marketSo encouragingly, the bi-product of Thought Leadership ends up being the jewel — well-articulated, go-to-market solutions that solve burning business issues for clients.

Organizing your business for innovation by creating a Thought Leadership capability is essential in the present environment. Consistently publishing POVs dynamically, and keeping up a conversation around new trends and business models, will inform your clients of your forward thinking, and drive solution development in a marketplace changing at breakneck speeds.

Beth Desmond, IBM Chief Storyteller