Attach yourself to a problem that matters

on December 16, 2008

Thornton May is a futurist, anthropologist, cognitive scientist, and an incredibly entertaining guy. The combination of all three has made him a thought leader in the area of business IT.


  • Futurists can track three different kinds of futures: linear futures, “aha” futures (market disruptors), and futures that we create.
  • May focuses on futures that we create. He attaches himself to questions that matter. Questions that matter are the questions that haven’t been answered yet.
  • May is not a thought leader, but rather a caterer for information.
  • Active listening is what it takes to be a conversational chef.
  • The future belongs to people who are working on charismatic problems.
  • Everybody’s connected to some chunk of knowledge that they want to share and our job is to help them out. 

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Thornton May from PeacePlusOne

I met Thornton May at the CIO Boot Camp at Interop in NYC this year. I was so enamored with the way May handled the event, that I invited him to be a guest on the “Be the Voice” podcast. When you listen to the podcast, I’ll warn you that May’s mind runs a mile a minute, and sometimes his mouth doesn’t keep up with his thoughts. You’ll hear him starting multiple sentences with a single answer.

What does a futurist track?

May explained that there are three different types of futures that a futurist can track. The first are linear, which are known and observable trends. You read those kinds of reports all the time. For example, IDC predicts that there will be five billion videos downloaded in 2010.

The second kind of future are those “aha” futures or the disruptions in the market. The third kind of future, is the future that we create, and it’s the kind of future that May tracks.

Does someone set out to be a futurist?

My guess is one doesn’t set out to be a futurist. Working on that assumption, I asked May what he set out to do initially. May countered my question, saying he doesn’t believe the question is isolated to just “futurists.” He doesn’t think anyone sets out to what they do and specifically points to what Jefferson Thomas said that if someone sets out to be in politics, they may not have the right stuff to be in politics.

May believes his career has grown to what it is today, because “I attach myself to questions that matter…[And] the questions that matter are the questions that aren’t been answered yet.”

“I’m an ignorance leader,” May continued, “I’m attracted to places where we are ignorant.” Not saying he’s exploring areas where people are stupid, but rather referring to areas where there’s an absence of awareness. “I’m very comfortable not knowing the answer, but knowing that we are moving in a non toxic direction towards actually making progress,” May explained. He’s eager to discover answers.

Being a caterer of answers

May doesn’t want to take direct credit for the industry knowledge that he collects. Wearing a bowtie, May says, “I’m not a thought leader, I’m a caterer…I create sacred collaborative shared spaces where bright people can come together and actually move the ball forward on issues that matter to them.”

I was witness to this kind of discussion ringleading that May is famous for. During the CIO Boot Camp, he led a great discussion at a lunch table with wannabe CIOs about why IT people can demand such high salaries (16 min).

“I’m a conversational chef. I actually think everyone has amazing knowledge ingredients. And the trick is to pull them out from people,” said May, “You have to put a lot of bright people in the room and you have to give voice if you will to multiple perspectives and then you synthesize.”

May is old school in that he just likes getting people into comfortable environments like universities or even bars to exchange ideas. But just watch Thornton in action in the above video. He’s so excited by conversation and he so engages people and makes them want to contribute.

How to be a conversational chef

I asked May what he does to bring this knowledge out of people, and to no surprise, he said it’s all about active listening. Referring to himself as a smaller animal, May said, “Smaller animals need to sense their environment or they’ll be lunch.” And that’s why he thinks active listening is critical to his success.

Having done his doctoral work while in Japan, he likens his active listening to Japanese communications. You can’t even speak in Japanese unless you know in what context and social relations that are going on there, May said.

May prefers roundtables because you have peripheral vision to the conversation. He can see the moment when a person wants to engage in the conversation. He turns to that person, and creates a thread.

I asked him what becomes of the follow up. For May it’s all about making the connections and thinking about who should be in conversation with each other. After a conversation like the one above, May simply files it away, mentally, during down times, like when he’s waiting in line at the airport.

Thought leadership without an online presence

Surprisingly, there’s very little editorial by Thornton May online, yet he’s a very well known and respected thought leader in the area of enterprise IT. He recognizes this is paradoxical especially when people like Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson are saying that your Google Page Rank or the people who link to you digitally is the emerging currency of the next Internet economy.

Not so comfortable with new media publishing

Every different media requires different editorial mechanisms, said May. And in situations where he knows the audience, May is comfortable. For publications like Computerworld (May has a semi-periodic column), May knows the publication’s editorial make up and he knows how to speak to that audience. When speaking publicly, May can actually see the people and know them. But when he’s just generically “online” he doesn’t know who his audience is. And so he self edits to the lowest common denominator when he can’t visualize who he’s messaging for. But he is heading towards the opposite where he creates his own online social media voice and his audience will find him.

“I think the future belongs to people who are working on charismatic problems.” Something that makes you gasp cerebrally.

“In this real time, omni-connected, twittered up world, where does perspective come from? You do need some time to think about all this information. All of this real time processing,” said May. Turning to
editors, May said, “I want someone to put this all in perspective for me or help me find perspective on my own.” I believe that’s why opinion columnists are so popular.

May goes through about a thousand business cards every five or six weeks. He thinks about a problem and asks key people what they think about it. Surprisingly, May doesn’t use any automated tools. With all these business cards he’s collected, he doesn’t maintain a mailing list.

But he doesn’t need to do outbound communications because people come up to him and say, “Thornton, I know you’ve got this great network, I’m wrestling with this issue, can you help me out?”

“I’m a big believer of looking at other industries and seeing who may be farther down the curve than you are and seeing what you can cherry pick from their best practices,” May said.

Tackling charismatic problems

I asked how one captures the knowledge that he’s collecting. May corrected my way of thinking and said he believes the knowledge is already there. “The vital first step is attaching yourself to a problem that matters. Because if the problem is significant enough. If the problem is charismatic enough. There will be interest. There will be funding. There will be allowances made to let you do an examination,” said May, “Now you can poach on this knowledge stream that is out there.”

In one case of tackling a charismatic problem, Thornton May was asked about the issue of digital piracy. May discovered that in cases where employees view their senior management as unethical people, they feel obligated to steal from them. And that situation is exacerbated when senior management is monstrously compensated. That issue has yet to be resolved because there’s a huge social fabric issue. It’s a problem that matters, and May is attaching himself to it.

“Everybody’s connected to some chunk of knowledge that they want to share and our job is to help them out,” May said.

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