How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Is Your Thinking Hydroponic?

The economist Thomas Piketty has a new book (Capital and Ideology) coming out next March in the United States. His last book — 2013’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a broadside against the structural excesses of late capitalism — seemed at the time an unlikely international sensation. In retrospect, Piketty looks prescient, anticipating the waves of discontent (on the right and left) that increasingly define our politics.

Yet the journalist and media analyst Frederic Filloux, in summarizing a sneak peek at Capital and Ideology published in the French newsweekly L’Obs, answers his own question “Why it matters” with the irresistible retort: “Actually, it doesn’t so much”:

While Piketty’s work gets profuse coverage, mostly for its implacable analysis of global inequalities, his 2013 recommendations have largely been ignored by governments. As entertaining and generous as it might be, Piketty’s ideology is like hydroponic vegetables, it is grown unconnected to any soil.

Filloux’s assessment of Piketty might be unfair. Should we judge thinkers’ impacts solely by the adoption of their specific policy recommendations? Or also by how they’ve shifted a public conversation? The latter might be difficult to quantify (or not, given machine learning). But the conventional view of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that it helped open up the Overton window for mainstream critiques of capitalism — a remodeling that now threatens to become a teardown.

Hydroponic thinking, though — now there’s a category of analysis that could be exceptionally useful, if we can give it some rigorous definition, or at least some negative metrics.

How would you know if your thinking was actually taking root — wasn’t actually floating in space? You would want increases in at least some of the following indicators:

  • Signups to your email list;
  • Invites to panel and speaking opportunities, both in your discipline and then to non-specialist sectors interested in the application of your insights;
  • Invites to round table discussions (say, by foundations);
  • Media inquiries for background and on-the-record interviews;
  • Receptivity by editors to your opinion content pitches;
  • Invites to guest on podcasts;
  • Inquiries for collaboration or partnership that cites something you wrote for non-specialists;
  • Engagement in social media with your content by people who matter to you.

And you’d want to give it at least a year at a minimum.

“Taking root,” then, is a long game. It’s not just a single op-ed or paper and your work is done. (The thought leadership assessment on my site gives you a quick and dirty quantification of where you’re at, in case you haven’t taken it.)

You want to be occupying white space with your public scholarship, with your authority content, with your thought leadership — whatever you prefer to call it.

You also want that thinking to take root in real soil. That only happens through persistence, campaigns, feedback and measuring response.

Otherwise, Filloux would be right: you’re merely entertaining (at best). And not really all that generous.