Soft skills in the future of think tanks

21 August 2019

Soft skills are hard skills, or so the saying goes. However, how does that work in a sector where people pride themselves on technical knowledge, independence and facts?

The WinterSchool for Thinktankers, organised in Geneva by On Think Tanks, foraus and the Think Tank Hub, is a seven-day programme that invites applicants from across the world. Attendees range from early-career to experienced, who seek new skills and perspectives to develop their practice as a policy entrepreneur.

As one of the trainers in the 2019 edition; my topic centred around leadership and working within complexity. We felt it essential to look at the behaviours and ways of working needed in think tanks which can be overlooked when academic knowledge holds power. With rapid social changes that affect the context in which policies are made, coupled with new generations coming through the ranks, thinktankers across the globe are observing shifts in the values and power dynamics in their organisations. Now more than ever we must utilise a wide range of skills to negotiate change, effectively engage with policymakers and citizens, collaborate across our organisational boundaries and work collectively to find new perspectives and approaches to social issues.

In briefly addressing some of the above, we covered the following topics: 

Empathy – Empathy in think tanks is always a robust conversation and one we should continue to have; it should feel fundamental in all we do, and yet often its value and place is questioned. Empathy allows us to understand better those we must collaborate with; their differing perspectives, agendas, values and needs; to break us free from the ivory tower so that we may continue to understand policy decisions not only as numbers but as human experiences. Varying views arose in the workshop, yet as Sonja Stojanovic (director of the BCSP, a think tank in Serbia, and long time On Think Tanks friend) said we must recognise “(citizen’s) emotions are evidence too”.

Mission and outcomes-focused – In setting a path towards our mission, we must consider how not to be held to un-useful mechanics of methods we employ (how) to achieve them. How can we make space in our teams and organisations, in how projects are run and funded so that we cultivate an adaptive and learning focussed culture (supported by new underpinning structures) for these missions? 

Complexity – What are the characteristics of a complex problem and do we make sense of networked and adaptive problem spaces? While thinktankers are experts often working within complex fields, it is at the most foundational level where complexity can bring us unstuck. How we work together, design our organisations to be adaptive, consider different modes of reasoning and cognitive preferences to how we move forward.

Conceptualising problems and opportunities – How do we surface paradoxes in problems, making them visible, and open up of problem spaces? How do we challenge mental models and utilise asset-based re-framing as a tactic for how we are reorienting action in a system? 

Collective intelligence – How might we move beyond the notion of think tanks as needing to produce ‘new and shiny’ ideas, so that we can open up the boundaries of our organisations, to share knowledge and evidence across different specialisms and bring in the public and their lived experience? 

Leading in uncertainty – How can we equip ourselves and our teams to hold incomplete pictures, be bold, move between the macro and micro, and take a systemic view? 

Reflection in action – What are the rhythms and rituals within your organisation that allow for safe, reflective practice in action (thinking about your thinking)? 

Visual thinking – How can we use visual thinking to allow us to further be self-reflective, work across boundaries, and bring down our ‘specialism blinkers’, so that we craft clarity and ensure more inclusive and generative interactions with academics, policymakers, media, funders and citizens?

Image by: Melanie Rayment on Twitter @MelRayment

Competencies and the future of think tanks

Using Nesta’s competency framework for public sector innovators as a conversation stepping off point, we explored the domains and reflected on these within a think tank context. This framework (for public sector innovators) seeks to go beyond established employee characteristics to define unique behaviours, attitudes and skills that underpin a person’s ability to support innovation.

Some interesting insights were shared as groups worked together to apply this. I have provided key points in summary of the views garnered from the attendee’s group work, relating to the most critical behaviours and skills for the future of think tanks. 

Attendees felt that: 

Storytelling needed to balance against ethics and how they might create collective moral authority for changes to policy.

Legitimacy can be enhanced by creating and nurturing open networks across organisations, and looking across horizons so that we can understand the possible roads ahead.

Future Acumen meant that we need skills to imagine preferred futures and long-term goals must align and be accountable to citizens.

Digital platforms should further connections with citizens, in two-way generative communication and enhance open and accessible organisations. We must further our discussions of ‘how much’ and ‘what type’ of citizen engagement is needed in a think tank environment. 

Data literacy and prototyping are critical skills to be set within new safe spaces to help the development of experimental new approaches.

Agile should be recognised as a behaviour and approach within think tanks and further organisational learning undertaken to enable this in these contexts. 

Resilience identified as a core strength for those in the think tank space, with the ability to take long-term perspectives in creating change, as well as overcoming challenges and accepting failure.

Many felt there was little space in their organisations to enhance and embed these skills and behaviours. If we are to address concerns of legitimacy, of bringing the public in and heralding a new era of collective intelligence we must shine a light on the cultural conditions within think tanks that it will allow these competencies to flourish. 

It was an honour, and a privilege as always to work with this particular community brought together by On Think Tanks, foraus and the Think Tank Hub. I look forward to seeing how these attendees make their mark on the world and meeting up next year.