Taking think tank communications to the next level: Becoming fit for purpose (Part 1)

10 September 2013

A “commsversation” between Jeff KnezovichMelissa Julian and the communications team at ECDPM

In the previous blogs in the series, we touched upon the challenge of figuring out where to begin. I suggested that this can cause problems for organisations and programmes if they start trying to innovate without getting the basics right. I argued that the first step in taking think tank communications to the next level, then, was getting organised internally. To do so, I outlined how to go about creating core lists.

These next posts tackle a related challenge: becoming fit for purpose. As I put it in the introductory post, knowing that things have to change is one thing, knowing how things have to change is something else entirely. It requires a good understanding of both the internal and external context. It also requires a strong understanding of the organisational business model and the broad objectives of the organisation.

Using innovative channels to reach new audiences

We often tend to stay in our comfort zone, and maybe think too much in terms of past experiences and successes. But mind you, past experience – especially if successful ! – can be dangerously blinding, as we tend to extrapolate linearly the future outcomes. Two particularly revealing books in this regard are The Black Swan and The Halo Effect: How Managers Let Themselves Be Deceived.

When you are considering ideas and opportunities, some will seem inappropriate for the organisation, given the institutional history, in house capacity or niche that you are holding. In practice, most often the ideas that you will choose to pursue are those that address the needs and expectations of your “core” and existing audiences.

But what are you going to do with those idea that do not fit? You can always discard them or forget them – but maybe you will be wasting really valuable ideas! You may also leave the door open for to the future competitors.

If an idea does not fit the current customers, consider that it can be used to attract new audiences. Based on this reasoning, this idea could become part of your future strategy portfolio. As a consequence, maybe you want to start building organisational capabilties that can develop it further and try reaching new audiences.

In terms of strategic thinking, this approach builds on Johnson’s “White Space model” which focuses on leveraging the activities that at the first sight have “poor organisational fit”.

These posts help organisations to pause and reflect on their communications offer to understand if and in what ways their communication products may need to change. The posts suggest a three-pronged approach: a knowledge audit, a market analysis and an audience assessment. Not all three steps will be relevant to all organisations – a knowledge audit, for example, is probably more useful for established organisations, whereas a market analysis would be critical for newer organisations. As such, we will discuss them in more detail in individual, future posts.

And so, before we delve into the details of how to go about each of these activities, some words of wisdom from ECDPM:

Thinking before you plan: the basic (powerful) strategy question

Planning can be time consuming. It is intensive work and can be quite dull – because it often involves listing tasks and sequencing them, sometimes in complex project management software.

However, planning before thinking is a recipe for ending up where you don’t want to be. Or, even worse, maybe you will come up with the right solution for the wrong problem. Developing and implementing strategy requires a lot of thinking – and strategists that don’t take time to think are just planners! Before you start planning, it is necessary to engage in imaginative, playful, passionate thinking in order to make sure that you consider all the creative ways to grab the biggest opportunities. As Max McKeown says, “You need to explore what is possible so you can extend what is possible. That is the essential value of strategic thinking against just working hard. It requires you to question what is being done and what could be done.”

The simplest way to catalyse the strategic thinking is to go through five deceptively simple questions:

    • Where are we?
    • Where do we want to go?
    • What changes have to be made?
    • How should changes be made?
    • How shall we measure progress?

The purpose of these questions is to help you to shape the future. You should be continuously asking yourself about where you are and about where you want to go.