Five things think tanks should consider to excel

4 July 2019

I recently had the opportunity to attend a course titled Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders at the Stanford Business Graduate School of Executive Education. There were 58 participants from 15 countries. Here are five key learnings that could be useful to think tanks:

Understanding Strategy

Think tanks should have strategies that are not only applicable but also doable. Typically, strategy is like an agenda for an organisation which helps in guiding activities and decisions to be made.  For example, some think tanks often identify and opt for a project when it directly fits into their strategy.  Ideally, a strategy is different from a mission and vision statement and should be based on the theory of change. For example, strategies can be dealt as a hypothesis and built over a set of arguments and made internally valid and logical.

Team work

Think tanks should know and accept that an organisational challenge is understanding team dynamism. However, there are simple ways to attempt to overcome this. A well-defined project plan with clearly defined roles for members and a common understanding of the aims, objectives and a roadmap is essential. Begin by understanding your audience. Based on this, organise and prioritise activities to include roles defined for team members. In the project design, internal communication should be considered as important as external communication with stakeholders. Most importantly, a periodic review (depending on the span of the project) not only helps to recognise and address challenges, but also to recognise what is going well. Some think tanks can use these opportunities to delegate tasks and build a strong mentorship plan.

Organisational culture

Organisational culture can often hamper the work of an organisation. However, one should understand that changing the culture of an organisation is often not an easy solution. Sometimes one has to attempt to address this by putting people first: measure programmes and values and let the staff now how successful the organisation is and how this was achieved. For example, a best practice adopted by some think tanks is a common understanding of strategy implementation. Looking at the big picture with a common understanding of the strategy and then focusing on specifics helps to work in tandem. Reducing barriers can help in a two-way communication and, most importantly, ensure that all employees see the big picture and know the overall goals and functions.

Importance of fostering networking

Networking outside an organisation plays a significant role in not only widening the scope of activities but also brings visibility to a think tank. Think tanks may find themselves working in similar areas of research, although they may vary in depth, geographical and cultural areas. Networking can help think tanks look at research problems and then try and learn from existing best practice at a micro level. One way to do this is to conduct a straw poll to identify what we want,  what we know and what we do.

Scaling up excellence

According to Prof. Cameron Neylon, “excellence is primarily a rhetorical signalling device used to claim value across heterogeneous institutions, researchers, disciplines, and projects rather than a measure of intrinsic and objective worth”. He also adds that using the word excellence is a way of using words that are neither true nor false. In other words, excellence is doing the right thing with no watch dogs.  Also, scaling is not replication but reinvention. For example, one must remember that improving does not only mean more of something, but can mean less of something.