The art of creating time: invest, don’t spend

27 August 2014

The 8th Action for Design put forward by designer Daniel Weil reads: “Make time. The outcome of creative activity s a means of regaining time; a good drawing or design gives you back the time spent and sometimes more.”

It got me thinking of an often cited challenge voiced by researchers and think tank leaders: “We do not have time to develop and implement our own agendas.” Driven by project funding, few think tanks are able to develop their own research agendas and pursue them in the long term. Researchers get side-tracked by short term studies or consultancies and often find it hard to make a space for themselves in any particular policy issue or research area. Or, at least, it takes them much longer than they wished for; and this comes at a cost to their policy ‘clients’.

Let me offer a reflection and some advice based on my own experience.

When I first joined ODI back in 2004 I was lucky to work under two senior researchers (John Young and Julius Court) who provided me with the space I needed to develop my own body of work and even a niche. I took some time to come up with new research on networks and eventually develop the Network Functions Approach. But when I did, contracts for new projects started to come my way. I had worked on other things, too, but not too many. Among them was developing the RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach by means of the Outcome Mapping Community (with Ben Ramalingam). Most of these efforts were not as profitable right away but I was, at the time, funded by a DFID grant and therefore  the programme I worked for could afford it. It paid off, though. All three areas of work, which took some time to develop, led to a significant stream of well-paid projects.

Later on, when I became a senior researcher and head of programme I tried the same approach with the younger researchers in my team. Rather than trying to make a profit on every one of them from the start I chose instead to let some of them make a loss (or at least I spared them the worry of meeting their targets) while they developed their own areas of expertise. I did not have a grant anymore (not all of it, in any case) but we were sufficiently profitable to manage the cross-subsidy from some members of the team to others.

It did not take long for them to become well-known for one or two things and for paid work to come their way. Simon Hearn became one of the world’s Outcome Mapping foremost experts; those who met him always remarked that he was much younger than they expected. Harry Jones, too, has become a household name in evaluation and complexity; it took about 6 months to focus his efforts. Ajoy Datta, too, developed a name for himself  in the field of think tanks.

But for all of us to get there, the organisation (or in this case the programme) had to make an investment. As a programme we chose the option of “less money now but more later” because that was how we could work on what it wanted to work on.

Of course, you could argue that we could risk making a loss because ODI would pick up the tab at the end of the year. We, the researchers, had a salary that ODI had to pay. (Many think tanks do not pay their staff fixed salaries who instead rely on variable income drawn from project funding.) In theory this is true. But it is also true that if the loss had been too big or if it lasted longer than expected we would have been out of a job (or I, as the boss, would had been out of a job). In any case, we never made a loss; our investments always paid-off within the same financial cycle.

The point I am trying to make is that to develop an agenda that think tanks (and the researchers) feel to be truly their own, we have to be a lot more entrepreneurial than we often are. In some cases, years (and decades) of relatively easy funding has made these organisations rather profitable for their members. The idea of losing income, even for a few months, is rarely considered.

Once, the director of a think tank told me that his organisation really wanted to develop its own agenda but did not have time to do so because its funders were always calling on them to undertake new projects. He complained that it was difficult to reject new projects (and funding) to take the time they needed to develop a new agenda. In other words, they were too successful for their own good.

Instead they preferred to build their agenda as and when the opportunity presented itself. This can work for many but for the majority of think tanks it leads down a path of research consultancy; that neither they not their researchers tend to be happy with. (In fact, when I ask former thinktankers about their reasons for leaving, they point at their disappointment at not being able to develop their own agendas because the organisation was too concerned with the ‘bottom line’.)

To change this, think tanks have to take a new approach to their work:

  • Fluid organisations: They must not think of themselves or their staff as permanent features in the policy landscape. Think tanks need to be ready to grow and shrink as and when needed. Researchers, too, need to be ready to leave for different or better opportunities. Here, funders have a role to play. Long term funding often creates dependency for the funders (rather than the other way around). I think I prefer arrangements where funders offer generous grants for a fixed term without the option for renewal. Think tanks, too, ought to get get rid of permanent contracts for their staff.
  • Business models -organisations or people?: Depending on the organisation’s business model, either the think tank or the individual needs to be willing to invest in their agendas. This could mean a loss of income for a short period but not necessarily an overall loss; it is possible for a department or programme to subsidise another one while it develops its capacity, agenda, and reputation, for example. In think tanks that are less centralised, where each researcher manages his or her own agenda and work-stream, then the responsibility to invest may rely on them alone; but team work and collaboration could offer some options.
  • Generational make-up: The generational make-up of the organisation’s staff is relevant, too. As researchers get older, marry, have children, get themselves into debt, etc, they become more risk averse. This is normal and expected. Losing income, even for a few months, becomes harder. The think tank job becomes less of a stepping stone (into politics, business, academia, etc.) and more of a necessity. Having a large younger cadre of researchers willing and able to take a few risks to develop their carriers can certainly pay-off for the think tanks. Similarly, having ‘tenured’ senior researchers past their retirement age may offer a similar opportunity. After all, they won’t care if they rock the boat and upset the powers that be.
  • Smart pricing: Few think tanks price their work appropriately, differentiating between funders (e.g. domestic and foreign, private or public). If the researchers must undertake consultancies to support their own agendas then they should try their best to get as much for their time as possible. The more they get paid in one consultancy the more free time they will have to develop their own agendas. But this must be formalised as the incentive tends to be to take on more consultancies rather than less.
  • Work with profitable associates: I’ve come across more and more think tanks with an associates programme. Unfortunately, I do not think they all use them to their advantage. Here is a trick. Take a think tank in South America. The fee for a senior researcher in the domestic market could be about USD300-400. When think tanks use associates they can take a small overhead on the fee that they pay them: so if the funder pays USD400 per day, the think tank could pay the associate USD320 and keep the USD80. This is common practice. Now, South American think tanks would do well in seeking out associates working in more expensive markets such as the US and the UK. There, a relatively senior researcher may be able to command daily fees of at least USD500 /GBP500 depending on the sector they are in. It is perfectly normal for academics or researchers at think tanks in Britain to be associates (or visiting fellows) at a number of institutions and as long as there are no conflict of interests all can benefit from the arrangement. With more profitable associates, think tanks can earn larger overheads.
  • Timesheets: Few think tanks actually know if they are making a loss or a profit on the projects they run. This sounds unbelievable but it is true. A simple timesheet would make it possible for think tanks to know if project A was profitable or if project B was a clear loss. This would make it possible for a programme manager, for instance, to use the profits from project A to cover the losses from project B. Or, maybe, to go after more project A type of projects (e.g. with the same funder or involving activities that the think tank is particularly efficient in) to subsidise project B type projects (e.g. which may be harder to implement or not in high demand from donors).
  • Work with associates who can advance your desired agenda: Of course, money is not the only thing that matters. Choosing associates should also be guided by the desired agenda of the programme or think tank. Once again, think tanks ought be  creative.  Seek out researchers working on the issues that you’d like to develop in your own think tanks. For example, if a think tank in Peru wanted to develop a research programme on the application of behavioural economics to public policy it would soon find that there are few (if any) experienced researchers in the county who could do this. There are, however, a handful (or less) Peruvians working on these issues at US and European universities who may benefit from logistical support, research funding to undertake fieldwork in the country, communications support, etc. Appointing them as associates would allow the think tank to benefit from the larger investments made by their associates’ main institutional hosts.
  • Use profits and new content wisely: It can be all for nothing if the benefits from these arrangements are not used wisely. Think tanks need to have clear policies on how to use profits from individuals or programmes to support the development of their own agendas. It would be unfortunate that the profits made from associates or highly profitable projects were used ‘as usual’, boosting researchers’ salaries rather than investing in new research areas or strategies. Similarly, new content needs to be given a special place in the organisation’s communications efforts. If this is what the think tank wants to be known for in the future then it has to make sure that it gets central stage on its communications channels.

Making time and creating the opportunities to develop a new agenda is not impossible. It takes a mind-shift that can be hard at first for many researchers (for perfectly valid reasons) and for the organisations themselves (which may not know how to function other than through externally funded projects). But it is possible to start at the micro level (with in programme, for instance) and with younger researchers.

Regardless, it is important that think tanks begin to think of these decisions as investments and not merely costs.