What drives the work of the world’s leading management thinkers?
That was the question posed at Thinkers50@BUQuestrom: Passion & Purpose, a live virtual event held at Boston University Questrom School of Business on 20th April 2023. Co-sponsored by Thinkers50, Passion & Purpose sought to uncover the motivation behind top management thinkers: what directs their research? What keeps them awake at night and gets them out of bed in the morning?
In a fast-paced ideas jam, 14 thinkers each had 15 minutes to present their passion and purpose. First to the stand was Thinkers50 #1 Ranked Thinker, Professor Amy Edmondson, whose work on psychological safety has garnered worldwide acclaim. Edmondson’s latest passion is failure. Raising the problem of the failure fad in management thinking, she explained the importance of distinguishing between different types of failure, appreciating the discrepancy between blame-worthy failures and praise-worthy failures, and why avoiding failure is not a good strategy. Edmondson’s forthcoming book, The Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well, is out in September 2023.
Amy Edmondson: “Failing Well” – Unlocking our relationship with failure so as to unleash more learning, innovation, and joy
As well as top-ranked thinkers, Passion & Purpose showcased rising stars from the Thinkers50 Radar list and second to the stand was Ruth Gotian. The recipient of the Thinkers50 2021 Radar Award, Gotian offered the flipside to failure with her work on success – in particular, extreme success. She outlined four mindsets associated with high achievers: 1) living for the challenge (not for medals or prizes); 2) work ethic (fearing not trying more than fearing failing); 3) strong foundation (using what made you so good early in your career); and 4) a passion for lifelong learning.
Ruth Gotian: Intrinsic motivation, approaches to challenges, strong foundation, and lifelong learning
Next up was Roger Martin, the #1 Ranked Thinker in 2017. What gets Martin up in the morning, he revealed, is tackling the great enemy of poor management theories and bad business models. Strategy, for example, is not distinct from, or separate to its execution (you can’t just blame implementation for the failure of a strategy). And if you can close the gap between what humans should be able to accomplish if they’re using good business models, and what they do accomplish if they’re using bad models, he contended, you will make the world a better place.
Roger Martin: Strategy, Governance, Social Innovation, Design Thinking
Dartmouth College professor Geoff Parker, co-author of the influential book, Platform Revolution, a Thinkers50 Ranked Thinker and recipient of the Thinkers50 2019 Digital Thinking Award, talked about inverting the firm and the different problems the B2B and B2C platforms are solving. B2C platforms, he explained, are essentially about solving a transaction cost failure, whereas in B2B, where the integration costs are prohibitive, it’s about solving for integration and enablement.
Geoff Parker: B2B platforms, compare B2B and B2C (where do they differ), and B2B platform framework
Parker was followed by BU Questrom School of Business’ Nina Mazar, a member of the Thinkers50 Radar Class of 2023. Mazar explained how behavioral scientists are at a critical juncture. It is time, she said, to overcome the biases of simplifying and highlighting success and create a more balanced view of the promise of behavioral science. In fact, she argued, ‘It is our responsibility to do so if we truly believe that behavioral science can be a useful and low-cost tool in the practitioner’s toolbox to create positive behavioral change.’
Nina Mazar: What it takes to successfully scale and translate research to the wild, real world
Marshall Van Alstyne
Passion & Purpose returned after a short break with BU Questrom’s Marshall Van Alstyne, co-author of Platform Revolution, a Thinkers50 Ranked Thinker, and recipient of the Thinkers50 2019 Digital Thinking Award. Van Alstyne questioned whether following your passion is always a good thing and offered some alternative advice: to work on the hardest problem you love. He also turned his focus to the problem of fake news and misinformation and explained how to use economic theory to create a market for truth.
Marshall Van Alstyne: Platforms, Strategy, and Misinformation
Laura Morgan Roberts
Laura Morgan Roberts from the University of Virginia’s Darden School and a Thinkers50 Ranked Thinker, posed the question: are you bringing your best self to work? She asked how so many of us drift out of alignment with our best selves, and set out her three-part solution, the alignment quest: to redefine, realign, and redesign. If we are misaligned, Roberts pointed out, it is harder for us to steer around the potholes in our path.
Laura Morgan Roberts: The Alignment Quest: Unlocking the potential of our Best Selves at work
The topic then moved from best selves to imposter syndrome. Seven out of 10 working adults, said MIT’s Basima Tewfik, have had imposter syndrome thoughts. Even Albert Einstein had them. But what if people were successful not despite imposter thoughts, but because of them? Tewfik, a Thinkers50 2021 Radar Thinker, argued for renaming imposter syndrome as the imposter phenomenon, and explained that by reframing our imposter thoughts we can become more interpersonally effective.
Basima Tewfik: Rethinking “imposter syndrome / the imposter phenomenon” – downsides and upsides
BU Questrom’s Andrei Hagiu joined remotely from Singapore to talk about how platform research has informed and inspired angel investing – and vice versa. Rather than looking for a winner-takes-all company, Hagiu pointed to the competitive advantage offered by B2B platforms that are not purely digital; platforms that cross the border between digital and physical. Hagiu was listed in the Thinkers50 Radar Class of 2020.
Andrei Hagiu: How platform research has informed and inspired angel investing, and vice versa
Up next, Frances Frei from Harvard talked about being struck by a deep sense of obligation to democratize education – and to democratize everything she knows. Frei then outlined the big idea in her forthcoming book, Move Fast and Fix Things – co-authored with Anne Morriss – that problems, even the biggest problems, can be fixed fast. The more reasons we have to slow things down, she argued, the more difficult change is going to be. Frei and Morriss are Thinkers50 Ranked Thinkers.
Frances Frei: Democratizing education
Continuing the theme of democratizing education, BU Questrom’s Paul Carlile, a Thinkers50 2022 Radar member, shared his passion for digitally transforming graduate education. He explained how Questrom reimagined the role of teaching and learning by taking playbooks from open innovation and digital transformation to create a learning network at scale. Questrom’s MSMS (MSc in Management Studies) was cited by Poets & Quants as the most innovative business school idea of 2015 and its Online MBA program, launched in 2020, currently has 1,800 students enrolled.
Paul Carlile: Addressing the scarcity of graduate education through digital transformation
Sheena Iyengar from Columbia Business School talked about the power and limitations of choice and using choice to create novel solutions. Drawing on her new book, Think Bigger: How to Innovate, she shared her six-step method for innovation, which is all about creating meaningful choices. The first step is to choose the problem and the second step is to break it down into its most important parts. The third step is comparing wants – think about your feelings – and the fourth is to search in and out of the box. The fifth step is the choice map and the last step, the third eye test. Iyengar is a Thinkers50 Ranked Thinker.
Sheena Iyengar: How the mind creates ideas, Think Bigger is a 6-step method for innovation
Harvard’s Francesca Gino, recipient of the Thinkers50 Talent Award, continued with the themes of innovation and creativity, explaining that what lies behind them is curiosity. However, Gino pointed out, data shows that we start to lose our natural sense of curiosity around the age of five or six, when we start to face social barriers to asking questions, and offered strategies to counter these barriers.
Francesca Gino: Curiosity as an underutilized superpower—we are born with it, we lose it, we can nurture it
The final speaker was Thinkers50 2023 Radar member Marcus Collins, who swung the audience’s attention towards the curious case of cultural consumption. Consumption, contended Collins, has very little to do with functional and utilitarian benefit but more to do with psychological and social needs. Culture is the big influencer of human behavior; we consume because of who we are, not because of what things are. And to become more aware of the cultural factors affecting us, Collins said, we need to think like comedians. Comedians observe and watch people to discover something they did not expect.
Marcus Collins: The curious case of cultural consumption—the influence of culture and its sway on human behavior
Thinkers50@BUQuestrom: Passion & Purpose was hosted by Susan Fournier, Allen Questrom Professor and Dean; Des Dearlove, co-founder of Thinkers50, and Paul Alexander, CMO, BU Questrom School of Business.
The sessions were moderated by Des Dearlove, Paul Carlile, and Marshall Van Alstyne.
Thinkers50 is a leading authority in management ideas. Every two years, the UK-based organization presents ‘the Oscars of management thinking,’ including its Global Ranking of the world’s leading management thinkers and its Distinguished Achievement Awards.
BU Questrom School of Business is a global top-tier academic research business school that develops business leaders to create value for the world.