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Blowing the Cobwebs off your Mind – Thought Leadership

February 7, 2014

In this, the first of two blog postings by Laura Mazur, she describes the presentations given in the latest and final ‘Blowing the Cobwebs off your Mind’ workshop held on the 22nd of January at the Royal Society.  A second posting will cover the outputs of the brainstorming sessions.


Blowing the Cobwebs off your Mind – Thought Leadership

The ‘Blowing the Cobwebs off your Mind’ workshop was a fitting tribute to the work of the late Laurie Young. Laurie, along with Gill Ringland of SAMI Consulting, Wendy Schultz and Chris Yapp, had been the prime mover behind this series of meetings held over the last year on a variety of challenging strategic issues. This last event was based on Laurie’s latest book, Thought Leadership, published by Kogan Page in October 2013.

Gill Ringland introduced the session by recalling Laurie’s pivotal role in setting up the programme, and hoped that the event would capture his spirit and ideas. She then introduced four people who had known Laurie at different stages of his life to speak for a few minutes on Laurie’s special qualities.

Remembering Laurie Young

  • Professor Paul Fifield described Laurie as a consummate professional, a marketer’s marketer and a man passionate when it came to his beliefs. An ‘undefeated’ man who didn’t take life too seriously.
  •  Nicola Murphy, founder and CEO River Group (and Laurie’s literary executor)  recalled the warm friendship she had enjoyed with Laurie, and the invaluable help he had given her when she set up her business, River Publishing, 20 years ago.  Her abiding memory? How he loved life to the full. She is also his literary executor and will be inviting 11 others to help write a chapter each for a history of brands, the book he was working on when he died.
  • John Flynn, past Master of the Worshipful Company of Marketors, met Laurie first at the Chartered Institute of Marketing board of international trustees and was impressed by his drive and ability to help and mentor others. Joining the Worshipful Company of Marketors, Laurie threw himself into its activities with typical enthusiasm.
  • Debra Fox, marketing and sales director, Knowledge Insights,  recalled how Laurie had been her touchstone since they met in the 1980s. Over the years their careers intertwined, with both sharing a passion for services marketing. She felt he had reached a very fulfilled stage in his life with a well-established reputation as a thoughtful and insightful author and his involvement as a mentor/advisor to so many people.

Introduction to thought leadership

Chris Yapp began by considering the origins of thought leadership, the importance of Laurie’s book in adding to the discussion about thought leadership and how thought leadership can help deal with forthcoming challenges faced by business and society.

As an approach and idea thought leadership is needed more than ever as organisations in particular and society in general struggle with challenges such as:  the difficult economic times, shortening product lifecycles, commodification of services, the damage done by  short-termism, the ramifications of the financial strength and struggles of emerging economies in different parts of the world such as China, Russia and Turkey and, finally,  the sheer complexity of change.

Laurie’s book shows how thought leadership can play a pivotal role as a framework for rethinking strategies by encouraging organisations to be open to capturing ideas from a wide variety of internal and external sources. In addition, as the case studies illustrate, there is no ‘one way’ to be an effective thought leader. Laurie argued that thought leadership can produce some ideas which are powerful but can cause a lot of damage when wrongly done (such as ‘management by objectives’). .

But it is undeniably valuable when applied appropriately. It can help people individually build up their identity, it can give an organisation a reputation as a thought leader in its sector, it can build the story of the relationship with stakeholders and can create a compelling story for governments to tell citizens about the future.

The Three Horizons framework

Wendy Schultz set the scene for the brainstorming sessions by explaining the conceptual framework, the Three Horizons, that would be the basis of the discussions.  The framework was developed by Bill Sharpe through the International Futures Forum and stemmed from his dissatisfaction with existing technology roadmapping. He felt it was too linear and mechanistic, and that change happened in much more complex and untidy way than most roadmaps allowed.

In his book Three Horizons: The Patterning of HopeBill argued that instead waves of change occur at different times and overlap, causing turbulence with each other at any one point in time. He developed the Three Horizon framework as an aid to exploration and overcoming cognitive bias.

The first horizon – the current paradigms, assumptions, data, infrastructure. – is where we are now and can blind us to the new. Managers with this mindset might suffer from a certain cognitive bias.

The second horizon – incremental adjustments, transformational experiments –  is often a place where ideas from the first horizon are becoming obsolescent and slowly being replaced by new ideas that are challenging what we take for granted. This is the environment where entrepreneurial spirit can thrive and begin to bridge the gap between the accepted view and the vision of the future.

The third horizon, with emerging paradigms, ideas and innovations, captures the weak, faintly-detectable signals of change. This is the horizon of the visionary mindset .

There are three basic questions arising from the Three Horizons model  which organisations should be asking:

What are the current working assumptions and system of production and marketing? What are you taking for granted when you make management decisions?

What changes are emerging as completely new paradigms and means to understand and undertake various human activities? What are visionary leaders saying?

Which of the immediate changes that you see represent a transition or accommodation for evolving tensions as current assumptions and work patterns obsolesce and transformative changes erupt into possibility? What opportunities do you see? What are entrepreneurs building?

Emerging models

Chris Yapp examined what new models of thought leadership might look like. He first considered  just why we need new models:

  • The presence of deep uncertainties and an overload of ‘urgent’ priorities.
  • A need for models that encourage renewed trust and influence at a time of deep scepticism.
  • The impact of demographics, including the ageing population.
  • The changing world order from West to East.
  • Rising environment concern and the search for sustainability.
  • The pervasiveness of global networks and the ability to communicate —and mis-communicate.
  • Modern technology has enabled the emergence of models that wouldn’t have been possible previously:
    • The Pro-Am model. The collaboration of amateurs and professionals widens the boundaries of possible discoveries.
    • Wiki. Mass collaboration offers a range of solutions. Corporate wikis, for example,  could help build a workable narrative.
    • Wisdom of crowds. Under certain circumstances for certain classes of problems a group of people from many disciplines can come up with better solutions than a group of experts.
    • Big data. The opening up of data streams by governments and companies around the world is leading to new models.
    • Open innovation. While this has been ‘hyped’ for some years, the debate is more nuanced than ‘open’ is good and ‘closed’ is bad. Moreover, the idea that innovation can be successfully sourced externally has gained more validity. This has been encouraged by the ‘open source’ movement in the IT industry.


In her second post next week, Laura covers the output of the brainstorming sessions. 

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