The art of exit: when closing down is an alternative

31 May 2012

When should we call it day? Quite often I find that some think tanks are operating under circumstances that were never considered as part of any possible future scenarios back when the centre’s were in their early days or years. From research driven to client driven, from long term research to short term problem solving, from intellectual independence to sometimes total (humiliating) dependence; many organisations are turning into the very thing they tried to avoid when they were founded.

This has terrible consequences for everyone: The quality of the work suffers and so does the quality of life of the staff. Too often, the excuse is that ‘that’s life’, that the reality of the aid industry is that think tanks (and research centres) need to ‘play the game’, they must think like private sector consultancies and explore markets, etc. I accept that if think tanks want to stay in business this is one way forward. I am not too sure this is the only way. I think that sometimes these organisations and their leaders are simply stuck on one path (the business as usual one) because they think that the alternative is just impossible to consider.

Close? Never!

The same is true for many programmes or projects that think tanks run (or implement -so this is equally relevant for donors, by the way). Over my six years at ODI we saw lots of new programmes set up but few closed down (although some were closed when they merged with other). But in general, the organisation grew and grew (and still does) and this growth was partly fuelled by the idea that to get out of the rat race (the constant chasing of financial targets) ODI had to be able to do more work. The more it did, the more margin it could gain, and the more margin it gained the larger its reserves, and the larger its reserves the bigger the opportunities to innovate and get out of the rat race. Or so the theory goes. But with more demand from funders (the aid industry has not suffered from the budget cuts in the United Kingdom) getting out seems almost impossible. Innovations happened on the margins and often due to the commitment and skills of a few researchers rather than as the consequence of an organisational strategy. I am not suggesting, of course, that this only happened there.

Closing a programme down, under this model, does not work.

This same inertia is seem in many projects implemented by think tanks. Donors’ impose LogFrames that are and feel inflexible. Changing something often means reallocating the same amount of funds to other activities but never (rarely) giving money back or accepting the need to shut down. Even then organisations adopt methods such as Outcome Mapping few are really capable of thinking of this option. Even changing course of action is a challenge. How to think of an alternative if all we know what to do is what we are doing?

NESTA has put together a very interesting report that presents an alternative to this. Closing a programme or even a think tank could be an opportunity to start over and to do so in a much stronger position. The Art of Exist is focused on public services but its lessons are relevant to think tanks.

NESTA calls this creative decommissioning (sorry for the jargon):

A process that combines efforts to innovate and decommission -actively challenging incumbent service models and mind-sets and supporting the development of (and investment in) new approaches.

It stems from a recognition that either the context has changed and the service provided is no longer appropriate or the service will not be able to deal with future needs (even if it works today). Decommissioning, although quite obvious in these circumstances, can be strongly opposed, because:

  • Change can often involve job losses -it could, in fact, mean that new partners need to be identified or that the think tank, in the case of a project it is implementing, will have to take a step to the side and let others do the work.
  • Decommissioning is particularly difficult when things appear to be fine -e.g. there is still funding for what we do.
  • Decommissioning goes against the interests of those in charge of making that decision.
  • Decommissioning is difficult to plan and implement and this is not a competency that organisations have.
  • Poor monitoring systems mean that the necessary evidence to make the case for decommissioning is simply not available (and so organisations just keep doing what they think works).

The study provides several examples of public services that have been successfully decommissioned and changed for better ones. It also offers some advice on how to develop this capacity:

  • Organisations need to be more loyal to outcomes than ways do doing things
  • They must be more open to scrutiny and allow other to challenge their practice; always looking for good news stories is not the best way forward
  • Any decommissioning decision demands useful and accessible evidence to support the choice and then to explain it
  • Finance needs to be flexible to the possibility and opportunities of creative decommissioning; funders need to accept that closing down may be the better option and not see this as failure
  • Organisations need to engage their staff and stakeholders on a different type of conversation that includes the decommissioning option and encourages arguments for and against.

Of course this does not just refer to closing down a research programme, a project, or an organisation. I have written before about the challenge of changing the way think tanks communicate. Why do things differently if they work? I have argued that think tanks need to think hard if the way to communicate today will be appropriate in the future. Adopting new channels such as working with the media or using digital tools more actively can seem daft when the organisation has direct access to policymakers but this may be an approach that is on its way out.

The same is true for the way it manages its work. Relying on basic project management skills may work now but will it work with larger projects or with multi-funder initiatives? Can think tanks guarantee that they will be able to retain the best talent without a professional and competent human resources department or team? These are tough decisions to make. But they would be easier if managers thought of them in the terms suggested by NESTA instead of the simple ‘business as usual or closing down’ choice.

I should mention that ODI was particularly good at making changes to the way it organised itself (not all and not always quickly) and so sought a number of ways of delivering its mandate. This led to some important improvements and, to a certain degree, to a sense that things could be changed if necessary.