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How to Become a Thought Leader in Your Company

It might be easier than you think for you to be a thought leader for your team. Because, with just a few simple steps, you can help see beyond the current situation and help create better solutions to today’s challenges.

All it takes is a bit of stepping back from a narrow and near-term view that is too often a group’s default.

Social science alerts us to the dangers of what they call groupthink where human dynamics create a natural tendency to reach a consensus without critical evaluation. A desire for harmony or conformity in the group leads to poor decisions. There are ways to alter this fate, of course, such as assigning a “devil’s advocate” role to someone in the group, inviting outside experts into the group, or adjusting how the formal leader interacts with the group. But what if you are a somewhat lone individual hoping to make a difference?

Well, if you are hoping to influence the dynamics of the group for the better, one of the most important things you can do is to discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group. Bringing feedback, insights, and ideas from your own research will both elevate your status and lead to better outcomes for the entire group.

Why does this singular act carry so much weight? Because it helps break the chain of another group phenomenon, shared information bias. I’m sure you have experienced this in many meetings. The team will spend an inordinate amount of time discussing, commiserating about, and rehashing a lot of things that everyone knows already. It is some sort of point of retreat to a safe space, I think, that surfaces at just the wrong times—when a situation is ambiguous and requires good judgement to inform important decisions. Somehow we end up in pulling the covers over our heads and firing up the flashlight to tell ghost stories hoping a thin sheet will keep us from the boogeyman, when in reality someone ought to go out and have a look around. You can be that person.

There are four things you can do to go out and “have a look around” in a way that will be helpful to you and the team. You can provide leadership in thought.

1. Get yourself a little subject matter expertise.

Many times there is some kind of technology or type of process at the core of an issue. You might be trying to implement a new system, change the way things are done, or respond to some new challenge. This is the type of change organizations are confronted with that provide some impetus to change. This challenges the status quo and introduces uncertainty. That’s why everyone gets all stressed out. Most organizations that have reached any type of maturity are much better suited to repeating settled uses of tools and techniques than they are to adjusting to new options.

You can serve yourself and others well by becoming more educated in the details of the technology or process that the discussion is about. Too often these discussions go on too long without anyone talking to the people that do the actual day to day work. If you can find out more about their procedures, where they struggle, where things work well, and how managers coordinate activities and achieve results, you will gain tremendous insight from the field that can inform decision making. If procedures are well-established, browse the workflow manual. If there is a technology or system in play, take a look at the user manual. Don’t try to become an expert overnight, but do get a clear sense of the concrete, hands-on details at the ground level. 

This level of knowledge will help you to help the group avoid the common trap of talking about everything at a conceptual level with not enough concrete understanding of the mechanics or details. Most group discussions spend too much time in this mode, talking about everything at a meta level without really grasping which details are most important and why.

2. Bone up on the concepts

Once you have looked at your company’s particular application of the technology or process, it is quite useful to step back and look at the technology or process at the conceptual level. Sometimes what you are facing is a weird application of some concept, or you might uncover some flaw in the basic concept that is problematic at your organization. To help flush that out, you can ask questions such as, 

  • What are the concepts that inform the design of the technology or process in the abstract? 
  • What are the component parts of this conceptual model? 
  • How are those components designed to interact with each other? 
  • What is it about the fundamental design that most informs the final output? 

Understanding the generic model more deeply will shed more light into how it is applied in your specific case. Whoever invented this first most likely did not work at your company or know a lot about the nuances of your specific situation. Examining the original design of a technology, system, or process can greatly aid your understanding. It’s like going back to the textbook. It won’t really help you to solve the real-world issue, but you can get a lot of value by trying to understand the thinking behind how this idea was considered in the abstract. This can help to get a grasp of the principles that informed the design, which can help you to consider whether and how those principles are useful to you and your team and the problem at hand.

3. Find out how others do it

Comparison can be a dangerous path to go down, but it is useful to take a close look at how others are using a similar process or technology to solve a similar problem. Of course, no two companies are the same and you must be careful not to gloss over the nuances of each instance. But companies in the same industry that are using the same tools to solve the same problems are a great source of insight. The type of insight found here, though, is mostly about optimization. You can learn from their mistakes and their creativity which can help you to better understand potential refinements. It is useful to understand what is the same and what is different and why. 

What the other company did isn’t necessarily better or worse than what you have done. And a lot of your discovery can be skewed by other human biases like confirmation bias where you might be prioritizing information that agrees with what you think and dismissing information that disconfirms your beliefs.

And whoever you are talking to is likely putting a little more shine on their story as a result of a tendency to view our decisions differently after we have made them (we want to believe in the choice already made and remain consistent with ourselves across time—I’m more likely to recommend you do what I did because otherwise I would be negating my own choice to some degree, which causes an internal conflict for me).

Also, there is the sunk cost fallacy phenomenon where people mistakenly take into account prior investments that are no longer relevant when making decisions about the future. (I will be more likely to keep investing in my solution even when the best forward strategy may call for a different approach.) Take everything you learn with a grain of salt.

4. Explore wild use cases and totally different contexts

Looking further afield will help you gain insights that could lead to the most creative, innovative thinking. If you examine the technology or process applied to totally different businesses, it can really help to open up your thinking. A tool or technique in a totally different industry or applied to a completely different type of problem can often be a source of great insight. Something like examining the way Disney World welcomes guests can lead to insights into how to onboard businesses to a commercial insurance agency. Innovative ideas often come from new applications of existing ideas or by combining ideas in new ways.

In his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, author David Epstein argues against the case for narrow specialization in the context of innovation. He argues, in fact, that “Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.”

Expanding your research in this way can help you to see more possibilities and to appreciate a broader view. This is a less obvious but no less important avenue for exploration, particularly if you are seeking to solve a particularly difficult, complex, or important problem. Find ways to think outside the box by actually leaving the box and having a look around. 

The four avenues to thought leadership

You can help stem the tide of groupthink, even if you are not the team leader. By taking the time and effort to get yourself some subject matter expertise, bone up on the technology or process, find out how others do it, and exploring different use cases and scenarios, you can develop a lot of insights to bring back to the team.

You can introduce new information, guide conversations, and help cultivate new and innovative ideas. By breaking the logjam, you will help the group to make much better decisions. And you will shine in the process. Everyone hates the problem, but not many step up to help address it in a meaningful way. Become a thought leader for your group and save the day, for yourself and for everyone else.