What’s the Big Idea?

What's the Big Idea?tcbrPDF normal

Stuart Crainer sees more interest in management thinking than ever before.

By Matthew Budman


Matthew Budman is editor-in-chief of TCB Review.

crainerFor more than two decades, in articles (including for this magazine) and books, U.K. writing team Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove have chronicled, analyzed, and explained the world of business thinking. They've read every strategy book and interviewed every management guru.

From the beginning, Crainer and Dearlove tried to compile the most valuable and relevant ideas for senior executives without the time to sort through an entire bookshelf. And a dozen years ago, they formalized that process by creating Thinkers50, a biannual project identifying key thinkers around the world and ranking their influence and importance.

Consultants and B-school professors were interested right away—who wouldn't leap at the opportunity for wider recognition?—but only recently has Thinkers50 broken through to another level of interest and awareness. The 2013 awards drew a great deal of publicity, making clear the general interest in business thinking. And McGraw-Hill just published the first four Thinkers50 books—on management, strategy, leadership, and innovation—with two more in the works, on future thinkers and Indian thinkers. Crainer wryly describes the series as “kind of a guide to the best thinkers in each of those fields, with witty and insightful commentary by Des and me.”

Crainer spoke via Skype from his U.K. home, shortly after the Thinkers50 gala awards ceremony in London.


Of course, you predicted there would be interest in the Thinkers50 idea—otherwise you wouldn't have taken the time to launch it. But did you even hope it would get so big?

We've been surprised. And the awards gala was as good as it could have been, really. We got people flying in from around the world, from California, just for the day. People from Japan, China, Turkey. Clay Christensen came.

You've been working directly with top thinkers for years. But were you surprised at the level of interest in high-level thinking among businesspeople in general?

Not really, because the nature of business thinking has changed. When you and I started writing about business, twenty years ago, all the business thinkers were geared around making corporations more effective, more efficient, improve performance. It was quite narrow. And over the years, that's changed; now the scope of business thinking is much broader. Thinkers have moved from improving organizational effectiveness to tackling some of the biggest issues facing mankind.

Clay Christensen is looking at education; Michael Porter has looked at health care. C.K. Prahalad started off looking at core competencies, talking about strategy and co-creation and innovation, and then moved on to the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid. The issues these people are talking about are hugely important—and global.

Why the shift?

There was a realization that if you apply organizational and managerial learning to big issues, you can actually make a difference. After all, a lot of the problems with big issues have to do with efficiency and organizational effectiveness. The biggest employer in the United Kingdom is the National Health Service; in fact, it's one of the biggest organizations in the world, after the Chinese Red Army, Indian Railways, and Walmart. We spend a fortune on it—billions and billions of pounds. And the issues with the Health Service are managerial: making a big organization efficient. Going after the problems wouldn't just increase shareholder returns—it would actually directly improve the lives of millions of people.

Of course, most readers are looking to get the same thing from business books they always have, right?

Well, sure, that's still why managers buy books—they want that nugget of information, that slightly different perspective, in the hope that it gives them a competitive advantage. Managers read books because they think that little bit of information will get them ahead of the competition. There's nothing so practical as a good idea.

At a time when management ideas are often compressed into 140 characters and a link, are people taking the time and making the effort to read and discuss and act on really big ideas?

Well, some ideas can be compressed into a tweet. And some should probably stay there, shouldn't they? But the best thinkers can distill ideas down to a phrase or sentence that resonates with people. Think of The Tipping Point: It's a tweet-sized idea with, obviously, stories and information behind it. Vijay Govindarajan at Tuck is a serious thinker, but his phrase “reverse innovation” is simple and understandable while encapsulating an important idea.

Distilling things is part of the challenge. The best thinkers can actually do that. We meet lots of business-school academics who say that's dumbing down ideas, but really it's dumbing it up. That's the hard bit: making sense of a trend and compressing it into a compelling idea that people really understand. Clay Christensen talks about distilling his ideas into something a 12-year-old could understand. For these top thinkers, that's really important.

I remember filming interviews with C.K. Prahalad, who was a really great guy who wanted to change the world for the better. At the end of the interview, you always say to the cameraman, “How was that for you? Did you understand what I was talking about?” That was his measure of success—he didn't really care whether Des or I understood. He cared about the people operating the cameras, who weren't really his natural audience. And when we interviewed him, they always said yes, and they wanted his books afterward. That doesn't usually happen when you interview a business thinker. The best ones make that effort—they're capable of summing up an idea in few words. That's what connects with audiences.

Great that people are buying and reading and even understanding business books, but how much are executives actually using theory? How often do you get the sense that a CEO returns from a business trip and says, “I just finished Blue Ocean Strategy, and we need to change everything we're doing”?

Well, that book sold two million copies—it's probably the biggest serious thought-leadership seller over the last few years—and it was criticized initially for being rearview-mirror strategy. But there are all sorts of tools in there that companies really do use.

I know one CEO who bought everybody in his company a copy of Ricardo Semler's book Maverick—even now, people who join the company get a copy, even though the book came out twenty years ago—because that's the kind of company he wants to create. It resonates.

Des went to a cabinet meeting in Asia, and they all had copies of a book by a business guru—and they were working on putting the ideas into practice. For better or worse, these books are having an impact on how people manage. Of course, it's dangerous as well to buy one person's take on leadership or management wholesale and run your business according to somebody else's book, but fortunately, people tend, magpie-like, to pick one idea from here, one idea from there.

The biggest business-book markets are emerging economies, because they're hungry for the knowledge to make their organizations efficient. So business books sell in China, in India; we did some work in Romania, and it was incredible—hugely educated audience, they all spoke perfect English, and they all devoured business books. They wanted Malcolm Gladwell; they wanted Daniel Goleman.

In terms of practical usage, how many steps are there between Fortune 500 corner offices and, say, Navi Radjou's HBR blog posts?

People leading organizations have an enormous appetite for these things, and there comes a point when it's difficult to avoid ideas; certain ideas build momentum. Senior businesspeople had to understand the idea of blue-ocean strategy. Navi Radjou's work has a huge amount of momentum behind it; if you're interested in becoming more innovative or in understanding how Indian companies work, he's important to read. And I believe people are reading him. It'd be worrisome if they weren't interested in new ideas. What's the alternative? Companies have to be open to the latest thinking.

Now, sure, there's a lot of lip service. You hear CEOs casually talking about disrupting their markets and disruptive innovation, when in reality they're not disrupting anything. But at least they know that's what they should be thinking of. There's a lot of fashion consciousness—people want to parrot the leading-edge thinkers.

How many of those thinkers are coming from overseas?

A lot of ideas today have their sources in India, and people are definitely trying to learn how Indian businesses approach things. I suppose the same thing happened with Japanese businesses in the 1980s, when we all sought to learn from the Japanese. People's appetite to learn from different cultures and markets is quite encouraging.

The book that started the business-book market was In Search of Excellence, which looked at American companies and extolled the virtues of American companies doing interesting things; that seemed like good news at a time when everyone felt under threat from the Japanese. Books now are much more wide-ranging, and I think that's a good thing—if you look at best-sellers in America, they all have global examples.

And, of course, not all business thinking is aimed at American audiences. If you go to Germany, there's an Austrian named Fredmund Malik who's their man on leadership; every manager in Germany has read Malik's books on leadership. Within all these different countries, there are regional gurus whom you've never heard of. There are people in the U.K. who make a good living giving talks on business and have a message and shtick that goes down well here but don't do anything outside the region. On the Thinkers50 list, we feature people like Kjell Nordström from Sweden, who's hugely popular in Scandinavia and Russia and the Baltic countries but is unknown in America.

Interesting that on the list this time are a lot of Canadians: Don Tapscott, Roger Martin, Richard Florida, Syd Finkelstein. The clusters used to be at Harvard Business School, Stanford, and not many other places. Now they're more freewheeling: There's a young generation of interesting thinkers at INSEAD in France and at IE in Madrid.


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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.