Lessons from a Global Exchange: So far, so good!

27 September 2014
SERIES Articles and Opinions

At the beginning of this year, as I embarked on the On Think Tanks Exchange adventure I was very excited about the opportunity of learning from other think tanks and meeting  people from around the world facing similar issues as me….but, I was also filled with many questions about the process, and the project:

Were we going to collaborate around policy-relevant research? If so, how were we going to find common topics? Or were we going to collaborate around organisational issues? If so, what issues? There are lots of things I would like to reflect on and learn about on the organisational side, but how would we choose what to focus on? Was I going to be able to find others interested in the same topic I was interested? How long was this collaborative project going to be? How were we going to overcome issues of collaboration (being far away, knowing very little about the others, following-up on agreements virtually)?

A first lesson from the On Think Tanks Exchange: this is the kind of project that needs to be handled under some level of uncertainty because the project is growing and taking form only as all of us, the participants, interact.

Our initial meeting in Lima was a great start to our collaborative efforts. We met each other, interacted among participants and also with The Exchange organisers, and had the opportunity to learn about all the organisations’ work and the organisational issues that concern us as think tanks. From this initial meeting, I can share several lessons:

  • We all have had experiences with collaborative efforts:  some good, some bad, some really bad… Hence, we all have ideas and recommendations on what to do to have a successful collaboration. To me, the most important thing is that all of us participating in The Exchange are interested and motivated to learn and collaborate.
  • Failed collaborations can also be meaningful. Maybe it is positive thinking (and not that there are any expectations of this effort to fail) but, as we reflected in our meeting, sometimes failing in a collaborative effort brings important lessons to the participants.
  • Finding common issues of interest in the organisational performance arena is easier than identifying topics for collaborative research. I think this is because a collaborative research project requires a deeper understanding on what have been the participants’ experiences and their previous work on common topics, the context of everybody’s country and what expertise each organisation brings, in order to find synergies.
  • Having flexible organisers that are open about the process and allow for the collaborative projects to take form as interaction happen, was helpful for the process to move along smoothly.
  • Face to face meetings are KEY. The interaction that can take place in this kind of events allows for the development of relationships and trust that are very important as the basis for the decision of collaborating.

After our Lima meeting I had already some answers to my initial questions and was very excited about the project. In a group of five participants, we had identified the issue of performance self-assessments as a common interest and we had the opportunity to delineate a rough idea of what we wanted to do around this topic. As I left Lima I realised that we were soon going to face  the difficult task of designing a project only through virtual interactions.

The process of developing the proposal was a long and challenging one. We had a couple of months to develop a proposal document, make a virtual presentation, adjust it with comments from the organisers, then have it reviewed by external reviewers, and adjust it according to their comments. Some reflections on what made this difficult and some things we learned from the process:

  • Having a project proposed by a group of five people in five different countries in two continents made it very difficult to arrange virtual meetings. Not only because all of the team members have other projects and activities that fill everybody’s calendar with other things but also because having a nine hour time difference between the more distant points of our locations limited considerably the times in the day that it was possible for the group to meet.Map

  • The Exchange organisers decided to allow for a long process for the development of proposals with several discussions and reviews as intermediate steps. This ensured a thorough discussion on key aspects of our project. Additionally, we were supposed to meet in person at mid-stage; however we weren’t able to coordinate our schedules so we had to go through the whole proposal development stage virtually. This made progress feel really slow at the end of this stage and coordinating virtual meetings became harder as time went by.
  • As we worked in the proposal, naturally, in our team a person would take the lead to organise and coordinate things (meetings, e-mails, document review) as things came along. This worked very well for the group. However, to have more clarity of who is responsible for leading, as we move along from this stage to the implementation stage, we decided to have a temporary “President” every one or two months. This person will be in charge of leading the team work and we will rotate this role alphabetically.
  • I have found it really amazing we have not had problems with timely responses from members of our group.

With a very clear idea of what our group is going to do, it was really exciting to know that we were meeting in person again. These opportunities of meeting in person are refreshing: seeing everyone again, having the chance to discuss things with more time and in more depth is very important, especially at this stage when we are preparing our project implementation.  We have the challenge of having one member of our group being unable to join us in the meeting but since she handled this with anticipation we already are in touch with the person that is representing her and now we are also excited about the chance of meeting this new team member.

We came to this meeting with high energies and clear ideas on what we want to come out with. Some of these expected products are:

  • A more detailed plan and timeline
  • A definition of leaders for each product proposed in our project, so that we all can know what each one is responsible for and when
  • A final proposal document that incorporates all the adjustments needed
  • An overview on literature reviewed so far
  • A basic framework and criteria under which we will evaluate performance self-assessment tools

Although face to face meeting can certainly help, I know we will continue to face the challenges of virtual collaboration and will find new obstacles to sort out while we carry along the implementation of our collaborative project. Having the clarity of why this opportunity to collaborate is important to each one of us will be the first step to finding the solutions to the problems that will come ahead.