Reporting on Progress: new lessons, risks and plans

27 July 2015
SERIES About The On Think Tanks Exchange

During the Quito Exchange we spent some time reflecting on the lessons learned so far and this featured in the report prepared for the period between November 2014 and April 2015.

Lessons and feedback on the approach

An important element of the project included a short survey and an open discussion to explore the lessons learned by the participants and their recommendations for the future of The Exchange and their own projects. The survey included the following questions:

The process of collaboration

  1. What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in this collaboration? Were you able to solve it? How?
  2. What key lessons (maybe top 3) about effective collaboration have you learned through your participation in The Exchange?

The benefits to you

  1. What did you expect to gain from this collaboration before it began?
  2. What have you actually gained from it so far?

The benefits to your organization

  1. What do you think your organization expected to gain from the collaboration?
  2. What has it gained so far?

Looking ahead: beyond the end of this project

  1. There seems to be enthusiasm to continue. What direction do you think these collaborations might take? For instance, consider the following options but be as specific as you can on issues, participants, etc.:
    1. Extending the current project –possibly deepening the analysis, including new dimensions, broadening the team members, etc.
    2. Working on a new issue –another organisational development or policy issue
    3. Working with other members of The Exchange
    4. Inviting new members to your team from outside The Exchange
    5. Something else (that we have not thought about)
  2. What could be done to improve The Exchange if there were to be a second round?

Some of the key lessons emerging from these questionnaires and the open discussion include:

  1. It has been easier for participants to bond over organisational issues organisational development issues proved to be an appropriate subject to bond over. Much easier than on policy issues. In fact, for some, this is what made the experience unique and enjoyable. It was different to their everyday work.
  2. Participants would have preferred to have more direct inputs on the organisational issues they were exploring: a capacity development “track” or effort focused on organisational development would have been desirable.
  3. Changes in staff and organisations are inevitable in a two-year project, particularly when the participants are young researchers rather than senior staff. They are more likely to move from one organisation to another.
  4. Multilateral groups have made it easier to manage unexpected changes but it has also increased the transaction costs involved in developing trust and getting the project started.
  5. Multilateral groups created the risk of ‘free-riding’ (even if unintended) but this was addressed by weekly online meetings and tasks.
  6. Multilateral groups have also allowed to share the risk of embarking in a self-learning process on a topic in which none where specialists.
  7. Participants have faced a degree of ‘stress’ when putting together the proposal –particularly in areas where they were not specialists. However, this helped with the ‘bonding’ process.
  8. Cultural differences matter and need to be addressed up-front.
  9. Match-making is a process and it needs to be given the space to happen more organically. The make-up of the group has been surprisingly good. Everyone has been able to participate and get along well with each other.
  10. After almost less than a year into the programme, the participants feel, that the relationships that have developed have yielded clear personal benefits.
  11. Admin and logistical support for the teams has been limited to the meetings but has been of great help.
  12. The involvement of the think tank leaders has been difficult for small projects like the ones supported by The Exchange. Leaders need other ‘excuses’ to get involved. However, the issues being explored by the teams would be relevant to them.
  13. Buy-in and sustainability can be addressed by identifying future sources of funding to support the current projects or even new collaborations between the participants.

New risks and opportunities

As before, a number of risks have arisen:

  • New members of the team: In this case Nadia decided to leave her think tank and to work in the parliament of Ukraine. She will be replaced by the CPLR’s executive director: Mykola Stepanov. To help the transition, we decided to cover both Nadia’s and Mykola’s participation in the exchange in Quito. This made it possible for the communications team to meet Mykola and for him to integrate to the group. He reported that this was very important for him to fully grasp the project (and the programme) and feel confident of the value of The Exchange for CPLR.
  • Uncertain future funding scenario: It was never expected that all three main funders would be able to continue supporting The Exchange in a business as usual way. It has become clear, however, that at least one of the funders will not be able to continue. This has prompted a discussion among the organisers and the participants on how to re-design The Exchange to maximise the chances of there being a second phase. While this is no way an endorsement of the successes of the programme it does provide a new opportunity for discussion among all those involved.

Recommendations for the future

A number of recommendations were made by the participants during the Quito Exchange and in conversation with them and the funders:

Maintain flexibility in order to foster learning: The programme has been flexible enough to accommodate a new funder and think tanks from a new region, to change its meeting plans (from one multilateral to a few bespoke meetings in June 2014), from a desire for 5 bilateral partnerships to 2 multilateral and 1 bilateral collaborations, from a focus on both policy and organisational development issues to organisational development issues only, and to accept new participants.

This flexibility has been well received by the participants.

This flexibility was necessary to manage the challenged we faced with both Indonesian organisations changing their participants early on. It was also  handy to address the potential challenges created by Leandro’s departure from CIPPEC.

Their situations, the challenges faced in having a third region (significantly different from the other two), and other small variations on the plans present opportunities for learning. Our efforts ought to focus on not missing out on the opportunity to record and reflect on the process and what may be learned for The Exchange and future collaborative efforts.

Shorter and open meetings: The challenges of organising a workshop to encourage matchmaking could be sensed by all those involved in the first meeting in Lima. In the end, the workshop schedule, carefully planned between organisers and IEP, was changed and adapted as the days went by.

Something similar happened in Indonesia. The schedule was changed the night before after a meeting between the organisers and the hosts Article 33. We decided to move the city tour to the end of the week to avoid breaking the working week too much.

After the meeting in Lima we proposed testing approaches based on “Open Space Technology”. These allow the participants to make use of the time and space provided as they see fit, with organisers providing a framework (objectives, tools, support, monitoring, and guidance). In Jakarta, most of the sessions followed this approach.

We now suggest allowing the participants to choose the next location for the meeting and take the initiative in designing the schedule for the workshop (based on the recommendations they themselves provided).

Maintain direct channels of communication with each of the participants: As The Exchange progresses into its last phase the participants will face a number of internal challenges that may present risks to the programme. It is clear from the conversation we had in Quito that the whole group does not share these issues. To address them properly we will continue to engage with the participants in a direct manner establishing more frequent contact with each participant and support them in identifying future challenges and possible solutions.

The survey we conducted in Quito has helped to inform our understanding of their collective views on the future of The Exchange and of their projects.

Allow the participants to decide where the meetings should be: Although we believe that rotating the host region is a good idea, we also feel that allowing the participants to make these decisions themselves will constitute an inflection point in the degree of control that we, the organisers, have over the programme.

By taking full ownership over the organisation the event in Quito (with our support and within an overall budgetary framework, of course) they have taken an important step towards much greater ownership of The Exchange. The next meeting will be in Rio and we will attempt to give them even more control over the outline of the event.

Revisit and establish a new kind of Steering Board for a final review of the programme: We have not been able to establish a board but have kept in close contact with the three funders. This has allowed us to make confident choices about risks and opportunities as they emerged. It will be important to revisit the idea of the Steering Group in a more formal manner during the last meeting as a way of structuring a review process.