Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear Bill Taylor speak. Taylor is the founding editor of Fast Company and the author of Practically Radical. He said something that crystalized a great deal of thinking I have been doing about thought leadership. He said, along with a great many other smart things, the following:
The only sustainable leadership is thought leadership.
Thought leadership is generally construed as an element of marketing, and I believe that is a mistake. Instead, thought leadership should be approached as an aspect of innovation and culture, and not as a means to generate leads or to burnish brands.
As a consequence, most of what we read about thought leadership is wrong. While there are some who realize that thought leadership needs to be strategic ( see The Truth About Thought Leadership), most conflate thought leadership with content marketing. But the latter is a hollowed-out shell, one that puts an end result — publishing posts, articles, or reports — ahead of the work that must precede the writing.
We need to put the thinking back into thought leadership.
We need to put the thinking back into thought leadership.
Instead of marketing folks operating like editors at Buzzfeed, hoping for catchy headlines that lead to clicks, companies need to create initiatives that explore the far boundaries of their industries, to research and examine new methods, designs, and theories that will impact their products and services, and most importantly, the impact that those innovations will have on customers.
Rather than some slapdash, second rate journalism, companies need to invest in thinking about the near future, constructing hypotheses derived from a hybrid of research and directed innovation.
I think of this as an applied futurism. Not science fiction, but winnowing out possible futures and working through their implications.
This deep thought leadership — when undertaken in this fashion, as opposed to the shallow content marketing sort of thought leadership — leads inexorably to new products, services, and new applications for existing ones, when the company culture is committed to following those leads.
And the leadership in the market, and the world at large, comes when others — partners, customers, and competitors — are exposed to the actions that the company takes, with communication being one necessary aspect of that.
Taylor was a keynote at Dassault Systemes’ North American 3DEXPERIENCE FORUM this week, and I attended to learn more about the company and its products. But I came away with a different appreciation, perhaps framed by Taylor’s remarks, which were prescient. Because it revealed a company that I knew only from afar that is clearly involved in this sort of deep thought leadership.
Dassault Systemes has a long history, starting with 3D modeling for aerospace, and through many iterations, the company became a leader in product lifecycle management, and advanced 3D modeling of the world’s most complex designed objects, like jet aircraft, assembly lines, mining, and myriad other industries.
But the company has reimagined itself as an advocate for simulating and modeling the most complex systems imaginable, which are not objects like satellites, swiss watches, or drones, but living things.
Dassault Systemes has been working for some time on the Living Heart project, a simulation of the human heart. The heart is completely modeled in 3D with Dassault’s many tools, including the fine-grained modeling of the physical properties of the muscles, valves, and electrical activation.
the Living Heart simulation
The company announced a major research agreement with the FDA:
Dassault Systèmes has signed a five-year collaborative research agreement with the United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which will initially target the development of testing paradigms for the insertion, placement and performance of pacemaker leads and other cardiovascular devices used to treat heart disease.
Using a technology crowdsourcing model that protects the intellectual property of each member, yet enables all to share the outcome, the “Living Heart Project” is being developed closely with leading cardiologists, medical device companies and academic researchers who participate in the evaluation of the simulated heart model’s use in testing medical devices, improving clinical diagnosis and guiding pre-surgical planning.
The 30 contributing member organizations, which include more than 100 cardiovascular specialists from across research, industry and medicine, have access to the heart simulator for testing, enabling the acceleration of the program via crowdsourcing. The researchers have teamed with the Medical Device Innovation Consortium (MDIC) with the goal of accelerating the approval process of medical devices while spurring innovation, improving patient reliability and reducing costs. The Project has already been used to validate the efficacy of a novel valve assist device prior to insertion in a real patient and understand the progression of heart disease.
This is thought leadership at the leading edge of innovation in medical research, and innovative in several ways. First, in the application of advanced simulation and 3D visualization technology in the biomedical arena, and in the crowdsourcing approach being used, to allow for the participants to share progress while retaining intellectual property rights to their contributions.
My friend Daniel Rasmus once wrote,
Thought leadership should be an entry point to a relationship. Thought leadership should intrigue, challenge, and inspire even people already familiar with a company. It should help start a relationship where none exists, and it should enhance existing relationships.
Dassault Systemes’ Living Heart project has created a broad platform for creating relationships between the company and the many participants involved, like the FDA. And the possibilities that are indicated are certainly inspiring.
Ask yourself if your approach to thought leadership gets out ahead of the near future like Living Heart does. There is no other sustainable leadership than this, and your company may have to be realigned around that powerful insight.