Patience as strategy: how think tanks are winning the long game

6 September 2022

Impatience and frustration with the status quo motivates policy players to act. But patience determines how they act. Amartya Sen addressed one side of this debate in a chapter from An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions: ‘The Need for Impatience’. He blamed patience for society’s tolerance of poor progress. Quoting The Devil’s Dictionary, he described patience as “a minor form of despair, disguised as virtue.” 

I agree that impatience drives why we act. But the case for patience is equally compelling. Think tanks that strategically channel patience are both discovering a path to achieve their goals and creating the conditions to sustain their wins.  

Patience in collaborations

Joseph Asunka quoted a powerful proverb during the OTT Conference 2022: “If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together.” His words reminded me of a three-legged race I once ran. The objective was not merely to win, but to win together

The race rewards the patient. Successful pairs take the time to discover a mutual pace and coordinate clearly. They lean on each other. Poor patience damages partnerships. This costs them the race.

If social change is a team sport, good collaborations are crucial to winning. But good collaborations demand time and effort. They’re difficult to manage in a high-intensity policy environment. Exercising patience tactfully allows think tanks to determine the type of game they want to play, and with who and how they play it. 

Playing the long game 

Playing the long game is an invitation for policy actors to ‘play’ with purpose. It encourages think tanks to make strategic decisions that align with their end goal: building systems that are evidence-informed, equitable, and inclusive – and sustainable

Patience is key to playing the long game. Think tanks must exercise patience to “forge and heal relationships, rebalance power, and create new norms… even in the face of missed goals, injuries, or a string of losses in the short term.”

A compelling 17 year-long example of this can be found in Latin America: think tanks motivated each other to engage with elections, shared knowledge, reflected on setbacks, and tried again when the political climate was favourable.

Resisting the short game

The benefits of playing the long game are well-established, but focusing on fast, short-term actions can still be tempting for think tanks. They may be tempted to adopt single-player mindsets in what’s actually a team game when confronted with shortages in resources and time. 

In playing ‘the short game’, they compete to become ‘star players’. They claim credit, use collaborators to achieve their goals—sometimes without valuing them—and are unwilling to share risks. Working with such self-interest and exclusion risks perpetuating the same ills that think tanks have tried to cure.

Resisting the short game means that recognising and pursuing collaborative action isn’t optional, but essential. It bridges the action–aspiration gap (the gap between what you want to achieve and how you achieve it). AidData’s (US-based research lab) commitment to undertaking a one-year scoping exercise exemplifies this. Resisting the short game enabled AidData to meet its objective: developing purpose-driven, equitable exchanges with southern think tanks.

Patience in practice

If the long game relies on good collaborations, think tanks would benefit from learning to strategically manage these relationships. One approach is to identify the ‘pain points’ that cause impatience and to strategically exercise patience in these instances. 

The Public Affairs Centre’s (PAC) knowledge partnership with the Administrative Training Institute (ATI) illustrates this. The partnership’s goal was to develop a foundation course for entry-level Indian state officials. 

This case highlights three areas (below), which are important to the strategic application of patience. The actions outlined below also align with the principles of scaling impact: justification, optimal scale, coordination, and dynamic evaluation. Although, this framework wasn’t consciously adopted by PAC.

1. Build good foundations 

PAC took two years to enter a formal partnership with ATI—a long time for think tanks! They initially reached an early agreement with ATI, but it was reset after a new director general was appointed. 

PAC had to re-assess its options: quit the partnership or be a team player. Being a team player would mean agreeing to changes, despite the bureaucratic hurdles! 

They decided to work as team players, exercise patience, and renegotiate. This enabled PAC to lay the foundation for a three-year partnership, built on mutual respect and trust.     

2. Be transparent and ‘lay down your cards’

PAC’s agreement was signed with ATI’s leadership, but they needed to work with the teaching staff, who initially resisted the relationship. They feared that PAC may try to replace them or take charge. 

PAC’s team held a series of workshops to mitigate this and develop a more equal collaboration. They were transparent about their role as co-creators of the course. They listened to the staff’s concerns and ideas to generate solutions and to define the boundaries of the collaboration. These steps shifted how the relationship was seen—from a vertical relationship of top-down power, to a horizontal relationship, where everyone felt more empowered. 

‘Laying down their cards’ and being transparent changed the power dynamics within the collaboration, increased the diversity and inclusivity of views, and gained the teaching staff’s trust and support.  

3. Plan for the long term

Since developing the course, PAC and ATI have acted to enhance its impact and strengthen their collaboration. They’re now working on a secondary course, to invest in the long-term progress of state officials and facilitate continuous learning. 

PAC’s strategic application of patience had a dual effect: it helped to strengthen their partnership in the long term and created opportunities to develop new partnerships, using this model, with other Indian states.  By taking these steps, PAC developed a better process and generated important outcomes.