Advice to Think Tank Startup: do not do it alone

4 February 2013

Recently I was in touch with a former colleague who is setting up a think tank after successful service in government.  He said that the idea behind his new think tank was “to do public policy analysis and research and to provide expertise and advice to the Government as well as to reach bi-partisan support on key areas [and] crucial reforms.” Given that I have worked in this field for a while, he also expressed interest in advice for his undertaking.

I thus wrote up some ideas, keeping in mind that there are no hard rules for setting up ventures. I also decided I would share my advice on this blog, to see what other suggestions it sparks. So this is what I wrote to my former colleague:

  1. Invest time into learning from others, not just into solving your daily start-up challenges. This learning time may seem like a luxury, but think of it as a shortcut. At the risk of advertising our own work, the talks at the Think Tank Exchange in Cape Town, from June 2012, are a rich source of advice, in accessible format. Ebere Uneze talks about capacity building for young organizations, Nicolás Ducoté highlights what he learned from leading CIPPEC (“Put energy where researchers don’t traditionally put energy”, here), and a number of other talks will resonate as you address particular challenges.
  2. Read the manuals. As with IKEA furniture or your washing machine, instructions should inform your planning rather than your regrets. I’m speaking with hindsight: I wish that a few years ago, when I was running a research organization, someone had advised me to read Ray Struyk’s Managing Think Tanks. Drawing on synthesized experience for managerial issues (finances, staff structure, quality control processes and more) frees up your team to apply its considered judgment to the challenges for which there is no manual. Struyk’s book is the only think tank manual I’m aware of, so if you have other essential readings to suggest, I would love to hear about them in the comments below.
  3. Focus on your operations at least as much as on your ideas. Funders come back when you have delivered on the research and on the timely administration of their funding. Excellent policy research can be transformative and even wonderful in the original sense of the word, but at its core is a production process that requires quality input into quality processes to generate quality output. That managerial reality has an implication that becomes dismal only once you ignore it: if you can’t hire or train staff that will perform at very high levels, it’s better not to grow.
  4. Consistency of quality matters so much that you want to build many small habits rather than expending yourself in a big push. In my previous organization, it took about 18 months before things started going the way we wanted to – we didn’t follow all the advice I’m listing here, and getting traction in a crowded policy/political field is difficult. You have to persist even if you don’t get much positive feedback. Develop extensive quality habits and rigorous quality control so that whatever you release is up to universal standards of cogency. Calling your research “local” puts you on the hook for adding texture and nuance, not off the hook on quality. If your think tank was a restaurant, would people want to eat what you serve? Quality control is thus rightly emphasized by Ray Struyk in his first pages, a summary on sustaining quality by Mustafizur Rahman at the Think Tank Exchange is here, and for practical reflections from CIPPEC read this post.
  5. Check out innovative think tank models, especially where they help you overcome start-up constraints. Enrique has talked about “virtual think tanks”, and this is a model worth exploring more in the future. Also, for example, the European Stability Initiative, as much an advocacy group as a think tank, has done well without bricks and mortar, thus keeping the costs low and nevertheless shaping and possibly even redirecting European thinking on the Balkans, Turkey and beyond. As it is hard to be great at everything, you should concentrate on core expertise, either in one or two issue areas (say, health or education), cross-cutting (accountability, or budget process) or by applying a method (say, citizen report cards or surveys). Lykke Andersen explains how you can focus your institution’s work in this incisive talk.  Whatever you do, choose role models and tweak them to your context and size, because inventing everything yourself will be too time-consuming, and you want to go on to do other exciting things.
  6. Stay curious. Often digging a little further reveals great information, both about what has been done in other countries, and what has been done within your own context, at a subnational level. Uncovering local successes that people in your own country don’t know about is worthwhile. This “bright spots” method provides an attractive model for positive change, since it seeks to expand successful practices, rather than introduce untested ones. Which state schools are most effective, and why? What can be learned from a particularly effective regional infrastructure implementation? Why is one regional capital so clean? Which municipal services get the best ratings? Consider replicating local successes, rather than running up against hard-to-solve problems. That is just one innovative approach, and it’s worth staying curious about alternative strategies as well.
  7. Read onthinktanks. Of course I would say that, since I’m writing here, but also, it is the single best place for following established practice, learning about dilemmas (such as the risk of founder failure) and picking up new ideas.

That sums up the main advice that I would give to someone setting out to start a think tank. I recognize that advice can only take you so far, as Shakespeare reminds us: plausible and eloquent as Polonius’ admonitions to Laertes are, both die. Guidance fails not only when it is overwhelmed by a plot of rotten states and wayward princes, but also because advice, like drama, is a stylized synthesis and perhaps even coercion of messy life. Its everyday use, at best, represents a constant fiddling of rounded generalities into jagged niches.

If there is one thread that connects what I said it’s this: when you are setting up a think tank, you can draw on a community. The think tank crowd has gotten better and better at its practices, but mostly has not yet synthesized its lessons systematically, which is why taking an active part in its debates, even about what lessons can be captured, is stimulating and enriching. There is much to share, and much to learn. In that mode: is there any advice that I have missed, and that you would add to the list?