10 practical elements to consider
This blog was co-authored by Andrew Smith and Marc DonFrancesco
Great thought leadership (TL) is about great ideas. But it’s also about practical considerations. When you are in the middle of a TL project – whether as a subject matter expert (SME), sponsor, project manager or content creator – it can often feel mostly about practical considerations.
Here are some of the practical aspects of running a TL project that can make the difference between success and failure.
- New hat or old hat? When you’re deciding on a TL topic, check whether anyone has had the same idea. If you’re merely repeating others’ work, you can end up making your firm look like a laggard, and your efforts may even emphasise the more timely work of other organisations. You might get internal kudos for good design or your collaboration and communication chops, but the work itself is not going to move the needle because it lags behind the market.
- Have we got the expertise in-house? Be honest. Is the most promising business team full of thinkers? Maybe it’s full of salespeople who focus on their role. This doesn’t necessarily close off a project, but you need to be realistic and practical. If they are not going to contribute much, then the TL project team may have to reach out to external SMEs. And if your TL is going to be full of external experts rather than supported by your own organisation’s team, is this really the right topic for TL focus in the first place?
- Willing hands. You need them. If you have a star player or team that’s making markets and powering ahead, it’s tempting to think: “Yes, we have our differentiator. There’s our topic.” But if the people in this team are maxed out on commercial work, or uninterested in participating, then think again. It’s easy to underestimate the SME time that must go into quality thought leadership. A smart and organised TL project team can take some of the strain, but SMEs need to be up for it. Some may need approval or incentives from their own manager before they sign up.
- Can your firm make money out of this? It sounds obvious, but the early involvement of business development functions, wider marketing and account managers will bring you valuable feedback and direction. Your TL piece might not be ready for publication or circulation for six months, so you need to make sure the topic is going to be an area of commercial focus down the line. If it’s about a market that the company is gradually moving away from, think again and tweak or reconsider your idea(s). Of course, other, killer ideas can come from these subsequent conversations.
- What’s that coming over the hill? Great thought leadership associates itself with the future more than the present, but be careful. If it’s looking too far into the future, that could be a problem. “If you are too early,” said Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor-in-chief, “no one understands, and if you’re too late, no one cares”, and she knows. TL is not the same as blue sky thinking, but rather an ingenious extension of thinking. Your topic and scenarios must be recognisable as likely or possible, relatively soon.
- Does your thought leadership proposal fit the business strategy? Is this at least in part what you want to be known for as a business? Most companies have strategies and values of some form in place, so it’s important that the TL topic fits with these. Again, early consultation will bring you useful feedback and give people (including the most senior people) a chance to get used to the TL ideas you are developing. That’s not to say that everyone must agree on everything. You are trying to create something new and distinctive that probably describes a world – a market, sector or behaviour – that’s different from how it is today. Not everyone is going to find that a comfortable process.
- Make sure your thought leadership includes distinctive commentary. Is the market interested? Are you taking a distinct position, or sitting on a fence? There are thought leadership and insights in the Financial Times and countless other publications each day. You want your ideas and presentation to be more arresting than these – dare to be contrary, dare to focus on one interesting angle rather than trying to cover too many bases to appear knowledgeable. You want your rivals to think: “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that”, or even “Damn, I wish I’d been bold enough to follow up on that idea we had last year.” You are aiming for a ‘drop the toast and marmalade’ moment.
- Are your thought leadership plans investible? Or, said another way, does your project have senior sponsorship and support? Great work is not enough, it must be great work that is well supported. Senior buy in is also the solution to many other practical hurdles. If your star player in a certain role says they have no time to devote to a TL project, they may feel differently if their boss, or their boss’s boss, asks them to do just that. Admittedly, there is a counter argument. You sometimes need a demonstration or example of what you mean before others will invest their time and support. Sooner or later, though, you’ll need the blessing of leadership or a senior sponsor. The project won’t have much of a chance without it, so start early!
- Have a solid internal comms plan. The last thing you want to hear from BD, marketing, sales and commercial partners is this: “Yes, we saw that. It’s great. How did that happen? If only we’d known about it, we could have made it a part of our strategy planning … it’s too late now. Make sure you tell us about it next time. Love the images. So cool we’re doing this sort of thing.”Your internal comms strategy is one of the most important elements in your thought leadership programme. It may even be that straightforward TL with a good internal comms plan beats great TL without one. If you have large parts of the organisation talking intelligently, persuasively and enthusiastically (including to each other) about these ideas in commercial conversations – and if clients are listening and asking questions – that’s about the biggest marker of success you could wish for.
- Is your thought leadership making an actionable point, or points? It needs to be doing that. It’s ok to make a series of searing insights. It is far better, though, if the audience is guided towards actions and answers. And better still if these involve further engagement with your firm and its services. Describing problems and challenges is part of most business content, but good TL also describes solutions. It’s not about cramming everything you and your business know on a topic into a report, or about letting a persuasive senior person roll out their hobby horse. It’s about focus, focus, focus – what few things do I most need to know?
For help creating winning thought leadership programmes for your business, please get in touch.