Becoming known as a thought leader -- an expert who develops innovative and sometimes game-changing ideas -- is partly a matter of good publicity. After all, your brilliant ideas are the proverbial "tree falling in the forest" if no one but mom is reading your blog or talking you up. (You can read more about how to position and promote yourself as a thought leader in my recent Harvard Business Review blog post. However, the very first step in getting recognized as a thought leader is having creative and compelling ideas worth talking about. Short of following Archimedes into the bathtub, what you can do to create your own "eureka" moments and cultivate new ideas? Here are six strategies to get you started.
Immerse yourself in your field. Genuinely knowing what you're talking about is essential to becoming a thought leader. As Malcolm Gladwell described in Outliers, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become truly expert in a field (witness the young Bill Gates toiling afterschool on the mega-mainframe at his local university). Read the classics and learn the contours of the debate. If you're in business, you have to know who Peter Drucker is; if you're a painter, you better understand the difference between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. You can't overturn the established wisdom if you don't know what it is.
Take the 30,000 foot view. Starting with the premise of "let's make a better music player" doesn't get you an iPod. In fact, it'll probably get you a clunky and confusing heap of metal only an engineer could love. Instead, Steve Jobs keeps the big picture in mind, as he reveals "peevishly" in a hysterical 2003 New York Times interview with Rob Walker (at the end of a fascinating examination of the iPod as cultural artifact). Quoth Jobs: "'We consciously think about making great products. We don't think, 'Let's be innovative!'" It's a good formula for any business: don't get trapped in your field, niche, or way of thinking. Focus on the 30,000 foot view -- what your customers want -- and do it.
Cross-pollinate disciplines. As Michael Michalko describes in his excellent books Cracking Creativity and Thinkertoys, one secret to unleashing new and innovative ideas is to "marry" two (or more) disparate fields. Need to design a new blender? Think about what frozen drinks have in common with ballet, and go from there. What can politics learn from acupuncture? How can your new B2B software employ the best principles of skateboarding? They may sound like Zen koans, but pondering these questions can yield serious insight.
Seek out new input. The habitual is the enemy of the creative. Try new things -- constantly -- to keep your perspective fresh. Travel locally and internationally. Try a new restaurant every week. Go to a newsstand and buy a half-dozen magazines from bizarre and unrelated fields. If you're not a regular reader of Elegant Wedding, Wired, or Field and Stream, you'll surely gain some new insights about the world around you.
Grapple with trends. Globalization -- what does it mean? Tom Friedman has made a pretty fine living for himself asking that question in about a billion different ways. Or how about the Internet? It'll probably change how we sell stuff -- right? And thus launched the career of Seth Godin, famed for his notion of "permission marketing." Look for trends. Ask what they mean for you, your business, and society at large. And then start riffing.
Grab the megaphone. Apologies to the purists, but no mention of developing thought-leading ideas is complete without noting that you must have "followers" in order to be a "thought leader." Cultivate your concepts and then spread the word.
What's missing? What do you think it takes to create thought-leading ideas? Is it possible for people to practice and hone their "thought leading" skills over time?
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.
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