On Think Tanks is 4 years old today

29 June 2014

I want to thank all those who have followed the blog, shared your thought with us, commented, Tweeted, emailed me, and involved me in your own professional and personal thinktanking journeys. It has been a pleasure and an honour to be part of what is now a global community of think tank students. I hope to have made a small difference.

Listing everyone who has helped and who I owe so much to would be impossible. There are so many of you. (Certainly, I should thank all this think tank’s contributors.)

Instead I thought I’d offer some advice to any budding blogger or researcher wanting to carve out a space for him or herself on any issue or topic of expertise. I think I have learned a few things:

  • Find your niche: I found mine by chance but that is usually how it works. When I joined RAPID in 2004 I wasn’t entirely sure what the programme was all about. It resonated with my experience with research centres in Peru but I could not have imagined that I’d end up studying think tanks in the near future. Certainly not making a living out of it. Still, it helped that I focused on them when I did. In the beginning I tried to steer away from covering everything under the sun (research, comms, KM, political economy of research, evaluation, etc.). Instead, by first focusing on what was relevant to think tanks I was then able to branch out into other issues with greater confidence.
  • Don’t be afraid to say what you think: My first posts are were shorter than the latest. I had less to say, back then. But saying it helped me to find a style, develop my arguments, and gain confidence. Blogging and developing expertise is all about practice.
  • Start with ‘matter-of-fact’ posts, develop a reputation, and then offer an opinion: I found that this was the best approach to follow when getting into a new topic or when a new contributor/blogger joined. On Twitter, too, this is a great strategy. First report on what others, with more experience and credibility, are saying about the topic you are interested in. This will help you to become a trusted source of reliable knowledge. Gradually, people will expect more from you and will be eager to know what ‘you’ have to say.
  • Don’t be afraid to upset some people: There is a phrase in Spanish that I always go back to (in English): ‘The dogs bark, Sancho. It is a sign that we are on track.’ Of course, sometimes the dogs bark for the right reasons and you have to be careful about not believing all the hype. But do not worry if someone gets upset about something you said or they criticise you (privately or publicly). Especially if they criticise you and not your ideas (this is clearly a sign of a poorly developed critical thinking capacity). If anything, it means that your opinions matter. Take them as encouragement to do more and better.
  • Seek out and build your ideal (virtual) office team: The best ideas come from my interactions with other people. In the age of digital communications it is possible to break through the barriers of the office cubicle and ‘sit down’ to work with people working on the other side of the globe. It takes time but you must seek out and nurture a relationship with people you respect (and whose ideas you respect). You will benefit from their ideas and views on your work. Don’t just follow and engage with those who agree with you. That is tedious and self-defeating. Do not worry if people do not follow you back on Twitter; as long as you follow them for the right reasons then you’ll be getting value for your effort.
  • Encourage high quality competition: While I am often critical of some individuals and organisations I am also encouraging of initiatives and people who, I believe, raise the bar for all of us. I’ve supported Transparify, for example. And founded Politics and Ideas. I do not run these initiatives and one could say that they compete with On Think Tanks, but having them around both challenges me to do better and provides new sources of inspiration.
  • Do not reinvent the wheel: This is Nick Scott’s advice for digital communications but I think it works well for niche research and blogging. Draw from the research that has been done already and use whatever tools there are to share your ideas. Doing it all on your own (doing your own research and developing your own communication tools) will only slow you down -and you are never likely to take off. Adding value to what is out there may be the best contribution you can make.

Once again, thank you for all the support and keep your contributions, comments and recommendations coming.