The web and innovation culture have given us access to countless ‘thought leaders’ and inspired us with bold new ways of thinking about what’s possible. Now, organizations and individuals are looking to one another for conversations that help them turn inspiration into strategy and reality.
Thought partnership is the practice of sharing ideas and experience with others to help them navigate complex challenges. This sounds a lot like advice or mentorship, but the key difference is that thought partnership is always mutually beneficial.
When you pair with people who think like you do, you resonate—becoming a ‘sounding board’ for each others’ best ideas. When you pair with people who think differently than you do, you complement—stretching each others’ view of a situation to find and sort useful new approaches to a problem.
Thought partnership can take many different forms and be a component of various partnership models. People often pay for thought partnership directly (as in coaching and consulting relationships), but thought partnership can also show up in less-formal relationships, such as a research buddy, good colleague or mentor.
The term "thought partnership" may connote thought leadership. Both serve a function:
Thought partnership is powerful in that it puts both thinkers on the same level, even if they have different kinds of expertise or focus. Because thought partnership is almost always about problem solving or exploring something of mutual interest, it has less of a power dynamic than conversations strictly focused on an ‘expert’ advising someone who is less knowledgeable in a particular area.
You can tell you’re engaged in thought partnership when it feels more like a conversation between peers than a presentation or critique (where one party has an implied or explicit power over another). Another sign of thought partnership is that both parties understand each others’ environments and have empathy for each other’s problems.
To understand what you could offer—or may want to look for—as a thought partner, you have to first understand your own thinking and areas of expertise. Thinking Styles can help with this. Take a moment to learn about the concept and see which of the eight styles of thinking most inspire you. If it's helpful, take this quick online self-assessment.
When you've found one or two styles which represent your thinking, consider how your unique combination of thinking styles and experience bring value to thought partnership conversations with your colleagues and clients.
Of course, the proportions will vary: most organizations naturally bias towards certain types of thinking. For example, a company who has iterated on the same style of coffeemaker for thirty years probably has a lot of producer, optimizer and expert thinking represented in its leadership. If the same company now wants to design an internet-connected coffeemaker, they will need to bring explorer thinking about digital products, connector thinking about strategic partners to build the companion app, energizer thinking to catalyze new marketing efforts and planner thinking to ramp up the IT department’s capabilities and security. If the company or colleague you’re talking to doesn’t have all the perspectives required to tackle their next challenge or opportunity, they will need thought partners to help them expand their current thinking and plan for the future.
Once you have a good idea of what kind of thought partnership you can offer, you can get to work letting your clients and colleagues know what kind of thinker you are and what you’re thinking about.
There are several types of ‘social currency’ or social objects that can be used to help thought partners provide value to each other.
Being a thought partner is about reciprocity. This peer-to-peer relationship between thought partners is distinct from teaching, advising or other similar behaviors. A thought partner can be a peer in your business who helps you think through strategy or a professional who is paid for the service.
Potential thought partners probably already exist around you. Think about people who are in orbit around your work and vice versa—strategically important vendors, partnered businesses, past clients or colleagues—as the first place to look when you need someone to add a different thinking style to your strategy or problem solving process.
In addition to conversations that evolve naturally, it’s okay to ask for a specific kind of thought partnership from someone you know, especially if you need to count on it. For example:
“I’m trying to solve [a problem around a specific topic]. I can’t figure out how to do it and I think I could use a new viewpoint on it. I have the [thinking style] for parts of it, but I need someone who is [a different thinking style] in order to help me [outcome of added thinking style]. Can you help, or do you know someone who could?”
You can also suggest potential thought partners to colleagues and clients based on your knowledge of their thinking styles.
2. Take a look at your information diet (what you tend to want to read, watch and listen to) and ask yourself the following questions:
3. Consider how your thinking style may show up in the way you engage with your information diet. When you choose what to read, watch, and talk about, are you making the most of the way you think? Are there topics or types of content which you would like to add to your information diet?
4. Be open with people about what type of thinker you are. As you talk with colleagues and clients, notice if you’re letting people know what perspective you’re speaking from—and that you have a solid understanding of the importance of other perspectives as well. For example, “I spend a lot of time looking at trends and implications—exploring the big picture—and from that perspective I want to make sure we include the Internet of Things and social marketing in our discussion about the new product. But I know we need to look at the details, too—Jane, you’re tracking how we’re going to coach the sales team on the new technologies, right? Can you tell us a bit more about that?”
5. Share what you find. In addition to normal conversations, make sure you are consistently sharing what you find in your information diet. This practice is called a sharing habit. It sends signals to others about the kinds of things that you can help them think through—and lets them know what kinds of things to forward on to you, too.
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