Cobwebs Events

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few years ago Gill Ringland and Laurie Young edited a book together on scenario planning. Over a catch-up coffee, they realised that they both had clients who were beginning to invest seriously in corporate strategy again. All were large multi-nationals and all were exploring the impact of massive, unpredictable macro-forces on their businesses. The unpredictable international climate was (and still is) making companies think much more carefully about how and where they will invest.

During 2012 and 2013, Gill and Laurie held events with an invited audience to explore these issues. They were overwhelmed by the interest and the seniority of those involved. The group explored the different macro-forces and possible futures at meetings in the Reform Club, Cass Business School, Kings College London and The Royal Society. The events were designed by Gill Ringland and Laurie Young, with futurists Dr Wendy Schultz and Dr Chris Yapp.

With Laurie’s unexpected and untimely death in September, the team decided that the last Cobwebs event take the form of a memorial to Laurie and was based on his book, published in October 2013, on Thought Leadership.

Cobwebs Event Series List

  •  17th September 2013, Kings College London, for strategists interested in futures
  • 18th/19th September 2013, Wolfson College Oxford – bootcamp on futures tools
  • 15th October 2013, The Reform Club, for strategists & senior managers interested in the effect of ICT on the economy & society:

Cobwebs Overview –


Message from Gill Ringland (in response to their last “Cobwebs” event)

Thank you for joining us at the Royal Society to honour Laurie last week. It was an event that I think Laurie would have been touched by – he was in many ways very modest. And he would have enjoyed the buzz of ideas! Here is the write up contributed by Laura Mazur – who first introduced me to Laurie: please note at the end the details of the four ongoing ways in which Laurie will be remembered – Thought Leadership (Richard Chaplin), Marketing – Brands (Nicky Murphy), Strategic Planning (Gill Ringland) and through his web site (Debra Fox). With best wishes to all friends of Laurie Young.


Thought Leadership

Summary report

The latest and final ‘Blowing the Cobwebs off your Mind’ workshop held on the 22nd of January at the Royal Society was a fitting tribute to the work of the late Laurie Young. Laurie, along with Gill Ringland of SAMI Consulting, Wendy Schultz and Chris Yapp, had been the prime mover behind this series of meetings held over the last year on a variety of challenging strategic issues. This last event was based on Laurie’s latest book, Thought Leadership, published by Kogan Page in October 2013.


Gill Ringland introduced the session by recalling Laurie’s pivotal role in setting up the programme, and hoped that the event would capture his spirit and ideas. She then introduced four people who had known Laurie at different stages of his life to speak for a few minutes on Laurie’s special qualities.

Remembering Laurie Young:

  • Professor Paul Fifield.  He described Laurie as a consummate professional, a marketer’s marketer and a man passionate when it came to his beliefs. An ‘undefeated’ man who didn’t take life too seriously.
  • Nicola Murphy, founder and CEO River Group (and Laurie’s literary executor). Nicola recalled the warm friendship she had enjoyed with Laurie, and the invaluable help he had given her when she set up her business, River Publishing, 20 years ago.  Her abiding memory? How he loved life to the full. She is also his literary executor and will be inviting 11 others to help write a chapter each for a history of brands, the book he was working on when he died.
  •  John Flynn, past Master of the Worshipful Company of Marketors. John met Laurie first at the Chartered Institute of Marketing board of international trustees and was impressed by his drive and ability to help and mentor others. Joining the Worshipful Company of Marketors, Laurie threw himself into its activities with typical enthusiasm.
  •  Debra Fox, marketing and sales director, Knowledge Insights. Debra recalled how Laurie had been her touchstone since they met in the 1980s. Over the years their careers intertwined, with both sharing a passion for services marketing. She felt he had reached a very fulfilled stage in his life with a well-established reputation as a thoughtful and insightful author and his involvement as a mentor/advisor to so many people.

Gill then briefly discussed the background to the ‘Cobwebs’ series of workshops:

  • Based on their collaboration on the book Scenarios in Marketing, she and Laurie had discovered a shared interest in what processes companies deployed to develop their strategic view and the challenges  they encountered in trying to achieve their objectives.
  • Subjects have included trends, dialogues about forces and the effect of cognitive bias, or the impact of taking a narrow world view. The workshops have used a number of established tools and techniques to encourage participants to expand their horizons by seeing things differently.

This workshop consisted of five  main sessions:

  • An introduction to thought leadership by Dr Chris Yapp.
  • An introduction to the Three Horizons framework by Dr Wendy Schultz.
  • A look at emerging models of thought leadership by Dr Chris Yapp.
  • Table brainstorming and reporting back.
  • Reflection on the interactions between man and machine by Dr Peter Waggett of IBM..

Introduction to thought leadership

Dr Chris Yapp began by considering the origins of thought leadership, the importance of Laurie’s book in adding to the discussion about thought leadership and how thought leadership can help deal with forthcoming challenges faced by business and society.

Some of his key points:

  • Although the terms ‘thought leader’ and ‘through leadership’ have been around in the business world since the late 1980s/early 1990s (and even stretching back a few centuries), few people have really understood what the concept means or how to use it effectively.
  • But as an approach and idea thought leadership is needed more than ever as organisations in particular and society in general struggle with challenges such as:  the difficult economic times, shortening product lifecycles, commodification of services, the damage done by  short-termism, the ramifications of the financial strength and struggles of emerging economies in different parts of the world such as China, Russia and Turkey and, finally,  the sheer complexity of change.
  • Laurie’s book shows how thought leadership can play a pivotal role as a framework for rethinking strategies by encouraging organisations to be open to capturing ideas from a wide variety of internal and external sources. In addition, as the case studies illustrate, there is no ‘one way’ to be an effective thought leader.
  • Chris recounted how Laurie argued that thought leadership can produce some ideas which are powerful but can cause a lot of damage when wrongly done (such as ‘management by objectives’).
  •  But it is undeniably valuable when applied appropriately. It can help people individually build up their identity, it can give an organisation a reputation as a thought leader in its sector, it can build the story of the relationship with stakeholders and can create a compelling story for governments to tell citizens about the future.

The Three Horizons framework

Dr Wendy Schultz set the scene for the brainstorming sessions by explaining the conceptual framework, the Three Horizons, that would be the basis of the discussions.

  • The framework was developed by Bill Sharpe through the International Futures Forum and stemmed from his dissatisfaction with existing technology roadmapping. He felt it was too linear and mechanistic, and that change happened in much more complex and untidy way than most roadmaps allowed.
  • He argued that instead waves of change occur at different times and overlap, causing turbulence with each other at any one point in time. He developed the Three Horizon framework as an aid to exploration and overcoming cognitive biases not prediction. (His book is Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope).
    • The first horizon: the current paradigms, assumptions, data, infrastructure.  It is where we are now and can blind us to the new. Managers can have this mindset, which has some value but might suffer from a certain cognitive bias.
    • The second horizon: incremental adjustments, transformational experiments. It is often a place where ideas from the first horizon are becoming obsolescent and slowly being replaced by new ideas that are challenging what we take for granted. This is the environment where entrepreneurial spirit can thrive and begin to bridge the gap between the accepted view and the vision of the future.
    • The third horizon, with emerging paradigms, ideas and innovations, captures the weak, faintly-detectable signals of change. This is the horizon of the visionary mindset which is valuable, but not always practical.
    • There are three basic questions arising from the Three Horizons model  which organisations should be asking:
      • What are the current working assumptions and system of production and marketing? What are you taking for granted when you make management decisions?
      • What changes are emerging as completely new paradigms and means to understand and undertake various human activities? What are visionary leaders saying?
      • Which of the immediate changes that you see represent a transition or accommodation for evolving tensions as current assumptions and work patterns obsolesce and transformative changes erupt into possibility? What opportunities do you see? What are entrepreneurs building?

Emerging models

Dr Chris Yapp examined what new models of thought leadership might look like. He first considered  just why we need new models.

  • The presence of deep uncertainties and an overload of ‘urgent’ priorities.
  • A need for models that encourage renewed trust and influence at a time of deep scepticism.
  • The impact of demographics, including the ageing population.
  • The changing world order from West to East.
  • Rising environment concern and the search for sustainability.
  • The pervasiveness of global networks and the ability to communicate —and mis-communicate.

Modern technology has enabled the emergence of models that wouldn’t have been possible previously:

  • The Pro-Am model. The collaboration of amateurs and professionals widens the boundaries of possible discoveries.
  • Wiki. Mass collaboration offers a range of solutions. Corporate wikis, for example,  could help build a workable narrative.
  • Wisdom of crowds. Under certain circumstances for certain classes of problems a group of people from many disciplines can come up with better solutions than a group of experts.
  • Big data. The opening up of data streams by governments and companies around the world is leading to new models.
  • Open innovation. While this has been ‘hyped’ for some years, the debate is more nuanced than ‘open’ is good and ‘closed’ is bad. Moreover, the  idea that innovation can be successfully sourced externally has gained more validity. This has been encouraged by the ‘open source’ movement in the IT industry.

Group discussions

The individual groups were then asked to have discussions based on these three questions and report back:

  • The most significant, challenging change to thought leadership.
  • The most profound new model of through leadership emerging.
  • The most surprising new need for thought leadership emerging.

The following summarises the ideas generated by each table.

Report 1

  • The most significant challenge to thought leadership is renting as opposed to ownership, with the concept of IP protection becoming redundant. IP is now more about speed to market and customer research is about product adaptation and change.
  • The new model emerging is open working and seeking collaboration as a counter to protectionism.
  • The need is for communities to reach out to the world to find solutions as ‘thought leadership’ is transformed into  ‘thought partnership’.

Report 2

  • The big challenge will be unlearning what we already know: thinking totally differently about how to approach thought leadership.
  • Success will come from a Darwinian-type model of adapting to a ‘new’ normal based on rapid feedback and sensing what the future holds as opposed to business as usual.
  • The new need? Collaboration will be more important that ‘leading’. All the models Chris discussed were  important to help people think differently and as a group rather than thought leadership coming from just a few people. Collective thinking demands not a ‘leader’ but a ‘follower’ model.

Report 3

The most significant challenge to existing thought leadership is that it’s not sustainable in its current guise, although admittedly there is a debate about how you define ‘sustainable’ .

  • In terms of the ‘emerging model, we have to recognise there is no one simple answer. It’s very unhelpful to think about merely replacing one idea with another. That is feasible in scientific disciplines, but we must be careful that we don’t use scientific language and approaches to try and solve some of the social science problems we face. It’s also a question of taking care to define the actual problems when the pervasiveness of media can skewer realities.
  • This calls for more open learning and working and challenging the over-emphasis on the legalistic/scientific approach. We should encourage a move to a new enlightenment that is more values-driven rather than the old parochialism driven by self-interest.

Report 4

  • The most significant challenge to thought leadership is that while it’s unnecessary at the generic level , it has become more important at the individual level. This is more of a mass-customised approach specific to the context.
  • This would call for a multitude of models that may exist for a while and come from multiple sources but then dissolve as required. That means being sensitive to when it is time for the model to dissolve and find a new one.
  • The big question is how will this somewhat chaotic customisation be managed? How do .governments create order, for example, out of this potential chaos?

Report 5

The group  developed a three ‘C’ model.

  • Connectivity. The basic assumption in today’s world is that the ‘ connected’ world will continue unabated and uninterrupted and will allow us to do all the things we expect to do across all areas.  There would be a profound impact on thought leadership if this failed.
  • The new model needed is based on collective curiosity. This is about open innovation and curiosity without a dominant organising force.  At the same time, the great stresses which exist in society produce great leaps forward.The combination of a stressed environment and open innovation causes the dominant design paradigm to fall away.
  • The need? A new ‘church’.  This will encourage an ethos that will be pervasive and disseminate the sense of crisis that could arise from a failure of connectivity. In other words, we need to pray!

Report 6

  • The axis of thought leadership is changing. It has traditionally been based on Western ‘elitism’ but now it’s moving toward a more democratic principle reinforced by technology and socio-demographic shifts. The challenge is to manage that massive shift.
  • The emerging model is Pro-Am, because its participative nature can help deal with today’s challenges.
  • There are two dimensions to the resulting need emerging in terms of thought leadership. First, we have to be ready to tackle so many challenges on  many levels, both existing ones and those on the horizon. Secondly, how do you distinguish what’s really important? How do you find the real insights which have beneficial impact?

Report 7

  • The significant challenge to change is the Western political model. Who still believes in it in a world of global communications and a greater ability to influence governments?
  • The most profound new need is to answer the dilemma of citizen vs state. Data is no longer the privilege of the few but is owned by the empowered individual. This leads to a new need for augmented humanity.
  • The right model for this is based on that of Pro-Am but goes well beyond it to one of Pro-Wis, or the wisdom of crowds supplementing the professional-amateur relationship. This includes an emphasis on local problem-solving.

Report 8

  • The most significant challenge is that, whereas at the time of the Enlightenment, when thousands of people could contribute their thoughts because they were literate, there are now billions who can do so.
  • The most profound new model emerging is based on evolutionary sciences. Evolutionary theory is critical to thought leadership.
  • The most pressing new need is that while the internet has given us the ability to unleash a huge torrent of ideas and thoughts, it hasn’t provided us yet with a mechanism for selection and weeding out of garbage.

Report 9

  • The paradigmatic changes that we face come from our current preoccupation with short-term financial returns, internally-driven focus and top-down management. We measure the wrong things. We have to think not just about financial measures but more about social and environmental issues too.
  • This demands that people throughout an organisation be involved because management is often the obstacle to change.
  • So we need ‘court jesters’ who can speak truth to power by pointing out the absurdities of actions and help change from within by poking fun at what’s going wrong at the moment.

The implications of technology on society’s evolution

Dr Peter Waggett of IBM closed the session by reflecting briefly on how the interactions of humans and technology are evolving at a great rate – the subject of some fascinating discussion he had had with Laurie, he recalled.

First, there are forces already affecting business:

  • Moore’s Law s on the rate of change in technology.
  • Metcalf’s law on how the value of a network increases exponentially.
  • Developments like social media and their implications for the way of doing business.

Then there are innovations which will create a new paradigm:

  • Biometrics such as facial recognition, etc.
  • Cognitive computing: cognitive computing systems learn and interact naturally with people to extend what either humans or machine could do on their own.
  • Wetware: the marriage of biology and computing.


Creating a lasting memorial to Laurie Young

A group of family, friends and contacts has agreed to create a lasting not-for-profit legacy for Laurie Young by bringing together all the major players in the thought leadership industry for the first time. This has five inter-dependent elements.

  • The Laurie Young Global Prize for Best Practice in Thought Leadership.
  • The Thought Leadership 1% Club for CEOs.
  • The Thought Leadership Foundation.
  • The Annual Thought Leadership Essay Competition.
  • Annual Thought Leadership Summits.

To find out more please contact Richard Chaplin on +44 (0) 20 7786 9786 or

 Dr Nicola Murphy is planning to go ahead with the book they were jointly planning, on brands. This will have up to 12 chapters from individual experts, and contributions are sought. Contact her on

Laurie was Chairman of the Strategic Planning Society. Chris Hafner has stepped into the breach, and has agreed with Gill Ringland to go ahead with the Futures and Strategy Special Interest Group that Laurie had discussed. The first meeting of this will be on 1st April (no, really) and for more information contact




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