Choosing to innovate on your research agenda

9 August 2016
SERIES Doing policy relevant research

In seeking to develop new policy relevant research agendas you may find yourself encouraged to think about policy problems differently. This may inspire you to innovate, but before you do, lets discuss how and when to innovate. James March has developed the notion of exploration and exploration in innovation. This means that an innovative organisation balances two approaches: exploiting the products and processes that it already has in place, while also exploring new ones. Some have called the capacity to do both “organisational ambidexterity.” This is a very useful concept for think tanks.

Let’s consider a very famous case that you can also watch in the movie Steve Jobs. One of the parts of Apple’s history in which the movie is based is on the launch of the Macintosh 128K, a very user friendly computer compared to the previous models, but also with very little space for customisation.

Until then, the company had been relying on Apple II as the main source of revenue. Throughout the movie you observe the competing views about what should be the focus of the company. Should it put all its energy on a new product? Should it maximise the benefit of the existing products? Both of course are relevant. The existing product can maintain the company and allow for innovation. New products, give the company the edge for the future.

If it is not broken…

Can you relate these dilemmas to your organisation? Maybe your organisation has been producing an annual report on the economy or the budget that has gained relevance within the policy community. Maybe you have an index that you produce on the quality of services, or another tool that is constantly being updated, without significant changes in the methods. These would be strategies to exploit your current capacities.

But there might be new ideas emerging in the organisation that you could consider but that do not have full funding for, or that are not your area of expertise, especially if they are increasing relevance and visibility in the policymakers’ agenda.

Let’s imagine your think tank has focused, until now, on macroeconomic issues. But now one of your researchers is suggesting it takes on a more grounded approach and investigating how small companies cope with crisis, as a way of finding solutions to an economic crisis. This might require our team to have different skills, and interests. Maybe it could be something to explore on a small scale first, while your “flagship” reports are produced as always.

Managing the now and the future

Finding ways to become an ambidextrous organisation is critical for a think tank that wants to maintain its policy relevance: it ensures that you sustain a certain type of expected contribution to policy discussion and decision making while also helping society to foresee emerging challenges. Doing the same type of research all the time will lead to lower impact than when it was first launched. As a result, a think tank can learn how to manage innovation wisely.

Becoming an ambidextrous organisation means counting with researchers with both types of skills. But these might not be always easy because it can create an internal culture of competition or dissatisfaction between teams. Usually, those exploiting the existing resources are the ones who are bringing in the revenue or recognition. They could feel that they are sustaining the organisation. On the other hand, the teams innovating can feel that they are the ones designing the future and are therefore more important. It will be critical for you as a manager to handle these possible disputes wisely.

Innovation has become a new buzz-word among many types of organisations, including think tanks. But before you jump into it, keep these considerations in mind.