Managing change and uncertainty within a Serbian think tank

30 November 2021

After two years as director of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP), I have written this piece about the process BCSP went through to consolidate itself as an organisation and to spearhead the work of the think tank community in Serbia and the Balkans on contested and challenging topics in the times of global crisis. Here is our story.

Think tanks hold a unique space

While think tanks are similar to other civil society organisations in some respect, they hold a unique space as primarily research organisations. A think tank focuses on a specific area of ​​public policy, which it monitors and considers through research.

The commitment to a specific policy area makes it possible for think tanks to position themselves as a credible source of information for stakeholders, especially decisionmakers and policymakers. However, this commitment inevitably leads to a narrowing of the donor space. The fundraising capacity of a think tank is far smaller compared to organisations that have wide project focus portfolios.

A consequence of a small fundraising capacity is that, in a period of change, a think tank can find itself in a situation that could endanger and weaken its work for years to come.

Think tanks in the Western Balkans

The operation and work of think tanks in the Western Balkans is fragile. Think tanks desire to have policy influence and relevance in public space, while maintaining their independence. However, the recent socio-political context of the region calls into question the sustainability of civil society as a whole.

The Western Balkans suffers from an abandonment of democracy and the rule of law. Closure of the public sector for cooperating with civil society organisations that are critical of the government – especially those that offer expertise based on values, serious analysis and research – is becoming more pronounced.

There is continuous weakening of government institutions, politicisation of independent institutions, silencing of the media, growing populist tendencies, public hate speech and threats to civil society organisations. In addition, the crisis caused by the global pandemic, makes cooperation of institutions with civic initiatives, organisations and movements, almost impossible.

The crisis has forced civil society to reposition and redefine their future strategy. In order to do this, sometimes a change in leadership is necessary – which is what happened at BCSP, after more than a decade. But changes in think tank leadership can also lead to internal crisis and uncertainty.

Managing change

To avoid crisis and uncertainty during a leadership transition, managing the change process is essential. In this respect, it can be helpful to recognise the three key phases of responding to change.

First is denial. A marginalisation of the situation, believing that it will not lead to big differences.

Second, when it becomes clear that there will be change, comes fear. Fear of change provokes resistance – a refusal to abandon established ways of working, processes, hierarchies and structures (a desire to stay in one’s so-called comfort zone).

Third, is acceptance. As time goes by, if the changes are ultimately perceived as having far-reaching positive consequences for the organisation and the staff, people agree to accept them. Sometimes there is a phase of negotiation that comes before acceptance.

Prioritise internal communication

This process of adjusting and accepting change takes time and modifying management techniques is critical.

Quality top to-bottom communication must be a priority. This needs to be introduced early and is necessary throughout the entire change process. It will involve a serious commitment and daily contact from the new management with the entire team to ensure that the organisation’s values don’t get ‘lost in translation’. Communication should also be honest and trust-based; the new management must trust their employees, in order for the employees to start believing in the process and the necessity of the changes being proposed.

Crises come and go and the organisation needs a reliable, resilient, flexible system that can make it through a crisis with as little damage as possible. Organisations that do not apply early internal communication or adjust their approach and systems to the change, will not survive, with or without a crisis. Organisations must evolve to survive the long term.

Invest in your people

Aside from the key role of new management and a new board, the entire organisation needs to be involved in any restructuring that brings about big changes. Those who work in the organisation are necessary and important, both operationally and strategically.

In the case of a think tank, the research potential is built over time by investing in and building the capacity of each individual – through project activities, networking with other organisations, and finding new and compatible topics for a particular researcher. The reputation of BCSP is based on the individuals who work there – people with names and surnames.

Therefore, communication that carries the message that each team member is equally important is one of the principles that ensure successful change management. In the case of a think tank, this can’t just be an empty message. Rather, it must be the managers’ true conviction. If researchers do not see the organisation as a place aligned with their values and where they will be able to continue to develop professionally, the crisis will become a permanent condition that will ultimately threaten the organisation’s identity. The above can be achieved only if, despite all the disturbances brought about by the crisis, the value corpus of the think tank remains unquestioned.

Stick to your values

In order to overcome a crisis, it is necessary to preserve and maintain the reputation that defines the organisation – this is determined by the values, goals and mission, and must not be subject to change.

Public facing, external communication is a tactic used to express those values and demonstrate the think tank’s independence, credibility and professionalism. Considering the current situation in Serbia, this presents a particular challenge, but also a responsibility from which BCSP will not shy away. We set the tone for civil society’s critical response to the government’s misdeeds and shortcomings. We have drawn the line and we are sticking to it.

Values ​​are, therefore, the think tank’s guiding light. Pointing the way out of the storm, for itself and for the society it serves.