Helping emerging think tank managers to improve their practice with the OTT-TTI Fellowship

4 April 2019
SERIES OTT Annual Review 2018: Public Engagement 18 items

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review.]

Together with colleagues at OTT, I’m coordinating the 2018/19 Fellowship. This year it’s being run in partnership with the Think Tank Initiative. The Fellowship is for emerging think tank managers and young leaders. Just Google ‘leadership course’ and you’ll find a plethora of programmes that promise to turn ordinary managers into charismatic leaders. These courses assume leaders can, to a large degree, predict the future, control what others do and over time with the aid of of certain tools bring about transformative change. However, the links between what leaders do and organisational performance are weak. During the Fellowship, we propose to do something less ambitious and altogether more feasible: to support managers who join the course to improve their own working practices (in research, communication or administration). Doing so will put them in a better position to influence the practices of those they work with, if that’s their intention.

What issues do Fellows want to explore?

How do you attract resources for non-research activities? How do you do research where there is limited data? What role can open data play in facilitating policy change? How do you communicate research in a polarised political environment? How do you manage differences within and between teams in a think tank? How can you help young people to flourish in a think tank? And how can you retain staff? These are just some of the questions that Fellows aim to explore during the nine-month long programme.

How will Fellows improve their practice?

To answer these questions, Fellows may need to challenge and change how they think about what they do. They’ll need to act and think independently – questioning taken-for-granted views about the merits of certain rules and norms. For instance, they may need to revisit what they believe to be a ‘good’ manager. They’ll need to develop a capacity to know themselves better – promoting deliberate change can be an uncomfortable and emotional process, having to deal with your own frustrations, excitement and anxiety as well as being exposed to the difficult feelings of others.

Fellows will need to reflect on their own and with others: solutions to problems are usually found through trying something and reflecting on it afterwards. They’ll need to work with colleagues as well as other Fellows: learning and improvement is usually a social process, in which conversation and feedback is vital. And finally, Fellows will need to make sense of the abundance of resources that are available through the internet and, crucially, set aside enough time to do all this.

How will OTT and TTI facilitate learning?

OTT and TTI will help selected Fellows to do this through the following activities:

  • Lectures and seminars: Fellows were invited to the TTI Exchange in Bangkok where they were able to attend a number of key notes, plenaries and workshops on thematic issues (such as climate change and governance) as well as organisational development issues (such as funding, business models and gender). They’ll also attend the WinterSchool for Thinktankers in Geneva in early 2019, where they’ll be able to attend sessions on management, research agendas, communications strategies and financial management. Additionally, we’ll give Fellows access to webinars developed by the On Think Tanks School, covering a range of topics including data visualisation and monitoring and evaluating research impact.
  • Networking: the 2018 TTI Exchange and WinterSchool for Thinktankers provide opportunities for Fellows to meet established think tank professionals, policymakers, donor representatives and other people interested in influencing policy from around the world. This year’s speakers include Simon Maxwell (former Executive Director of the Overseas Development Institute), Stephen Yeo (former Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Economic Policy Research) and Sonja Stojanovich Gajic (Director of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy). Through establishing relationships, and having discussions, Fellows have a chance to find answers to some of their key questions.
  • Mentoring and coaching: each Fellow will be paired with an experienced think tanker with relevant skills and expertise. Through regular conversations and a supportive relationship with their mentor, Fellows will be encouraged to reflect on their practice and receive advice and encouragement, especially in relation to ongoing challenges they face at work. Mentors can draw on their own experience to support others in their work; develop a professional relationship; and widen their own understanding of how think tanks function in different contexts.
  • Small group work: we’ll provide opportunities for Fellows to take part in group work at TTI Exchange and the WinterSchool side events. We’re also exploring the possibility of facilitating small group work amongst Fellows using online tools such as Zoom, with the intention of drawing on action learning and storytelling techniques. Supervised team-based work has proven to be effective in facilitating learning. For experiences to be internalised, it helps for them to be critiqued. So other people are indispensable. Without them experiences are arguably incomplete. Or put differently, none of us individually is as smart as all of us together.
  • Fostering a community of practice: we’ve given Fellows the opportunity to sign up to an online community (using Slack) to facilitate communication amongst themselves, as well as with Fellowship alumni and those that were shortlisted for the Fellowship. The space gives Fellows the opportunity to share questions, spread news of interesting and useful practices and explore joint work together.
  • Writing and publishing: finally, we’ll encourage fellows to write and publish articles on the OTT website or other appropriate platforms. Writing something in your own words can help to clarify your ideas, or assimilate and consolidate knowledge that you might otherwise forget. It also encourages deeper thinking and can force you down the proverbial rabbit hole in order to find a unique perspective on a topic that’s of interest to you. It also enables Fellows to share their experiences with a much wider audience.

We hope these activities will stretch Fellows intellectually, practically as well as experientially. Ultimately what they get out of the Fellowship will depend on what they put in.