Renewing the Work Program: the Managing Think Tanks series

22 April 2013

Just like having an efficient board of directors, setting an agenda is important for effective and efficient work in a think tank. Think tankers must not forget, however, to renew the agenda from time to time – the focus of this week’s Managing Think Tanks chapter. This is important for three reasons. First, the direction of the research might have to be shifted in order to make sure that the institution’s work remains relevant to its country’s policy agenda. Second, keeping your staff and making sure its morale is high depends on key members having the chance to change the focus of their research and policy analysis. Third, organisations have to work on issues for which there is a demand, and thus, financing.

Refocusing the think tank’s mission as needed is called strategic planning. As a formal written product in its most developed form, strategic planning involves considering the relevance of the institution’s mission statement in light of its current situation. This, in order to analyse new work programs for the think tank.

Importantly, the most successful think tanks make such planning continuous; each year or so, there may be events for taking stock and assessing new options—new research topics, alternative clients, and different activities (e.g., offering new training programs or starting a forprofit subsidiary to conduct household interviews).

Also, strategic planning should not be done only when under financial pressure. A crisis environment is not the best for decision making.

That said, this chapter concentrates not on preparing a formal strategic plan, but on identifying and assessing new opportunities for a think tank. It is better to focus a think tank’s limited available resources on generating and evaluating the new products that the think tank can offer, the new clients it can work on and the new policy recommendations it can make.

One specific change a think tank can make is providing consulting services alongside conducting foundation-supported research and policy analysis. Private think tanks can have four groups of clients: national government agencies, local governments, donors and businesses. Working with donors and national government agencies involves the type of work that think tanks prefer doing, such as policy development or training of officials. Work with local governments is more hands-on, and working for businesses can be very diverse.

There are challenges as well as rewards that come with this diversification. Challenges are:

  • agenda-setting and lack of focus;
  • restricted use of data and publications;
  • perceived lack of independence;
  • conflict of cultures within the think tank;
  • restive clients or sponsors; and
  • management challenges.

Possible rewards can be:

  • broader base of experience for policy development;
  • improved efficiency;
  • support for overhead functions; and
  • improved visibility and marketing possibilities.

The chapter also focuses on how to foster innovation and change in a think tank, such as leadership attributes, and it provides points for identifying, assessing and piloting promising innovations. For instance, it points out that a flat, informal organisation is the most effective for fostering innovation as the more layers between staff and senior management, the more likely that management will not learn about good ideas. Having a diverse group of people that make up your staff is also a good idea, as it makes the decision making process stronger. Low internal barriers can help staff exchange ideas, and a bit of internal turbulence is not always a bad thing: it can stimulate change.

Finally, the process of innovation can be divided into three steps: calling for ideas, assessing alternatives and piloting the strongest candidates. The staff has to know that new ideas are welcome, which have to go through a review phase, and then one has to be decided upon taking into account financial resources and the capacity to launch the initiative.