For Thought Leaders with Time to Think

There’s a recovery coming probably later this year. It won’t be like other recoveries. It will need better, more creative, more actionable ideas — that stand out even in a glut of strategic insight.

If you’re a business leader, a consultant, a “thought leader” or an entrepreneur today, wondering about your cash flow during the next few months of pandemic and downturn, it’s also time to think about the few months after that. You may be stuck at home for a while. You have time to stop and think. Use it to think about what you know, what you see, and what you have to say.

Because the rest of us need your best ideas. Not your everyday thoughts, the ones you’re posting now. But the ideas that go to the heart of the matter, that really speak to the promises you see and how they might get realized. By you or (more likely) by you and other people working together.

Pretty soon, perhaps sooner than we think, we’ll be in a recovery. It won’t look like other recoveries, or even like the economic growth of last year. Too much change has crystallized, just in the last few weeks. The new habits brought on by social distancing, the continuing pressure of climate change, the new levels of mistrust of the Chinese and U.S. governments, and some cobweb-clearing factors like lower interest rates, tighter borders, and ever-increasing uncertainty, are going to make a difference. Also, things change when people have time to think.

There will be lots of new opportunities, but many of them will be in large interdependent systems. They’ll be too big for single companies or entrepreneurs to manage on their own. And too unfamiliar for existing practices to work. Many will involve people working across unfamiliar boundaries, like partnerships between businesses and NGOs.

We need some new ideas. I’m not talking about insights related to the virus itself, or ideas about how to make the best of a quarantine. Those are already being published, and there’s not much to add.

But you might have something to say about building capabilities for the next pandemic. About new niches made possible by global cloud-based tech platforms. About new materials that replace toxic old materials. About media and training opportunities that shift dramatically, now that people are getting used to learning by videoconference. About managing people from six companies and NGOs together who are working on a common project. About social ventures cleaning up great watersheds that also lead to shifts in land use and technology. About taking the best approaches from exploitive businesses while leaving the toxic aspects behind. About financial services that build new safety nets in a gig economy, and why some banks can take risks others wouldn’t. About digitally fabricated two-person mother-in-law cottages that replace nursing homes, and why zoning laws should relax to permit them. Or about some other gap or opportunity that nobody else sees as well as you do.

In the next few weeks, while you’re sitting home, you have time to think about what you know and how to express it.

And you’ll publish it. It’s never been as easy to publish an idea. I just thought of the idea for this little essay less than an hour ago, and here I am publishing it. Two months ago, when I was editor-in-chief of PwC’s magazine strategy+business, helping people around the world develop their thought leadership, it took weeks or months to get most of our ideas refined and approved.

I’m going live on a platform, Medium, where I’ve never published before. Just to try it out. Once I get used to it, it will change the way I think and talk to people, knowing I can publish so easily. You may have the same experience, and that will change the way you think about your ideas.

But will other people read it?

While it’s never been as easy to publish, it’s never been as hard to stand out — to get people to take seriously what you have to say. Much of my work consists of editorial consultation: helping people develop and publish their ideas. I’ve had to realize: there’s no shortage of thought leadership. There’s a glut. There are far too many business-related articles competing for attention, even within a niche like, say, artificial intelligence oversight or supply chain footprint design or HR practices; and far too many of them just say the same things.

It may be daunting to put yourself out on the line if you have something important to say, especially if it’s a little bit discomfiting, and you haven’t quite nailed the phrasing of the idea, so it still doesn’t quite connect.

For it takes time and skill to develop ideas that really move the needle. You have to learn to see them as others would see them, raise the dangerous aspects of your idea, but express them in a way that invites others to join with you.

Most of us haven’t needed to go this far in our writing and thinking. Not yet. We’ve been in a comfortable global business environment that makes it possible to succeed well enough with what we do. And maybe we have been afraid to put our really great ideas forward — because we’re not convinced everyone is ready for it, or we aren’t sure it will sell, or it’s going to take a little work.

But now ordinary face-to-face human social contact is shut down. When the next recovery starts, we’re going to need ideas with traction, to meet its new unfamiliar challenges. Some global businesses will go local. Some will shift dramatically in the face of pandemic and climate change and global platforms, where only one of those factors wouldn’t have mattered. Most large enterprises will be diversifying their supply chains; that was already beginning to happen before the pandemic. Some new types of businesses will benefit from a new era of philanthropic or government largesse. Some from cheaper energy. Some from desperate capital in an age of low interest rates. Some businesses, based on established practices, will never recover in their old form.

Just like the way we’re helping our neighbors now by keeping our distance, or bringing food and gifts to those in need, we need to become more helpful with our thought leadership. We need to stop wasting each others’ time. We need to express the ideas that represent true entrepreneurial participative change, that fill in the gaps, that tell investors and entrepreneurs what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.

And we’re going to need these pieces of thought leadership soon, not when the recovery is underway. It takes time to build an idea into a practice into a reality. We need to start right now, while we have the time to think.

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