Organisational change in think tanks: it takes more than great plans

27 October 2014
SERIES Life after core funding 4 items

[Editor’s note: This post was developed independently of a series of accompanying posts by Gjergji Vurmo, Programme Director at the Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM) in Albania, who will be writing about core funding for institutional development over the next few weeks. Nonetheless, this post works as an introduction to his series.]

I’ve been recently involved in a few of projects related to organisational change. Last year I worked with Grupo Faro and ASIES supporting them in the development and implementation of organisational development plans. Earlier this year I supported FUSADES in the development of a new organisational structure for its research teams. And more recently I’ve been involved in producing and editing a series of case studies on organisational change developed by 10 think tanks of the ILAIPP network.

I wanted to share some of the findings from this last effort and focus on something that has emerged as a somewhat unexpected issue (at least for me): organisational change capacity.

You can read the synthesis report (in Spanish) here: Strengthening the organisation: 10 cases from Latin America (in Spanish) 

10 recommendations for think tanks

  1. Internal reflection and critical thinking: it all begins with organisations thinking about themselves in an open and candid way. The best solutions emerge out of the definition of problems or challenges that the think tanks do themselves.
  2. Leadership: reform, the decision to reform, the choice of solution, the path taken, etc. demands leaders ate various levels.
  3. Resources: organisational change processes involve a great number of possible costs that are often left out in the development of the budgets. indirect costs as well as opportunity costs need to be taken into account.
  4. Teams: teams must include staff members and external consultants. They need to be led and managed just as they would be if they were delivering an external project. Different skills are necessary, just as if they were meant to influence policy.
  5. Communications: internal and external communications matter. They may be internal reforms but they still need to be communicated.
  6. Use of evidence: evidence helps to make decisions but it can also be used to make sense of a situation, justify a decision, or respond to an emerging challenge.
  7. Sources of evidence and experience: other think tanks in one’s country, other think tanks and experts are all valuable sources of information and expertise. Relying on one’s own knowledge and skills may be too risky.
  8. Implementation with reflection: organisational change is complex and unexpected results are likely. Organisations must be ready to react and resound to them. Pilots and tests are a useful way of staying ahead of the curve. Implementation with reflection also means being willing (and able) to change the course of action.
  9. Monitor and document: documenting the process, sharing with others, and learning from others is crucial for a successful reform.
  10. Change management capacity: in the process, think tanks need to try to build their own capacity to manage organisational change.

5 recommendations for funders

  1. Support the capacity for internal critical thinking and reflection: it is easier and quicker to impose or suggest organisational change but it is also much more likely that this change will be less transformative or sustainable. We know this already; Paulo Freire became famous for this.
  2. Support organisational development in the right order: there is a logic in organisational change. Adopting new communication tools without having the team to manage them might not be the best idea. Developing complex staff management systems without a human resources strategy (or policy) may not be either. Taking on a leadership transition without a strong board to assume the responsibility for the process is certainly not advisable. And reform need not be an all or nothing affair. Small pilots and tests work well.
  3. Do not let think tanks cut corners or hide costs when it comes to budgeting: think tanks may want to secure funding so badly that they may want to claim that they can do more for less. They may hide their opportunity costs for instance because they may think that their funders would not be willing to pay for them. But in the end, this is a false economy.
  4. Coordinate with other funders to ensure continuity of reform: reform is unlikely to happen all in a single funding cycle. Few funders can keep up with their grantees for too long. Even fewer can support them over several reforms (pilots, tests, replications, etc.). They should (and think tanks should encourage this) seek to coordinate with other funders to ensure that there will always be someone to pick up the costs in the future -including the think tanks themselves.
  5. Invest in organisational change capacity on behalf of your grantees: individual think tanks are unlikely to invest in this. But larger think tank funders could. The Think Tank Initiative, the Think tanks Fund or the Knowledge Sector Initiative, to mention three of the largest think tank funders, could certainly afford to hire an experienced organisational change manager to advice their grantees.

Organisational change capacity

Why do say that we need organisational change capacity in think tanks or their funders? Because this is not something that most of us know how to do.  We can all talk about it and it snot hard to find information and knowledge out there to inspire and inform us. This article from Harvard Business Review, for instance, offers great advice. Its authors argue that organisations need to experiment with pilots or tests before going all in.

It is easy, they argue to think that you are on the right track and refuse, even if you have an inkling that things may not be working as expected, to change direction. Confirmation bias means you are likely to interpret new information to support your original ideas; and escalation of commitment will make it increasingly difficult to change track.

Having the freedom to say “er.. I think we got it wrong.. let’s start again” is a luxury that few organisations allow themselves (donors included). But they make it harder when they do not build in moments to reflect, openly and critically.

Organisational change managers do more than just help define the desired reforms. They can help to cost them, incorporate lessons from previous and similar efforts, assemble the right teams, support and mentor their leaders, independently monitor their progress, challenge their assumptions and choices, and award them with the legitimacy they may need to argue for significant changes in their plans.

Organisational change managers are not cheap. Some think tanks are large enough to have one or two people in the organisation with this skills. Some may even ‘market’ this to other organisations as a way of profiting from the investment involved in developing this competence. But most think tanks, certainly in developing countries, would find it hard to support this.

Instead, their funders could incorporate organisational change managers in their own teams.