Jun 12, 2019

Thinking About Thought Partnerships

For the last five or six years, I’ve been working as an editor/curator/writer for a few different clients. Then a couple of years ago over coffee I came up with the title of Thought Partner. The initial idea was that when working closely with clients, I often ended up contributing to the projects of various teams. At the time I viewed it as a kind of transdisciplinary form of consulting. Something I happened to be good at and could do in addition to the words I was writing for their audience.

In September 2017 I launched Sentiers, a weekly newsletter which I have been writing, perfecting, and growing since then. For a few months, I also published a paid-subscription monthly briefing on “Technology & Constant Learning for Organizations & Careers” named Sentiers at Work.

A Thought Partner is someone who, through a practice of researching, reading, learning, asking questions, and writing, helps partners in developing their ideas , knowledge, and thinking.

Which means that although, since the coining of Thought Partner, I have gotten very positive comments on the term and idea, I have worked mostly at curating knowledge (newsletters, research) and writing (newsletters, articles). My broad readings and perspective are well appreciated but the scope of work is rarely viewed by clients as “thought partnership.” Slowly, while working on Sentiers, I’ve come to separate the two in my mind; curating and writing for my publications and for clients’ becoming the main thing; Thought Partnership, being a kind of consultancy I wasn’t offering or doing that much of, kind of fell by the wayside—even though I was getting called for “strategy” or “you know about this stuff, give us a hand.”

A little while ago, a couple of conversations (thanks conversers!) have made the concept “click” better in my mind, attaching everything together more clearly. Speaking with friends who also do “editorial adjacent” work, I came to realize that when working with small and medium organizations most of us have a direct relationship with the CEO (or perhaps a VP), and we produce largely longer form content usually not seen as marketing. In the process of researching, thinking through, and writing, we end up bringing ideas within the company and influencing its thinking. In some cases this is even done on purpose, not just as a side benefit of writing. Many of us become a kind of “Editor-in-chief of ideas circulating in the organization.”

What I realized is that playing an editorial role for a company and influencing multiple projects and discussions are not two separate things. It’s not “writing things” and “giving opinions because you know about stuff.” A Thought Partner is someone who, through a practice of researching, reading, learning, asking questions, and writing, helps partners in developing their ideas , knowledge, and thinking.

Most organizations (and leaders) don’t have time to stay on top of things and learn about all the ideas or changes that might affect or inspire their work. Many try but as an internal role it either gets pushed aside by other tasks or starts getting closer and closer to “internal common sense.” The Thought Partner can do that work alongside the organization and bring outside ideas and perspectives.

The “alongside” part is important, although it can sometimes be just a briefing sent every month, it can also be a dialog. The Thought Partner does an active curation of the flow of ideas between the world, business landscape, and the organization.

In the last couple of years I’ve done that as one-off reports, research deep dives, by participating in offsites, brainstorms, workshops, or producing quick half-day “tell me everything you know about this” documents, writing articles, or even developing and leading publications. It can be a variety of things, it’s just a new way of thinking about research, strategy, and often content. It consists in realizing that the organization is not understanding its world and engaging in conversations to open their minds and broaden their thinking.

So far this work is done in small and medium structures but it can be done with larger ones and even, I believe, be taken on as a mission or framework for how you see yourself in your job—I’ll come back to it with further articles. In the mean time, I’m happy to talk about this any time with prospective partners, people who just want to know more, or even those who might be intrigued by the role for their own practice.