Rethinking the Ideas Business … Who are the world’s top business thinkers? What are the best new ideas to move us forwards?

July 9, 2019

Thinkers50 was established almost 20 years ago out of a desire to find the best ideas in business.

Every two years it seeks to rank the thought leaders of business – based on the ideas that have created most resonance in the business world, the most distinctive and communicative, the most practical and impactful.

Previous rankings, every two years, have felt a little like a homage to the grand old men of business academia: Peter Drucker, Michael Porter, CK Prahalad, Clay Christensen, and Roger Martin.

There has been a sprinkling of more populist thinkers and business leaders over the years. In 2009 Malcolm Gladwell and Steve Jobs made the top 10 for the only time. The 2017 list saw more youth, like Alex Osterwalder and Adam Grant. And a few more women and non-Americans too.

But in general, the rankings have felt like a celebration of egos rather than ideas.

Do the ageing academics really have better thinking – better ideas – than the smartest business leaders and entrepreneurs of our time? Elon Musk? Jack Ma? Mary Barra? Satya Nadella? Anne Wojcicki? Masayoshi Son?  Certainly business leaders have ideas that work, as demonstrated by their innovations and impacts.

What about the commentators – the keynote speakers, analysts and investors, and columnists? People like Warren Buffet? Tony Robbins? Henry Blodget? Adrianna Huffington? Whilst they might not themselves have new ideas, they are typically good influencers, reaching many more people, and shaping people’s minds.

Of course, all these people are difficult to compare – many academics are terrible speakers, many keynote speakers have nothing new to say yet bring stories and energy that inspire people. And influencers are great at retelling ideas, often better than their originators, putting them into context, spreading them further.

And Thinkers50 is not the only ranking of business thinkers, although probably the most global and credible. Others rankings such as Global Gurus and Thinkers360 are either too skewed by local bias, business influence or commercialism.

What surprises me most, is that business thinking exists in such a bubble.

You could argue that it’s an awful lot of self-serving intellectualism. You could argue that we don’t need more ideas, we just need smart execution.

Yet I believe new ideas matter.

Business, and the world generally, needs new ideas. And we need to work together to better explain these ideas, to connect them, to make them more accessible, practical and impactful.

As I go around the world, advising business leaders, speaking to their teams, teaching the next generation, it constantly surprises me how few of these thought leaders and their ideas that business people actually know. They read the magazines, watch the news, but business school was a long time ago, business books and HBR are too long and boring, and they are much more focused on trying to get some stuff done.

At the same time I realise first hand, through leading hundreds of executive development programs in companies and at business schools, that new concepts and frameworks can be transformational. They can produce eureka moments for execs as they suddenly see their worlds differently: How to manage a business portfolio. How to innovate a business model. How accelerate new ideas to market. How to make change happen.

And there are plenty of rock solid approaches that have stood the test of time, still worth using even if they are decades old. So it’s not just about the shiny new thing, and the funky new words. It’s about what’s relevant and practical, and what can really help you make a leap forwards – mentally, practically and commercially.

I write business books. I’m a business school professor. I’m a coach to business leaders. I’m a keynote speaker. So you could say I’m biased.

But I really do value the power of new ideas. Ideas move us forwards, they challenge and inspire us, they help us to change our worlds, and sometimes the world.

When I write, or teach, or advise, or talk, I try to bring together ideas that are both challenging and inspiring. Some old, but mostly new concepts. I tend to focus most on the companies around the world who are shaking markets up right now. What can we learn from them? Good and bad? What can we combine and do better? t Ultimately I want people to do better, to rethink and reinvent, to raise their game.

I will be hosting this year’s Thinkers50 European Business Forum for the third consecutive year in September, and for me it is about all of these things. And finding the right participants – both speakers and audience – and how they work together over two days, is a really fine art.

A month later, Thinkers50 will be revealing their latest ranking, and global awards.

What we really need to focus on is the ideas, not the people.

Ideas which we can all embrace to move the world forwards, to drive progress in business and society. We all get stuck in old thinking. We need need lenses to see the future differently, new constructs to design better organisations, and new compasses to lead with passion and integrity.

We need bigger ideas by which business can be a force for good, successful in its own right, but in doing so is able to make the world better – harness its assets, networks and attractions to bring about fundamental change – to the environment, to inequality, to our lost ethics. And more.

For me, I really hope that a new generation of business thinkers will come to the fore this year. I also hope they get there in a more transparent and thoughtful way – focusing on the power of ideas  … So, in alphabetical order, people like:

  • Brian Chesky (growing Airbnb from a startup to a global experiences brand)
  • Susan David (creating emotional agility, to survive and thrive in today’s world)
  • Emmanuelle Duez (recognising the challenge and potential of diversity in business)
  • Carol Dweck (introducing the growth mindset, the heart of executive mindfulness)
  • Amy Edmondson (creating a fearless organisation, brave teams with energy)
  • Scott Galloway (making sense of the world’s largest digital platform companies)
  • Malcolm Gladwell (new social beliefs and challenges, inspirations and change)
  • Yuval Harari (another socialogist, not focused on business per se, but its impact)
  • Frédéric Laloux (reinventing organisations to a higher level of meaning and action)
  • Tan Le (harnessing the power of brainwaves to transform how we think and act)
  • Jack Ma (brave to step aside and focus on teaching the next generation of leaders)
  • Rita McGrath (discovery-based strategy and innovation, seeing round corners)
  • Satya Nadella (reinventing Microsoft for a new world with a growth mindset)
  • Alex Osterwalder (relentless growth through current and future portfolios)
  • Eric Ries (how to build a fast and lean start-up, or indeed any size of business)
  • Jason Silva (film maker, challenging and inspiring us to embrace a new world)
  • Simon Sinek (finding more purpose, starting with why, then driving it to infinity)
  • Irene Sun (recognising the true potential of Africa, for China and the world)
  • Ming Zeng (using big data analytics and AI to create a self-tuning organisation)

That’s why I’m writing a new book that embraces the best ideas of every one of these thinkers. Not because I have nothing new to say myself, but because the real challenge is to connect and contextualise the best ideas. Today’s and tomorrow’s business leaders need to raise their game, to reinvent business in a world of incredible change, but also in a world where we need to move forwards in new ways. That’s why all the best ideas matter.


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