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Thought Partnerships: Creating Value Through Generative Thinking
by Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D. and James R. Long, Ph.D.


Executives just aren't getting it! They're looking to others for answers. They attend workshops where little work occurs but where experts (real and self styled) lecture on the latest approach to the "what", "when" and "how" of solutions. If some members of the audience become too involved in dialogue during the lecture, others feel cheated because they aren't getting enough of the expert's insights. They seek magical answers in some guru's six principles or a facilely framed top ten list. Harried executives don't have time to think; don't take time to think.

Without a deep, cogent, and abiding understanding of your organization and the unique context in which you find yourself, the application of someone else's key principles is insufficient. It isn't gathering information that's counterproductive. It's allowing the experts to think for you rather than to think with you that's the problem.

Our traditional model of management says our leaders are the executives and managers who run the organization. Just because you are managing something does not automatically make you a leader. "Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action…. Most U.S. corporations are over managed and under led." (See Kotter, 2001)

Indeed, the most crucial criteria of leadership are people willing to follow. It is our belief that everyone in an organization should act, at times, from a leadership perspective; they should shoulder some responsibility for taking a leading role in enacting the strategic intent. The level of leadership responsibility will vary depending upon one's position. People in all leadership positions need to be thinkers, and in higher-level positions, they need to be skilled critical thinkers. One cannot effectively lead while s/he is a passive consumer of other people's thoughts, hopping on the bandwagon of each new business insight. In order for executives to enable their organizations to learn, there must be a network of thought partners throughout all levels of the organization, who buckle down and think things through together. The alternative is to have one thinker with lots of non-thinking doers (the traditional approach), which wastes an organization's intellectual capital.

The Traditional Business Paradigm

Why do we need to consider new ways of working together to produce value? Aren't the old ways good enough? Today's workplace is very different than what existed 10 or 20 years ago. The lessons of the past are insufficient to see us through. In the industrial era, workers did a job (see Wm. Bridges, 1994). That job was defined, clearly articulated and tightly circumscribed. Flexible applications, creativity, innovation, and personality were not sought, encouraged or offered. Much like the guilds of medieval Europe, experienced crafts people passed on their knowledge to apprentices and new comers. For over one hundred years, running a company successfully meant reapplying the prevailing business paradigm to each new business situation. That culture did little to encourage thinking on an organizational level.

In today's reality we see, "…the factors that define an organization's capabilities and disabilities evolve over time---they start in resources, then move to visible, articulated processes and values; and migrate finally to culture" (See Clayton M. Christensen, 2000). If we look at today's requirements for success, we can appreciate the changes. To be successful today with value-creating endeavors requires a different sense of working together. It involves more than simply being a co-worker. It involves a shared vision (See Peter Senge, 1994), which is a mutually agreed upon and understood purpose. It also assumes that people in the same organization share similar values and commitments toward mutually beneficial outcomes. Fundamental to these assumptions is the necessity for people to be thinking together and doing it well. These factors help define the organization's culture. Enterprise success will not come from the efforts of isolated genius, but from exploiting the concept that nobody is as smart as everybody, and nurturing the capability for thinking together.

There are three primary reasons for this need to work differently together:

  • Access to unlimited amounts of information is virtually immediate; the learning curve is steep as we acquire new information at increasingly rapid rates, and we struggle to find timely methods for sharing knowledge among all levels of the organization.
  • There are discoveries in one field of knowledge that have an immediate and dramatic effect upon other fields of knowledge, increasing the interconnectedness of learning across fields of knowledge.
  • Technological improvements have led to disruptive technologies, which have literally made the impossible of the past not only possible today, but probably soon to be outdated and passé.

Today's Changing Business Climate

"A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter---and getting faster than most companies"(See Levine, et. al., 1999). Markets are getting smarter because consumers are talking to other consumers, thinking together, learning from each other. These same consumers go to work each day in companies where they also collaborate and problem solve. Leadership involves nurturing the conditions that foster thinking together, while mitigating the barriers that hinder us (See Senge, 1999). Developing and preserving social capital rivals our efforts to leverage intellectual capital in importance. Yet, many executives have been slow to depart from traditional management thinking and embrace the value of social groups or communities of practice within organizations. They continue to prefer formal organizational units to less formal structures, and to focus responsibility on individual workers rather than self-organized groups (See Cohen and Prusak, 2001).

As new paradigms emerge, nobody knows what answers will remain correct. Yet, managers are still expected to deliver the right results. The managerial challenge is no longer defined by the presentation of questions that need answers; it's now centered on the importance of thinking through new situations. Too many of us have been taught in school to memorize information, learn steps, regurgitate the correct answer, etc.---but not to think (see de Bono, 1982). Given the speed of business today, people will tell you that they don't have time to think. Too many co-workers (and bosses) would look askance at someone squirreled away---thinking---during the course of the business day. People are expected to know the answers already.

The equation is simple. New conditions require new behaviors that must be grounded on the social contract of today, where people are taking more control over their lives; thinking through the choices that come with more alternatives. In spite of the reported resistance by people to change, we know of obvious examples of how social innovation fosters flexibility in organizations. One example is the rise of the self-organizing team, people who are capable of organizing themselves into groups for specific purposes: The activities of the police and firefighters of New York as they worked at ground zero shortly after the tragedy occurred on September 11th in 2001, exemplifies the work of self-organizing teams. Local leaders were killed, the chain of command disrupted, communications chaotic and danger was omnipresent. Still, people needed to be rescued and evacuated; fires needed to be fought; the situation controlled. Emergency workers reorganized and carried on.

It isn't that the idea of self-organizing teams is a new one. In the 1998 Steven Spielberg movie, Saving Private Ryan, we saw a dramatization of the realities of combat where soldiers must face the loss of leaders, the threat of dying and the unexpected. In the chaos of battle, soldiers will self-organize for survival purposes. These activities significantly depart from any predetermined formal plan of battle. There are many examples in military history where self-organization has made a difference in the success of an important mission. The point is that meaningful change can and does occur quickly, in the right circumstances.

Although the traditional management philosophy in this country is still prevalent, there are organizations where knowledge workers, in their efforts to create value, are encouraged to think together to:

  • Share information to acquire and transfer knowledge
  • Collaborate to shift organizational paradigms/assumptions
  • Add to or enhance existing skills
  • Engage in social innovation ideas and strategies

Executives who fail to encourage and support social innovation become a barrier to the success of organizations. Organizations that succeed foster the development of leaders throughout the organization and enable all employees to form thought partnerships with key stakeholders and allies.

What is a Thought Partnership?

Relationships become key to the effective sharing of needed information. These collaborative relationships create the connections inside the organization required to operationalize its strategic intent. We refer to these relationship interconnections as "thought partnerships." More specifically, a thought partnership is a relationship formed among two or more people, in a value creating enterprise for the purpose of generating social or intellectual value.

The challenge of building leadership capabilities at all levels of the organization is as critical as it is daunting. The business literature, both popular and academic, is rife with examples of companies whose managers knew what they needed to do, but who could not operationalize their purpose. Company investments in executive development, leadership development and/or management development do not guarantee an individual's success. However, some companies like GE, PepsiCo, and Dell (see Tichy and DeRose, 1996) succeed, both in developing leaders and generating results.

Successful companies develop leadership skills within a strategic context and in a disciplined manner: routinely, rigorously, and repeatedly. Any company can do this if the purpose is clear, key supportive relationships are established and the needed information to complete a successful program is available.

To lead in today's workplace, one must communicate in a consistent and effective manner. Success at work requires people to do several things in a collaborative way, that is, doing things with others rather than to others. The following is a thought-provoking partial list of critical success factors for leadership:

  • Contract for purpose - Assume that different points of view predispose us to hear, interpret, and use what we hear in highly personalized ways. When we begin to collaborate with someone, even with someone with whom we have worked in other areas, we need to clarify the nature, purpose and goals of the connection that we want to establish.
  • Speak the language of your audience - Articulate your ideas, but communicate in a manner that is understandable to your audience. Think of your comments as your efforts to market your point of view. The context in which the message is delivered can be as powerful as the presentation logic.
  • Be able to articulate a compelling vision - People collaborate effectively when they see a mutually desirable outcome. The person seeking to establish the thought partnership has the responsibility for defining the shared vision.
  • Use storytelling - As a primary technique for presenting complex ideas, such as the business idea, or the company's brand promise, storytelling is a powerful vehicle for communicating a shared perspective.
  • Be an Active Listener - Active listening is a fundamental element of dialogue. Listening for understanding is more effective for building partnerships than is listening to find fault or to gain advantage. Highly effective partnerships cannot exist without a foundation of authentic conversation.

People work together to help one another evolve their thinking and stretch their paradigms. They do that in some of the following ways:

  • Offering people experiences that generate new awareness.
  • Dramatizing the gap between what people want and what they do.
  • Challenging illogical conclusions drawn from experience.
  • Connecting or distancing new ideas and developments to old assumptions.

We can all think of instances where people work together as thought partners in a variety of activities such as: learning/teaching, theory development, mental model building, team working and/or problem solving. These are task-oriented instances, and often ad hoc by nature. However, we don't have a term encompassing that range of shared activity among people. They are partnerships based upon ongoing processes that encompass a shared vision and a network of mutually complementary and authentic relationships, striving to contribute to social innovation. We are offering the term "thought partners" as a way to talk about, to consider and to explore the nature of these relationships. "Companies are inventing new ways of doing business together that are bringing unprecedented gains in profit and competitiveness…the emerging term for these new relationships is partnering."(See Rackham et. al., 1996)

There are examples of real world situations that demonstrate this concept. In the movie, Apollo 13, the NASA engineer walked into the room filled with a problem solving team of workers, laid down several pieces of material, and said: "This is what they have to work with…. figure out a way to clean the filter." This dramatization of a real life effort where success was a function of close working relationships generating effective results irrespective of status or level of training.

We have recently learned that our military success in Afghanistan was in part related to the success of specialty trained ground forces working in conjunction with native alliance troops. The effectiveness of this partnership among alliance forces and U.S. ground and air support was in contrast to the effort in Kosovo, where the military capabilities were available but the partnerships did not exist. The difference in levels of effectiveness was the presence of networked relationships in the Afghanistan effort.

On February 9th of 1999, ABC News's Nightline program aired a show that explored the Creative process at Ideo, Inc., a leading product development firm. The program was entitled, "The Deep Dive," which is also the phrase that Ideo uses to describe its innovation process. During the course of the program, Dave Kelley, Ideo's founder and CEO, was interviewed and a project team was shown in action. Ideo's process is also described by Tom Kelley and Christopher Littman in their book, The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from Ideo, America's Leading Design Firm, (2001). When they're describing the essential element of the Deep Dive process, they're talking about a robust thought partnership. Their mantra posits the idea that, "enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius." In describing the process behind Ideo's success, Kelley's conversation is full of references to learning, exploring and observing to get below the surface.

To support its success, Ideo clearly forms thought partnerships with their clients as well as depending on those internal partnerships to create the value they are in business to produce. In this joint collaboration, they find a richer source of innovation and intellectual capital than by working within the bounds of typical, hierarchical relationships.


Executives must become leaders by abandoning the search for quick answers and glib explanations. Leaders, by definition, are engaged in deep thought about the situations in which they assume the lead. The traditional business paradigm of the past did not really require an entire organization to think well. A few thinkers in key roles were sufficient. That paradigm is gone. That expectation is not only wrong but also counterproductive.

Today's business circumstances require crisp organizational thinking. Leaders must arise at all levels of the organization to assure speed and agility within the strategic intent. Scattered examples of lone genius are insufficient when competing against an organization rife with networks of thought partners and social innovators.

The examples mentioned above are representative of the kinds of thought partnerships we believe lead to success. Much of the work done by individuals can be improved by collaboration with others. In doing so, they can talk about the work, share tacit knowledge, teach and learn from each other, identify the context in which problems occur and discuss new creative and innovative ideas.

An executive staff person approaches the CEO's office and asks the Executive Secretary if the CEO is busy. The Executive Secretary answers by stating that the CEO is not available because he or she is thinking. This isn't a typical cameo of today's business culture. When it is, we will no longer be concerned about whether or not American executives are "getting it", and that development will signal the beginning of a new more enlightened management paradigm.


Cohen, D. & Prusak, L., In Good Company, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 2001.

Bower, J., & Christensen, C., "Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave", Harvard Business Review, Jan.-Feb., 1995.

Bridges, William, "The End of the Job," Fortune, 9/19/94.

Christensen, C. & Overdorf, M., "Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change", Harvard Business Review, March-April, 2000.

De Bono, Edward, de Bono's Thinking Course, published by, Facts on File, Inc. New York, New York, 1982.

Hasselbaum, F, Goldsmith, M., and Beckhard, R., (Eds.) The Leader of the Future, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1996.

Kelly, Tom, with Littman, Jonathan, The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from Ideo, America's Leading Design Firm, a Currency Book, published by Doubleday, New York, New York, 2001.

Kotter, J., "What Leaders Really Do," Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2001.

Levine, R., Locke, C. Searls, D and Weinberger, D., The Cluetrain Manifesto, Persus Books, Cambridge, MS., 1999.

DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures, Saving Private Ryan, 1998.

Rackham, N., Friedman, L., and Ruff, R., Getting Partnering Right, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1996

Senge, P, et al., The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday, New York, 1994

Senge, P, et al., The Dance of Change, Doubleday, New York, 1999

Tichy, N.M. and DeRose, Christopher, "The Pepsi challenge: Building a Leader-Driven Organization," in Training and Development, May 1996.

Wheatley, M., Leadership and the New Science, published by Berret-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 1992.


The Authors

Dan Elash

Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D is the principal of Syntient. Dan's Doctoral Degree is in Psychology from the University of Kansas. Dan's consultant expertise includes enhancing organizational capability through collaboration and facilitating change at the individual, team and organizational levels. Dan is a speaker and teacher who places strong emphasis on developing social innovation in client organizations. His goal is to help client companies realize their untapped potential.  Dan uses communication and community building as fundamental platforms for generating and sustaining personal and organizational capability.

E-mail: and visit .

James R. Long, Ph.D. - Jim Long is a principal and senior consultant with PERSOMA Management, Inc. Jim holds a Doctorate in Rehabilitation Counseling from the University of Pittsburgh. His leadership experience includes roles as military officer, manager, executive coach, consultant, business principal and board member. Jim has always had an interest in viewing organizations as systems. He has first-hand managerial experience leading organizations during various stages of change, in both growth-oriented and downsizing circumstances. He has worked with both small and large profit and non-profit organizations and firms. His clientele includes organizations in healthcare, technology and manufacturing areas. Jim has worked with individual leaders, executive teams and leadership groups of managers. Jim can be reached at or by calling 412-824-5359.

Many more articles in Collaborative Thinking and Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2002 by Daniel D. Elash and James R. Long . All rights reserved.

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