Some preliminary lessons from a collaborative project with think tanks around the world

27 September 2014
SERIES Articles and Opinions

Being part of a research project with other four think tanks around the world? Amazing!

Who won’t be glad about the possibility of learning from other cultures, institutional idiosyncrasies  research approaches, organisational processes and, of course, individual capacities? The Exchange offers all those possibilities to those who are part of it.

After a kick-off meeting in Lima, we started to work on a proposal aimed at “analysing existing, easy-to-apply and inexpensive tools that can improve think tanks’ understanding about an assessment of their organisations’ performance and capacities”. Well… at least that was the original idea, and we are still fine-tuning it.

We had time to develop the proposal, we held virtual meetings, we received feedback from external reviewers as well as from the organizers of the initiative. We exchanged our ideas through different methods:

  • E mails, of course
  • Webinar platforms, methodology facilitated by one of the donors of the initiative
  • Google drive, to work together in setting up the proposal
  • Dropbox, also used to share strategic documents

Besides a few technical problems (very common in this kind of endeavors!), these methods worked well.

From this and other experiences, I can say that more important than methods is to meet the right people: committed with the project and with their own organisation, respectful to those who lead the initiative (both donors and organisers), grateful to their group-mates. And very capable in terms of professional skills (critical thinking, research background, management abilities), of course.

These characteristics are key for a successful development of a collaborative research initiative. We are still taking baby steps, we only have a proposal for what intends to be a research project, but we are sure that we will come up with a good product, and that we will learn a lot through our dialogues. Indeed, we are already learning from each other: perspectives, analytical approaches, tools to manage projects, negotiation skills (both with donors and between us), etc.

Another point that deserves further reflection is how much time we need to develop a good proposal. As you might know from your experiences, time is a factor that we often lack in our think tanks: too much work, no time to think. But as I said before, The Exchange gave us a pretty long time to come up with a proposal: from March to September, incredibly unusual!

But the paradox is: no matter how much time we have, how many workplans we develop, we will always feel that we are reaching the finish line with the last breath. At the end, time is always short. Of course, there might be organisations, projects and people that can deal with time in a better way. But time constraints are still a sign of our  sector: products are the priority, thinking is a luxury.

And here I come back to my previous point: lack of time (or a bad management of time) can be mitigated if you count with the right people: professionals that can solve things with efficacy in short periods of time and who are always willing to make an extra effort (for instance have a new fantastic virtual meeting!) for the sake of the group and the project.

In short, individual characteristics (both personal and professional) are key for a successful collaborative initiative. And time is something that we need to learn how to deal with in a more intelligent way. Collaborative projects are instances in which both factors, people and time, are extremely important.