Managing the creative process: How anyone can be a thought leader
Many people think of thought leadership (TL) as the preserve of highly creative and intelligent people, who have flashes of inspiration that do not come to us ordinary people. However, thought leadership can be "manufactured" by almost anyone and is better thought of as a process involving creativity, communication, governance and cultural change.
Creativity is “a process of developing and expressing novel ideas that are likely to be useful”, according to Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap. So thought leadership is creativity. Many people view creativity as somewhat mystical or the preserve of flamboyant individuals. However, the key word is “process”. If you can master a process, then you can master creativity.
In their book When Sparks Fly, Leonard and Swap argue that creativity can be managed as a group process with five main stages. The stages are preparation, creating the innovation opportunity, divergence (generating options), incubation, and convergence (selecting options).
A key point of the book is that the best way to generate ideas is the edge of what is known – at the boundaries between different perspectives and pools of knowledge. The authors coined the term “creative abrasion”, which describes a deliberate approach to create sparks of inspiration between people of differing world views.
The critical point from a marketing perspective is that you, or your organisation, need to step outside of your bubble to generate those flashes of inspiration. Your innovative product or service may well have resulted from an earlier moment of creativity.
However, no product sells itself. To communicate the value proposition of your product to your key audiences, you need to think like they do and understand that drives them. For thought leadership to work as a marketing process, you need to take your innovative idea and run it through a structured creative process on how best to communicate it, like the one above, ensuring you have people from outside your organisation involved in the process.
Capturing your thoughts
I have had one major eureka moment in my life. I remember it clearly. I was in Rotorua, New Zealand, in a hotel room overlooking the geysers, working away on my PhD. I had been trying to develop a coherent model of organisational boundaries for several months, collecting data and undertaking deep research into every aspect of communicative interaction in organisations over the previous two years.
When the moment came, it started with a thought, a connection. I grabbed a piece of paper and sketched out a rough diagram. In a few minutes, I had the entire model developed and it pretty much stayed the same over the next year it took me to complete the doctorate.
This eureka moment was no accident. It was the result of a lot of hard work and the use of a particular technique which I believe is a key to the process – mind mapping.
Mind mapping is one of the most powerful tools ever invented for learning and personal discovery. It is a method of storing, organising and prioritising information. Tony Buzan calls it “a revolutionary way to tap into the infinite resources of your brain”.
Certainly, mind mapping helps overcome a key limitation in thought leadership, which is the ability to keep a conscious track of the huge number of thoughts and minor insights as you research and contemplate your thought leadership subject.
Normally mind mapping starts with a central concept and evolves outward from that. However, the reverse is also possible. When you intuitively sense there is some powerful insight around a topic but you can’t articulate (true tacit knowledge), then you can just start mind mapping around the outside with what you know.
What I believe is that, if you keep working at the gaps, the central place becomes metaphorically illuminated by the glow of the surrounding thoughts. This process is the key to sparking that eureka moment. If you focus your attention on that central space and build up the surrounding thoughts, then what is there will eventually jump out at you.
Creating a truly valuable thought leadership position inevitably involves tackling complex subjects and you will need more than a pen and paper. For my PdD I used a three-dimensional mind mapping tool called TheBrain, and I collated over 1500 nodes, each relating to a distinct subject with associated thoughts . However, there are many other online tools available.
Working with your personality
A final point I want to explore is that the creative process involves “developing” and “expressing” the idea. As a communication coach trained in behavioral profiling, I know that most people are naturally suited to one or other of these tasks, and rarely both.
For example, introverts are likely to have the deep thinking skills that support the development aspects of creativity but may not have the communication skills necessary to express it. By contrast, extroverts will have great communication skills but may struggle with the long periods of focus required to develop a leadership position.
If you are an individual aiming to build your personal brand through thought leadership, then you need to work with your strengths and weakens. Introverts will benefit from formal communication training and develop a marketing strategy which allows them to "turn it on" in short bursts.
By contrast, extroverts will need to plan on taking a much longer time developing their leadership position, focusing for short bursts. If adopting a team-based approach, then organisations will want to identify and draw on the relative strengths of various individuals in developing a thought leadership marketing plan.
There is a lot more to personality that just extroversion and introversion. Grant Buttler’s book, Think, Write, Grow has a great section on the personal characteristics of a great thought leader.
I define thought leadership as a process of influencing others through the power of an expressed idea. Undoubtedly it is difficult to do well, and thankfully so. Otherwise, everyone would be thought leaders, and there would be little value in it. At the core of the value is the creative process in coming up with those ideas.