Why thought leadership needs a rethink

Pic by Akua Sencherey

Much of my working life is spent developing thought leadership articles and reports, which provides me with fantastic opportunities to dig deeper into concepts and hopefully get people thinking a little differently as a result.

What I’ve learned over the years however is that there are certain conditions and processes that need to be considered if a thought leadership exercise is going to deliver the desired results.

A good thought leadership piece is not simply an announcement – that can be better achieved through a press release or an ad. Good thought leadership is about joining a conversation that is already taking place – or better still, starting a new one.

Unfortunately for some brands, they have no natural place in the conversations they wish to enter. Hence the goal is to find a point of connection around which they can build their relevancy, and use that to earn the permission needed to join into the conversation. Just because a brand hasn’t yet earned its place in a conversation doesn’t mean it should give up however. Authenticity and relevancy obviously help, and often these can be established over a period of time. But doing so requires commitment.

Other times a brand will simply be too late to the conversation to offer anything meaningful. This happens a lot regarding discussion on transformation – a topic that is very important, but which many people have tuned out of. Earning a voice in this conversation requires significant effort to establish a perspective that is new or different – a difficult task given everything that has been said about it already.

Being part of a conversation means being committed to that conversation over the longer term. A single discussion paper or research report might gain some attention, but its true value is unlocked when it is part of an ongoing campaign that builds over time, possibly using multiple different voices in many different forums. In some ways building good thought leadership is a bit like building a brand – it takes consistency and commitment.

Good thought leadership also needs to be something that is not immediately obvious .If the outcome is a conclusion that anyone could have come to – or worse still, one that obvioulsy is designed to serve the brand message and nothing else – it will have no impact. But having a recipient say “I hadn’t thought of that before” or “I’d never looked at it that way” is likely to ensure that the core ideas remains in their thinking over the longer term.

It helps then if the concept is one that is easy to grasp. This points to one of the most important truths regarding the creation of thought leadership – while the ultimate product needs to be simple to understand, the process of its creation is usually anything but.

Many of the best thought leadership projects are the result of extensive research and discussions, which is designed to bring forth basic truths that might have been hidden under layers of noise, and shine a light on hidden patterns. Hence it is best to commence a thought leadership project with a question, rather than stipulating the outcome from the outset. Many great thought leadership projects simply give life to concepts which might at first glance seem obvious, but which have not yet been expressed so simply and eloquently. These projects that bring life to the obvious are often the most powerful, as they exist within a framework which can be easily grasped, but are the result of a long process of sifting and sorting.

All of this points to another basic truth of thought leadership – that it is earned. For a brand to simply blunder into a conversation for which it is neither relevant nor prepared is to invite disaster. But when a brand is prepared to put in the hard work to earn its position, and then build that over time, amazing things can happen.

Evolution of Skills: Transport and Logistics

Of all the sectors we studied for the TAFE NSW Evolution of Skills report, none demonstrated the same requirement for leaps in skilling that we saw as being necessary in trasport and logistics.

The high level of human dependency in this sector (think delivery drivers, or warehouse pickers and packers) has already seen it become the subject of intense speculation (and investment) regarding the role of automation (think driverless cars and trucks, or automated warehouse environments such as those operated by China’s JD.com).

In Australia we are really only at the early stages of automation in transport and logistics, starting with driverless trains and some warehouse automation projects, such as those undertaken by the ecommerce retailer Catch Group (I suspect it this company’s investments in warehouse automation – and the lessons it has learned – was a strong factor in its acquisition by Wesfarmers).

But as automation takes hold, the sector faces a significant challenge in terms of ensuring it can develop the skills necessary to operate its new systems and processes. As Catch Group has learned, there is a big difference between managing a standard warehouse and an automated one, and hence a wide delta between the skills that managers posess today and those they will need in the future. Across the sector, roles are becoming more complex, and often require skills from different disciplines. Srong change management programs will be needed to transition workers into new delivery models and with skills acquisition.

It’s a big challenge, but one that must be met if organisations in this sector are to keep up with customer expectations. You can read the complete findings in the sector report, downloadable from the TAFE NSW website.

WYNnovation presentation – sharing insights from 2019

Last Friday I had the pleasure of being invited along to deliver a Masterclass presentation as part of the WYNnovation Festival held by my own local council, the City of Wyndham.

It was a great opportunity to test out some of the recent research work I’ve undertaken into the attributes of transformative leaders and the need for business leaders to acquire new skills to navigate successfully through the current decade, backed by the core messages of the Managing for Change book that I co-authored with Peter Frtiz AO a few years ago.

It’s a simple message really – that in any period of change, there are winners and losers. In almost all instances the winners are those organisations that either drive the change (at great risk) or respond the fastest. Those organisations that wait until they are standing on a proverbial burning platform inevitably find themselves with unpalatable choices.

A simple message – but one that is increbily difficult to put into practice. As human beings we seem naturally predisposed to resist change – even when we know that failing to change will be to our professional (or even personal) detriment.

Over the new few weeks I’m planning on posting up a number of the insights and conclusions that I’ve been able to draw from my work over the last few years. Having already lived through one sector’s downturn (print publishing) and seen the ramifiactions first hand, I’m determined to do what I can to ensure that all businesses owners have a greater understanding of the changes that are happening around then, and hence a greater opportunity to benefit through their response.

Change is inevitable, and unless we are the rare creatures who create change, then we are destined to play the role of respondent. But how well we play that role, and the benefits that flow from doing so, is entirely up to us.

Report: TAFE NSW The Evolution of Skills

If you’ve noted the repeated references to skills in my recent posts and other work, you might be interested in knowing where this thinking stems from. In early 2019 I was asked by TAFE NSW to help with the creation and writing of an indepth report looking into Australia’s future skills challenges and the strategies that might help organisations to avoid them.

The result is the report The Evolution of Skills, and it has yielded numerous findings, ranging from the universal requirement for not just digital skills in the workforce, but also for soft skills such as problem solving, collaboration and systems thinking. It also demonstrated the trend towards specialisation in many roles, and the challenge this presents in finding people with the requisite expereince to do the jobs that will emerge in the next ten years. Conversely, it also showed how many roles will require a blend of skills from multiple disciplines, creating the need for cross-skilling of a large segment of the workforce.

The key conclusion of the work was that the employment market simply won’t be able to supply the workers that Australian organisations will need to succeed through this decade. This will in turn arise the need to identify those workers who are best suited to reskilling and then invest in the programs that will get there where they need to be.

Interestingly two of the best examples or organisations thata are taking a strong stance on reskilling are both publicly-owned organisations – Sydney Water and Service NSW, and you can read their stories in the Infrastructure and Government sections of the report.

This content has become a key component of much of current public speaking work, and has also informed my ongoing investigations in the attributes of transformative leaders.

Employer training is the key to competitiveness – Open Forum

A quick shout out the team at Open Forum for posting up my latest musings on the connection between skills development and long term competitiveness. Skills (or more specficailly, a lack of skills) is quickly emerging as a risk factor for many businesses in terms of impacting their long term plans. It is something covered in detail in the Evolution of Skills report I worked on for TAFE NSW, and a topic that I hope to give some voice to in the emerging debate regarding Australia’s future resilience.

The link between saving the planet and and successful business transformation – recent articles

One of the topics I spent a lot of time looking into in 2019 was the common attributes of organisations who execute successful change programs. One factor that came through as being critical to the success of these programs was having buy-in from staff.

In parallel, the past few years have seen a growth in interest in measuring employee engagement within organisations. This has been great news for companies such as Qualtrics and local hero Culture Amp, who provide tools to measure and influence staff engagement and organisational culture. It’s also been interesting to witness the increased interest in purpose within many organisations. I’ve spent quite a few hours listening to executives talk about the importance of giving staff a sense that what they are doing is for more than just shareholder returns.

In this article for CMO, and again in this special report for The Australiian, I had the chance to talk to a number of business leaders about the importance of sustainability to their brand. But the discussions also uncovered another lesson that might be useful for many organisations – that of how having a strong purpose around sustainability can make a workforce more resillient to change. The idea is that people are more willing to accept and even embrace radical change when they can see that the outcome will be of significant benefit to their organisation in terms of its ability to meet its purpose.

Instilling a sense that ‘this is for the greater good’ is a critical element in succesful transformation programs. And that desire to push forward with chance can clearly be enhanced when the greater good is much greater than just being for the good of the organisation itself.

Does stereotypical marketing arise from a stereotypical industry? – CMO

Anyone who leaves their home on a regular basis might be aware of one of the unfortunate truths of the Australian marketing industry – that the faces we see in commercial advertising don’t really reflect the faces we might see on the train on our way to work.

There are many reasons why the people who are used to promote products look the way they do. Advertisers have only a brief window of time to capture a consumer’s attention, and are generally keen to ensure the strongest possible connection. Often that means falling back on sterotypes.

But what if those stereotypes were actually serving to limit a products exposure?

With team divesity now a critical issue in the markeing industry, in this article I took the opportunity to investigate one possible reason why stereotypes are so prevalent in Australian adverrtising – that the composition of the people creating and signing off on campaigns may be influencing the choice of faces that appear in those campaigns.

For the full article, follow this link to CMO Australia.

My new book – Innovation is for Everyone – now available

For the past two years myself and Peter Fritz AM have been hosting discussions with numerous business leaders, public servants, academics and other interested individuals to open a window into Australia’s innovation system. We are now pleased to announce that those discussions and their findings are available in the form of our latest book Innovation is for Everyone.

The book is designed to provide an approachable primer on Australia’s innovation system and the problems it has faced. It examines why Australia lags behind many other countries when it comes to turning ideas into products and services, and proposes ideas as to how to redress this situation.

Over the course of this year I’ll be presenting many of the ideas from Innovation is for Everyone in this blog. But in the meantime you are also welcome to buy it by clicking this link.

Your org chart needs a rethink – Workflow

Pic credit – David Travis @dtravisphd

The tools that organisations use to achieve their goals are changing rapidly.
And it seems few businesses are satisfied with the speed at which they can make decisions. At the same time, many business functions find themselves needing skills that they would have barely thought about a decade or two ago, such as the need for technology skills in marketing, or big data analytics in finance.

Which begs the question – if the tools and skills required to run a business have changed significantly, then does the organisational structure need to change also? A quick look at many org charts today would show little difference from how the organisation might have looked in 1970.

This was the question I explored in my first contribution to Workflow, a new business management site published by ServiceNow. When speaking with organisations – and particularly those that are undergoing some form of transformation to improve their responsiveness – I constantly hear about the need to tear down silos and improve collaboration. Could it be their org structure is actually working against them? You can read the full story by clicking here.

The story includes an examination of some organisations that are exploring the leading edge of structural readjustment through self-experimentation, such as Zappos and REA Group. I’d also like to offer a big ‘thank you’ to REA Group’s chief inventor Nigel Dalton for sharing his insights into 100 years of management theory.

The future of work, and why its better to be wanted than needed

When it comes to the future of work, the key question that everyone wants the answer to is whether their work has a future.

Automation promises/threatens to make many roles that exist today unnecessary, leading to somewhat scary outcomes for a number of careers.

But perhaps there is a different way to think about the future of work – one that is based more on human preferences and behaviours rather than technical possibilities. And it might just help us find where the new opportunities will be, or at least evolve what we are currently doing into something that is a little more future-proof.

Let me start by first placing some definitions around two important words – ‘want’ and ‘need’.

Let’s say for example that I ‘want’ to go to London. In order to get to London, there are certain things I ‘need’. For starters, I ‘need’ a method of transportation. I also ‘need’ a ticket, a passport, and potentially a bunch of other things – just so I can get what I ‘want’.

Now consider what I would have ‘needed’ to get to London a couple of decades ago. Firstly, I needed a paper ticket. To get one of those, I needed a travel agent.

Thanks to the internet, all I ‘need’ now is few minutes online. The time and effort to get from what I desire to what I want has been compressed by the removal of that step. I still need a passport (for now) and a mode of transportation (at least until someone invents the Star Trek transporter). But any airline that still only accepted paper tickets issued through travel agents would not be long for this earth.

This pattern is repeating itself over and over again. Decades ago, if I ‘wanted’ a book, I ‘needed’ to go to a bookstore. I didn’t want a bookstore though, I wanted a book – cue the demise of many booksellers. If I ‘wanted’ to watch a movie at home, I ‘needed’ to rent or buy it from a store. I no longer need to do that. Cue the demise of the video rental industry. And so on.

That same logic is putting pressure on many other professions. If I ‘wanted’ investment advice I might have ‘needed’ to speak to an investment advisor. Now AI-based robo-advisors can play that role.

What this means for each of us is that even if we are currently essential to helping a person get what they want, there is probably someone, somewhere, working on a solution which will help that person get what they want without us.

And if they can do so at cheaply enough, you’re looking at a limited professional lifespan. Bye bye to the ticket issuing function of travel agents. Bye bye to investment advisors, accountants, lawyers, etc. etc. If we are not providing the actual ‘thing’ that the person wants – – advice, business compliance, legal advice – but simply providing them with something they need to help them get it – we could be in trouble.

That doesn’t of course mean that all bookstores have died. There are instance where I might ‘want’ to go wandering through a bookstore, perhaps simply for the pleasure of it, or for the serendipitous discovery that can take place. I might ‘want’ to talk to a travel agent about where to visit in London, rather than simply turning up. I might also ‘want’ to speak to an investment advisor because I value their specific experience, or feel more comfortable speaking to a person (at least for now).

Also, there are many tasks that are needed that may prove too difficult or expensive to eliminate – at least in the short term. Getting to London quickly without an aircraft is unlikely to happen in my lifetime, for instance. Unless perhaps I am happy to ‘go there’ in a virtual reality experience without even leaving my home …

To stay relevant in the future of work, you need to really think about whether you are giving your customers what they want, or just what they need. If you are in fact a ‘necessary evil’ when it comes to why your customers are spending money with you, there is a good chance you won’t be necessary forever.

But if you can give a customer something they really want, they might keep you around a little longer.