CGD, the cult of ideas and policy change

10 November 2011
SERIES The CGD model for think tanks 6 items

Last week I was lucky to be invited to join the Center for Global Development‘s senior staff in their bi-weekly lunch meetings. I won’t discuss what was said at the meeting but I thought it was worth sharing a couple of things that I learned that day.

The first thing is that CGD seems to be all about ideas. This is either how things in fact are or Lawrence MacDonald is doing a fantastic job portraying the illusion that it is; either way, it works. And both are important.

At the senior staff meeting people asked each other questions, exchanged some banter, and challenged each other. There was no admin. Nobody talked about processes, plans, budgets or deadlines. For almost 2 hours, senior staff shared and engaged in ideas.

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.

What is a big new idea?

  • It has to imply a logical leap.  It cannot be more of the same nor can it be based on what has happened already. The past may inform it but it should not be limited by what is known. By definition it has to be an innovation and this means taking a risk.
  • A big idea should imply a new world. A change that would be obvious to anyone who is looking or is affected by it. The world will be a very different place as a consequence of paying attention to preventing new HIV infections; and recipient countries will behave very differently if they are paid on delivery.
  • A big idea also, it follows, needs to be implementable or needs to have a practical implication: a ‘now what’? factor. Hence CGD has developed initiatives to champion these ideas and see them through. (See below for what to do with a good idea.)
  • Hence, the big ideas that we are talking about must refer to a real life problem that must (or should) be tackled. This is what many think tanks struggle with. They either respond to a specific policy problem posed by a client or donor (and they don’t tend to like new ideas), or they are led by their researchers’ academic expectations and incentives.
  • A new big idea is not proved or disproved with existing evidence or theories. A new idea needs to be engaged with and it is only through dialogue and its application in practice that the right arguments and evidence to test it will be found and developed. The (sometimes) obsession with evidence-based policy limits what can be argued to what can be demonstrated ex-ante. This can only stifle innovation.

So what to do with new big ideas?

Lawrence and Ruth Levine published a very interesting essay a few years ago titled: Learning While Doing: A 12-Step Program for Policy Change. At the time I remember reading it and thinking that it complemented the RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach quite nicely because we were dealing with the kind of analysis and actions that the team (step 10 onwards more or less) would have to carry-out. This is not entirely true. What Lawrence and Ruth provide is a think tank’s version of music, film or radio/TV production: pre-productionproductionpost-production, and distribution (these are my suggested categorisation, not theirs). It is not something all think tanks can do but it does offer a benchmark for any think tanks attempting to make a real difference.

Pre-production (this is almost always skipped by think tanks that respond to donor/clients demands)

  • Step 1: Choose an important problem that can be solved

CGD has been particularly effective at achieving policy change when we select an important problem for which new knowledge, consensus building, and getting attention from new stakeholders or higher-level (potential) champions can make a difference. Selecting the right problem seems self-evident but is often overlooked.

  • Step 2: Find the right person or persons to lead the team

An effective team leader must understand the problem well and is usually already active in an informal network of people who view it from a variety of perspectives. She or he will have the technical skills to synthesize new knowledge about the problem and the interpersonal skills to effectively manage a diverse group of collaborators

  • Step 3: Get the money

If CGD does not already have the necessary financial support it’s the team leader’s job to help get it. Fund raising often requires writing a description of the problem and the approach to solving it—and thus is an opportunity to further refine these ideas. Fund raising also provides a way to gather additional perspectives on the problem and ideas for possible solutions, and to create a shared consensus about the importance of the problem that can be tapped once it has been found.

  • Step 4: Recruit the team

One of the team leader’s early tasks is to identify the group that will work together to solve the problem. This may be a formal working group… Or it may be a loose affiliation of collaborators… Or it may be a group of in-house researchers and analysts… Whatever the nature of the team, it is important that participants are drawn from a variety of backgrounds with different perspectives…

It is also valuable to bring in people outside of the “usual suspects,” including people who bring a truly new perspective to bear. This may mean inviting someone who works in a different sector, or who works in the developed world on some similar problem


  • Step 5: Sharpen the problem definition and begin working on the solution

This analysis underpins the eventual solutions, so having agreement on the nature of the problem and the terms used to describe it are crucial. As solutions emerge they are tested with various stakeholder audiences through a variety of channels

  • Step 6: Establish a small secretariat to do the real “work.”

Often this falls to a junior CGD staff member who works under the direct supervision of the team leader. Tasks for this person may include drafting or editing the document, corresponding with working group members and the broader community of interested parties, and informing other CGD staff of the goals and progress.

  • Step 7: Names matter: brand early and carefully

This requires careful consideration of the name early in the process, and benefits from consultations with key stakeholders.

  • Step 8: Communicate with stakeholders early and often

Initiative team leaders work closely with CGD’s communications and policy team to identify and expand the circle of stakeholders. This is done by sharing information and inviting inputs throughout the process, for example, with an announcement of the topic, announcement of the membership in the working group, posting of working papers, online Q&A, and events.


  • Step 9: Circulate a consultation draft—and pay attention to the feedback!

We circulate them widely and think hard about the responses. The feedback helps to tell us whether our ideas are feasible, and (perhaps more importantly) whether we have presented the ideas a way that is broadly understood as we had hoped.

  • Step 10: Refine the product and activity mix to suit the goal

As the research and analytical work continues, the initiative team works with the communications and policy team to refine the schedule and the product and activity mix to increase the chances of achieving the goal.


  • Step 11: Identify key decision makers and ways to reach them

People buy ideas from people, so relationships matter. Throughout the problem-solving process recruitment of people who can be helpful to the implementation of the cause goes hand-in-hand with consultations and the research and analysis.

  • Step 12: Hand off the initiative to others—or not

The decision depends on several factors: the nature of the problem, the availability of allies to carry it forward, and the opportunity cost to CGD of continuing to invest in a solution versus proceeding to a new (and probably more exciting!) problem. Disengaging from an initiative too soon risks failure where there might otherwise have been success. Holding onto an initiative too long raises the opportunity costs to the Center and risks undermining the ownership of other stakeholders, also thereby endangering success.