The head of a think tank once said to me: “The ability to ask the question that makes a great thought leadership piece is the same ability to ask a great research question. And if you can’t do one, you won’t be able to do the other.”
He was totally wrong, and also right in a smaller sense he didn’t grasp. (Fortunately, he was just declaiming — he wasn’t interested in my take on the matter, so he didn’t notice my stupefaction at how wrong he was.)
How he was right: Great research questions and great thought leadership questions must be the ones no one has asked or asked in the way you’re asking now. They both seek white space in their own domains.
How he was wrong: The nose for white space you have to have for one domain is very different from the nose you must have in the other.
Great research questions aim to expand the bounds of research-based knowledge.
Great thought leadership questions advance the bounds of our options to solve problems.
The results of one might intersect with the ability to ask a question in the other. You might tailor your research to target knowledge gaps that, once filled, might produce an expansion of our problem-solving options.
But they’re not even close to the same thing. That’s why most researchers (even ones who consistently ask brilliant research questions) struggle to frame their expertise and insights in compelling ways for non-specialists. No one would judge potential research hires by their ability to produce crisp opinion pieces (or potential opinion writers by their ability to get research published), unless you wanted the hire to end in tears.
Most researchers don’t ask big enough questions to make an impact with non-specialist audiences. If you want to broaden the stage for your expertise, you have to practice asking bigger questions.
What do bigger questions look like? How do you know when you’ve hit on one?
Read this New York interview with Bill Gates on climate change. In the space of 15 minutes, here are just a few of the big questions he asks or implies:
- Should the threat of climate change alter our view of global progress?
- Are we spending enough attention on climate adaptation?
- Yes climate change is a huge threat — but are we simply going to be able to take 100 million barrels of oil out of the modern economy a day?
- If we don’t use nuclear and don’t create an energy storage miracle solution, how are we going to make electricity for everything that gas and coal now powers—and make it with zero emission?
- Doesn’t India deserve to have air conditioning, especially with the mind-blowing temperatures it will face in the later half of this century?
- How are we going to make green goods and services affordable globally? What is the plan?
- Is the way science advances actually the right way to motivate a policy emergency for climate change?
And that’s just the first one-third of the interview. The guy just tosses off big questions. And even though he’s discussing some of the most alarming challenges we face collectively, the ferment with which he talks about them is tremendously exciting.
The good news: to begin, all you need is one, and a unique solution to it flowing from your expertise. Practice yours with someone (like a communications professional) who can give you feedback and help you refine it.