A few initiatives, not many projects, may be the secret to success

22 January 2014
SERIES The CGD model for think tanks 6 items

A couple of years ago I visited the Center for Global Development in Washington DC. Lawrence MacDonald gave me a tour of its offices (they have now moved) and surprised me with the way he described the work of the centre’s research staff. It was quite a contrast with what I was used to. Most think tanks would focus on the projects that their researchers work on -or the clients they work for. They might mention the policy issue or area that they are involved in but few (I’ve not come across any that do it across the board) would be able to mention a big idea per researcher like Lawrence did:

I then got a tour of the CGD floor and the same thing happened. Every time we stopped at someone’s office, Lawrence would say: “This is so and so’s office. His/her big idea is…” It was never, “so and so is working on this and that project”. Or so and so works on social protection, or aid effectiveness, or whatever.

His emphasis was on the big idea that the researcher had developed and was championing. A few weeks ago, I posted a blog on Roger Martin’s idea of a logical leap of the mind and asked the question of whether think tanks had this at the core of their operations. I wasn’t 100% sure what that meant until now.

CGD’s approach is worth paying attention to. Instead of collecting lists of projects, each researcher focuses on one or two key initiatives over a relatively long period of time.

Initiatives are at the core of three interesting elements of CGD’s latest essay: Building a Think-and-Do Tank: A Dozen Lessons from the First Dozen Years of the Center for Global Development, by Lawrence MacDonald and Todd Moss:

  • How think tanks can organise themselves;
  • How they can seek to bring about change; and
  • How they measure success.

CGD used +to come together around initiatives (not just projects) led by senior researchers. These initiatives allowed them to organise and allocate cross-organisation resources in ways that other think tanks can’t. They bring together people, research, communications, networking, management, and other ‘assets’ think tanks have to carry out their missions. They described initiatives as:

CGD initiatives are practical proposals to improve the policies and practices of rich countries, international bodies, and others of means and influence to reduce global poverty and inequality. Initiatives draw upon the Center’s rigorous research and utilize innovative communications and direct engagement with decision-makers to change the world.

Initiatives are at the core of one of CGD’s most interesting contributions to think tank practice: its 12 steps to policy influence. The updated paper that I am referring to here does not list steps but rather presents lessons that cover both organisational issues as well as initiative-specific ones. I have rearranged them (I hope the authors do not mind) into the three groups mentioned above (although there are clear overlaps):

On organisation:

  1. Start with flexible money -but not too much: Use small amounts of flexible money as venture capital.
  2. Hire great people and give them plenty of freedom and responsibility: At all levels, senior and junior; full-time staff and associates.
  3. Share leadership: Give staff, at all levels, responsibility for running the think tank (or at least their bit of the think tank).
  4. Don’t plan; experiment: It is worth quoting the authors on this one: “Our strategy, so to speak, is to be ready to react to the sudden appearance of a policy window by having a good stock of well-researched ideas and providing our fellows with space to respond”
  5. Partner with people, not organisations: It is easier to align interests between people than between organisations.
  6. Resist the growth inertia: There may be lots of important issues and policy processes but they may not all be right for you.
  7. Make it fun: A good sense of humor should be a key ‘competence’ in any job description.

On bringing about change:

  1. Start fresh to stay fresh: Be careful of becoming set in your ways.
  2. Articulate an inspiring mission and aim for results: Don’t just aim to know more, what will you do with this knowledge?
  3. Share ideas early and often: Think out loud and benefit from feedback and growing support and expectation for your future results; don’t wait until you’ve cross all the ts and dotted all the lines, it will be too late by then.

On assessing success:

  1. Celebrate and try to measure success: It is much easier when you have a clear sense of why you are doing what you do -what is that new world you want to see?
  2. Keep asking tough questions: Don’t be afraid to rock the boat -both your metaphorical boat as well as other people’s.

Because their efforts start with imagining a new future (changed or created by the adoption of their new big idea) CGD does not need to focus on metrics that may reflect their relative contribution to a board policy process.  Their initiatives tackle problems that they consider need to be tackled and success is easily defined by the observation that their ideas have been accepted and implemented.

What ideas are these? Lawrence MacDonald and Todd Moss highlight a few that include:

  • Creation of the first Advance Market Commitment (AMC), a $1.5 billion pilot that accelerated development and delivery of vaccines to prevent pneumococcal diseases, averting 1.5 million premature deaths;
  • Spurring $1 trillion to buffer developing countries from the effects of the global financial crisis via a CGD blueprint, which was picked up by the UN Secretary General, endorsed by the G-20, and implemented by multilateral financial institutions;
  • Inventing and helping to pilot Cash on Delivery (COD) aid, a new model that pay only for independently verified improvements in outcome; and
  • Inventing Development Impact Bonds (DIBs), a new type of financial instrument that makes it possible for private investors to profit by providing public goods, thus unleashing innovation and flexibility for better results; among others.

There is a sense of order and clarity from these short statements that one does not get from many other think tanks. These statements of success present us with a problem to solve (e.g. agent-principal dilemma in the Aid Industry) and the solution proposed (e.g. Cash on Delivery). These statements make it possible to engage in the kind of discussion one expects to engage with think tanks: that we may disagree with their problem identification or with their solution (or both) and may have our own views and opinions.

When think tanks focus on broad policy issues and projects they risk getting muddled up with ongoing commentary and illusions of influence based on the incorrect assumption that visibility equals influence.

By focusing on initiatives, then, CGD is able to report on their success much more easily than think tanks that are mostly driven by externally designed projects and broad policy research programmes or groups. This also helps the organisation to learn lessons that may be transferable from initiative to initiative -just as one would transfer lessons from a football game to the next, and the next, and the next; and then the entire season.