Are you a Thought Lead or a Thought Peer? Henrik Andersson

Many of us has a title that is connected to what we do at work. Every now and then I come across titles that makes me wonder what it really means. This time it is one that has been around for some time now: Thought Lead, what does this mean? I would not be suprised if there is a good explanation of how this title first came into place, but I do not think this is well known and I have not researched it.

Now, what reaction do I get when someone claim to be a Thought Lead. There are several things that come to my mind. One is, if there is a Thought Lead there must be Thought Followers. That is nothing new, it goes way back and if I do not recall wrong quite a big thing in the bible for instance. To follow ones thought is not by default something bad as long it is by free choice and own will. It should be done after careful and critical evaluation of the thought to follow and that it is only one of many other thoughts from different persons that you follow so you do not end up with one all mighty leader.

But having an appointed Thought Lead at a company implies that this is the person with thoughts and that the others are not allowed to have thoughts of their own. Instead they must follow the Lead. This sounds like a very constrained company to work in and I do not think it is good for either the Lead nor the Followers to be in this set up. If you are truly advanced in your thoughts, you most likely have come to this by lots of discussions with others who has challenged your thinking and you have been inspired by other peoples thoughts.
If you are a follower you maybe have your own ideas or you get inspired by your leaders idea and like to evolve it. But the company has pointed out a Thought Lead so then it is not likely there is any room for your own thinking, you are merely a follower who is expected to praise your lord.
I especially find this title very strange in our field of testing since we are expected to be critical thinkers, lateral thinkers, curious, ask what if…, question the obvious, look for the hidden. This does not rhyme very well with the idea of appointing Thought Leads in an organization. It should not be in our nature to accept Thought Leads.
One other reflection I have on this is that if you have to have Thought Lead in your title I get very suspicious of how well your thinking really is. It is like you feel the need to tell me that you are a really good thinker instead of showing it to me.
I do not believe that it is Thought Leads we need. However, Thought Peers, where we see each person as unique and we seek to learn from each other. We do not consider ourselves as better than others, instead we help and inspire others who has not yet taken the same next step as we have. To develop we do not need a system with hierarchy of thoughts where it matters from whom the thought is coming from.
This is how I interpret the title Thought Lead. Now all you Thought Leads out there, what do you intend to say with your title?
13 Comments
Daniel Karlsson April 29th, 2012

I agree with you on the whole. Thought lead should not be about inventing a hierarchical structure in which certain person’s thoughts and ideas are worth more than others.

Thought lead for me is a role that brings together people who have a keen interest in what we do and giving them a chance to channel their thoughts with others who are alike. Even if i was not a thought leader, I would still read blogs and articles written by people who challenge our profession, I would still try to start discussions by throwing out things that I know are incorrect and even provocative to see how others react and what my colleague’s opinions are on various things.

One can argue that simply to say that everyone is “thought peers” and that we should not have “Thought leaders” is partly a way of saying that everyone can take responsibility to contribute information and that we can see all people as unique individuals with their unique knowledge that they are able to share with anyone.
But it is also a way of saying that nobody needs to say anything, because nobody has to take responsibility and you can easily hide in the mass.

Being thought lead has not lead to having more of a say than others, it has however given me a responsibility to ensure that my own and others’ thoughts are addressed and taken care of by the company in a good way and that I continuously encourage people to write articles, read books, discuss issues and thoughts, visit seminars and so on. This is in any case what I think that thought lead stands for.

Scott Barber (@sbarber) April 30th, 2012

First, I must admit, I’ve never seen “Thought Lead” or “Thought Leader” as an official corporate title. In that context, I find it kinda arrogant and offensive — besides, companies already have titles for “thought leaders” in various areas, such as:

CEO – business thought lead
CFO – financial thought lead
CTO – thought lead for geeky stuff
VP of {enter topic here}

Second, I am frequently referred to as a Performance Testing Thought Leader (or some variant there-of) by publishers, conference promoters, vendors, random bloggers I may or may not have ever spoken to, etc. This, I think, is a different context entirely. In this context (independent of whether or not I actually “earned” or “deserve” the title), I am not the one declaring thought leadership… by your logic above, it’s more like others declaring their thought followership (Personally, I’d prefer the term “student” to “thought follower”, but that does imply that one is trying to enhance their own thinking by learning from someone who is currently thinking “higher up the innovative, visionary, or activist ladder” vs. simply following)

Third, I don’t think a thought leader is the same as, say, an expert. To my way of thinking, I’d expect an “expert” to be “correct”; I’d expect a “thought leader” to have new and different ways to think about something, to inspire others to think differently about a thing, to ignore the boundaries of practicality (at least some times) to think about how things *could* be, not necessarily to have an “actionably correct” answer.o I don’t know if that’s how others use the term, but that’s what I look for before I’ll refer someone as a thought-leader.

Finally, the critical tester side of me is compelled to ask the following:

- What’s the difference between a “leading thinker” and a “thought leader”?
- If it’s a “title” who gets to decide to whom it is bestowed?

(and most importantly based on my understanding of your initial question)

- What kind of moron would allow their employees to establish a formal hierarchy of thought leadership within their company?!? That’s possibly more idiotic than pre-scripting, click-by-click tests for an new app that hasn’t been developed yet and expecting that script to, not only find bugs, but serve as an automated regression test to increase confidence for future builds (I mean, really, if I were a developer, I’d just wait for the scripts, write code to pass them, *then* write the application around the scripts so I didn’t have to worry about having bugs reported against my code — duh!)

[...] Are you a Thought Lead or a Thought Peer? Written by: Henrik Andersson [...]

Henrik Andersson April 30th, 2012

Daniel and Scott,
Thanks for your input!

Daniel,

But do you not by default build hierarchy with having a role that is called Thought Lead. It say Lead so you are expected to lead something, right? In your organization what does it project to others who are not thought leads by having this title.
Roles that has lead, manager, president etc. are roles that are hierarchal, isn’t it?
It does not say inspire, enabler or collector. Which to me might better describe what you do.
Also i assume you do not get this title by your peers instead you get it from a manager or so. Therefor if you get this title you will not likely loose it, it is a static role not depending on your output or reputation. It is one person higher up in the hierarchy that promotes you with this title not a community or a group of people that refers to you as a thought lead. Instead this group are pointed to you with their thoughts. What if they do not agree with you, does not see you as a lead, or what ever reason they might have, where do they then go?
When encouraging and enabling thinking i do not believe that this kind of systems are very effective.

“But it is also a way of saying that nobody needs to say anything, because nobody has to take responsibility and you can easily hide in the mass.”
On the contrary that is exactly i think having an appointed Thought Lead is signaling. You have one doing the thinking so the rest of you do not need to bather with that.
Don’t you fear that if you appoint a role that is called Thought Leader projects to others that this is the guy who are in charge of the thinking.

Scott,

I hesitated a bit and was not sure if i had mixed things up but i did a quick research in my network and found a couple that has Thought Lead at company XXXXX. I can just assume that this is their title appointed by the company.

Second,
Totally agree with you, that is a different ballpark and is not what i´m at the moment is puzzled about. As i also wrote, it is not wrong to follow a persons thoughts if it is done under certain conditions, one is that you are not forced to do it. If others with respect to you calls yo you thought lead (or something else) then it is their choice to do so and that is what they se you as. In their eyes you have earned it but it is not static, if you “screw up” you will most likely loos that reputation fast.
And i do agree with you with the difference between follower and student. That is why i chooses to use the word follower in my post. Because if you have that title appointed to you by someone above you in the hierarchy i would doubt that the group below you would by default be students, more likely followers by force.

Third,
agree thought lead might not be exactly the same as an expert but it does imply that you lead someones thoughts, doesn’t it?
Your description on a thought leader sounds very much like a philosopher too me. Which i also think is important.

This might be my limitations on the english language but to me it is a huge difference between “leading thinker” and “thought leader”

“leading thinker” sounds to me as one who advanced and acknowledged in the field of what he is thinking of.
“thought leader” is someone who leads someones thoughts. I it is within an organization he is a leader and therefor has authority of others thoughts.

And you last comment
Yes i agree, that is what I’m hoping to find out by this post. Since there are companies that appoint Thought Leads in their organizations. I would also like to know on what basis this appointment is done.

Oliver Vilson April 30th, 2012

I consider myself as Thought Catalyst instead of Thought Lead or Peer. I combine and catalyse various ideas and thoughts into something else for various reasons. Also I help to provide a seed and feedback for various ideas and solutions people want to discuss.

But I like the conception of Thought Peers though.

Daniel Karlsson April 30th, 2012

“But do you not by default build hierarchy with having a role that is called Thought Lead. It say Lead so you are expected to lead something, right? In your organization what does it project to others who are not thought leads by having this title.”

I don’t think that you build a hierarch by having role with a certain name. It depends on what is expected from that role. We could call it inspirational person, thought catalyst or member of team green. It is not the name of the title that is important; it is what people expect from it. You clearly expect an thought lead to be a leader, a boss a person responsible for all the thinking. I expect a thought lead to try to guide and inspire other people to contribute their thoughts and ideas on various areas.

I think that it is a big difference between a manager and a thought lead. First of all I don’t have any responsibility over personnel and secondly I don’t see myself as someone with a higher value than anyone else. I was just invited in to a group with people that shared a common interest and that group consists of people that want to share knowledge and contribute to the company’s evolvement. So no I didn’t get my title from a manager. I was invited to the group because they felt like I could contribute.

I can lose my role. If I don’t want to contribute my thoughts and ideas by writing articles and spend a whole lot of spare time researching, the group would say that it probably would be better if I took a pause or that someone else took my place. But if I felt that I didn’t had the time or couldn’t cope with the pace I would gladly move out from the group nobody would have to ask me.

It is a good thing when people do not agree with me and if we couldn’t agree after a discussion or two, they could easily talk to one of the other eight thought leads in my company.

For us in my company the concept of thought lead has worked so far and until I witness otherwise I will have to disagree with you.

“On the contrary that is exactly i think having an appointed Thought Lead is signaling. You have one doing the thinking so the rest of you do not need to bather with that.”
Here I also need to disagree with you. I think that people that don’t want to contribute can just as easily hide behind others despite if you have thought leaders or not.

“Don’t you fear that if you appoint a role that is called Thought Leader projects to others that this is the guy who are in charge of the thinking?”
God I hope not and we try to communicate what we do all the time and why and try to be as transparent as possible. And if someone wants to discuss a topic or write an article they are always welcome to contribute even if they for the time being is not members of the group yet.

Scott Barber (@sbarber) May 1st, 2012

Henrik,

Your understanding of English is fantastic. You are absolutely correct in your literal translations of “thought leader” and “leading thinker”. The “problem” comes when one changes “thought leader” to “Thought Leader” (i.e. change from noun + modifier to a 2 word proper noun). Once something becomes a proper noun, it refers to a single, unique person/place/idea vs. a general class of person/place/idea. For instance, New York City, USA was named after York, Uk — but its not “new York” (as opposed to “old York”), it’s “New York” (a place with its very own identity. Its the same thing that is being acknowledged when you hear folks talk about “capital A” Agile vs. agile.

I think “Thought Leader” has somehow come to be interpreted as “leading thinker” by many. I don’t know why & when you point it out it makes no sense to me (kinda like the saying “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” makes no sense to me when I parse it literally — I know what folks are trying to communicate when they say it, but really… why would I even *want* cake if not to eat it in the first place? and how am I supposed to eat it if I don’t first have it? Just a weird saying)

All that having been said, and having pondered this a bit overnight, the *only* non-stupid reason (not a good reason, just a non-stupid reason) I’ve thought up for someone’s employing company to assign them a title of “Thought Lead” is if it is a consulting/services company, the title is preceded by a specific consulting/service area marketed by the company, and there is exactly one person with title for each consulting/service area.

Following that model, in my company, I would be the “System Performance Thought Lead”, and Dawn would be the “Testing Education Thought Lead”. In my experience, however, those folks are typically called Practice Leads/Managers.

The thing that strikes me as funny is that this conversation reminds me of many conversations I’ve had with folks from the UK — In the UK the leader of a company is frequently the “Managing Director”, in the US the term “President” is often used… UK folks think it is both arrogant and ridiculous for the leader of a company to “promote themselves as a peer to the President of the US”… In the US, no one over the age of about 10 would even make that connection, let alone thing it was odd.

Maybe we should all just learn to speak in hex or something… at least then we could stick to debating about the ambiguity of language without having to also try to translate that ambiguity from one language to 8 others.

Robert Sabourin May 1st, 2012

Well well well indeed

I am proud to say that in 2012 I was “proclaimed” as a thought leader in the context testing community.

I personally never claim to be an expert.

I personally never claim to be a leader.

Wise and savvy people suggest I am a leader.

Leadership is in the eye of the beholder – thought wise or otherwise

cheers

RobSab

Johan Hoberg May 2nd, 2012

In practice, how much damage could having such a title at a company cause?

I am just speculating here since we do not have such a title where I work, but here goes. If we had a Thought Lead here, I would expect him to be a senior tester, with great experience and knowledge, and I would also expect him to be a catalyst as someone mentioned above. I would expect to be able to go to him to discuss new ideas, and to be inspired and get ideas from. I would expect him to arrange seminars, workshops and roundtables, write arcitles, and teach internal testing classes at the company, and perhaps a bunch of other things as well. But I wouldn’t stop thinking and follow whatever he said blindly because he had a title.

Do you think there is a real risk here, or are we just speaking hypothetically?

I agree that the title is a little bit silly when just appointed by a company. Senior Test Specialist, or something similar would have worked just as well. But is it a real risk? Does it really matter if a consultant company appoints Thought Leads in practice? Or are we just discussing a hypothetical risk?

Best regards,

Johan

Henrik Andersson May 3rd, 2012

Daniel you are shedding some light on your role as a Thought Lead. To get a better understanding of that was why i wrote this post and I appreciate you for sharing.

But i do think the name of the title is important!
First one has to make an important decision, that is if one will use a title or not.
If one then choose to have a title i believe it should be carefully chosen. To me a title is just like your name. I could stop calling you Daniel and call you something else, but i guess you would not feel good with that since it would not feel like you, right! The same goes for title, it describes the “working” you, who and what you do at work. If that title is not painting a good picture of what you do then i think it is sad because other people might get the wrong impression of you.

Scott i believe that we are very close in the way we think about this. The same goes for you, Rob, i agree!

Johan,
Well i do not think this is a hypothetical discussion. I wrote a post with information about how i interpret when someone had Thought Lead on the business card and i asked for more information on this matter from the Thought Leads.
Daniel has that role and he is sharing information that helps me understand the “other side” of this matter.
If there is a risk or not, i do not really care about that. Im curious for the reasons why someone chooses to have Thought Lead as a company title instead of something else and what message one intend to send to the one reading the title.

Daniel Karlsson May 4th, 2012

No problem Henrik. I understand that you think that the title is important and you are somewhat right, it does mean something but what it means is different to different person’s right?

I agree that a title should state what you are doing but still sometimes there could be misunderstandings. Like for instant, if you work as a Tester, does that describe what you are actually doing? Or the purpose of your work? The thing you actually are doing is that you are assuring quality or “Quality Assurance” so the work title should then be Quality Assurer?!. But then the title could be interpreted in a way that says that you are somewhat responsible for all the quality and should decide how everyone should work with quality which it is not.
Perhaps a bad example but hopefully you understand what I am heading at.

For me my name is an identifier it does not state whom I am. The same goes for a title, it is an identifier but what it actually means is different depending on whom you ask, and the context those people are from.
For us at my company, Thought lead gives us an identity, a belonging into a group “Thought Leaders” who shares common interest and goals. The interest is to explore new ideas, methodologies etc. and get to understand what we do in our field of work and why and how we can evolve. As we learn new things we share that information to our colleagues, we also try to be a support for our colleagues if they want to contribute their ideas, skills or whatnot to the company. We are not promoted by managers to become a thought lead, a person that shows that he/she is curious, driven, skillful and wants to contribute, will probably at some point be invited to the group.

And we try to be leaders. In the good sense of the word and we like to think (a lot) and discuss but that does not make us responsible for all the thinking.

Greetings from the “other side”. ;-)

Henrik Andersson May 4th, 2012

Daniel,
I´m not sure that i would like to walk on this path that you now are leading me on to. This since it is a bit off topic and a whole other discussion that can be quit long.
But let me give it a short try.

You provided a perfect example of why titles ARE important.

You would like to be called QA (Quality Assurer) instead of Tester. This because you are assuring quality. In your view this is more accurate.

Myself i will never call myself QA. I´m a Tester because testing is what i do. One thing that is for sure is that i do NOT assure anything and certainly not quality.
What i do is provide stakeholders with quality related information.

You see why it is important to choose your title carefully.

Daniel Karlsson May 6th, 2012

Henrik,

The discussion has so far been about how you interpret the title “Thought lead” and what that title means to you. I just gave you an example on how you may interpret the title tester and gave an alternative title using the purpose of the role. If you “provide stakeholders with quality related information.” than by the same reasoning your title could be “quality informant”.

I didnt say that I think that “Quality assurer” is a good title, I didn’t say that I think that is what I do. I just tried to show, that if you want to you can misunderstand the purpose of any title. I think that there is more value in communicating what the title is all about than be afraid of using it.