Is a humane think tank possible?

25 August 2017

I used to see think tanks as cold, isolated places, far from human warmth and dynamism. Many may still share this view. While many people regard public research institutions in the same way they regard natural science laboratories, the difference lies in that think tanks are predominantly based on social scientists and public policy experts.

Being involved in the day to day processes of a think tank and eventually becoming the Executive Director for CIPG changed and raised my perspective on how think tanks work. Soon after joining CIPG, I realised how vital the human aspect of a think tank actually is.

Based on my experience, and understanding that CIPG has less than 18 staff members, I’ve noticed how important personal ties are in the organisational culture and its cohesion. The better you know each other, the easier it is to communicate. And the better you communicate, the more you get to know each other. This is also important if you want to have a fluid and rigorous working process. It is easier to make decisions, analysis, and other tasks if there is mutual trust and communications on all levels. However, as the organisation (and workload) grows, preserving these human dimensions becomes more difficult.

From particular to general

CIPG is just a small example in the vast think tank universe. Apparently, we all share the same challenges in ‘humanising’ what is meant to be a noble task: to think on behalf of societies in order to shape better policies. We all face time constraints, we struggle to find a healthy work-life balance, and have difficulty building and maintaining empathy. These are only some of the more human challenges we face when running think tanks. All these challenges revert to the one aspect that is inherent: leadership. Leadership is also the main theme of the OTT Fellowship Programme, where we aim to explore new approaches to think tank management.

The integral leadership factor

Integral leadership requires think tank leaders to be more wholesome, all-encompassing and, most importantly, reflective. These are the traits I would like my organisation to embrace. Instead of dwelling on monitoring and evaluation processes that can become very restraining, I believe think tanks should learn how to take a step back to distance themselves from their work. This may sound very Zen and “new-age-like”, but I believe that think tanks can easily become victims of their own doings and lose sight of what should be relevant in their own context and community. Personally, I believe the use of integral leadership is meant to shape a more wholesome think tank. 

Walk the talk

When I became the Director of CIPG, I realised that certain tools are needed to maintain the human aspect of an organisation. It is important to not lose sight of what is regarded as valuable to your centre. I tried to stay true to my belief that think tanks are founded and driven by human spirit. That spirit should remain the social fabric, the glue, that binds these individuals together.

CIPG believes young researchers are dynamic and they too need to learn the ropes of dealing with pressure and expectations. We try to manifest this in our Full Time Equivalente (FTE) matrix,+ through which we calculate who should handle how many projects within a certain timeframe. We designed tools to help management monitor the well-being of our researchers without adding too much paperwork for them to fill out. Otherwise, this would contradict our belief in a dynamic work culture. Our researchers can work from home, not obliging them to come into the office if the circumstance allows them too.

With the use of our FTE Matrix and other monitoring tools, we decided that researchers are to be given a maximum of three projects. Ideally, however, they should work on two projects at a time in order to reach their best performance. Working on two projects allows researchers enough time to think and ponder, giving them time produce popular articles or simple blog posts during that ‘thinking’ time. The challenge for management is to allocate resources in a way that each researcher can, in turn, have enough time to enjoy a creative environment. This is essentially what they should do, but often cannot given the large workload.

Possible conclusions: reflective capacity

Think tank leaders must walk the talk. This bears another challenge, namely for think tank managers, to understand the foundations –and peculiarities- of their organisation. It is fundamental for think tank leaders to understand the difference between running a private company, a research institution and an NGO, for example. There are lots of interesting perspectives that can be borrowed from private companies and,  on the other hand, the ideals and spirit of NGOs are priceless and should serve as inspiration for all think tank managers.

Borrowing the spirit of integral leadership, think tanks should develop the capacity to reflect. This ‘reflective capacity’ is what should distinguish a new kind of leadership from the conventional one. It should be the one factor that helps strike the right balance between pragmatism and idealism. This reflective capacity should not be exclusive to think tank leaders- it should be embedded into the management system. This can be accomplished through informal talks, such as brown bag lunches or group sabbaticals, as they provide a more relaxed environment for group reflection. Casual activities such as these should be valued as much as formal monitoring and evaluation processes. Reflective capacity should not be seen as another evaluation method, but rather a simple willingness to take one or two steps back to look at the bigger picture. After all, researchers love to ponder. Eventually, it might be the one factor that helps think tanks to remain, or become, humane.