Monday, 29 August 2016

Article - Enrique

Some Lessons in Collaboration: the On Think Tanks Exchange Experience

Enrique Mendizabal
Founder of On Think Tanks


The first phase of the On Think Tanks Exchange (OTTE) came to an end in September 2015. In this post, we share some of the lessons we have learned on collaborative work across think tanks –and regions.

The OTTE was a programme managed by the OTT between 2013 and 2015 to foster new relationships between think tanks in three different “regions,” Latin America, Europe, and Indonesia.

Ten “thinktankers” came together with the intention of working on collaborative projects focused on either organisational development (OD) or policy issues. The programme’s promoters (On Think Tanks, the Think Tank Initiative, and the Think Tanks Fund) expected that five bilateral teams would be set up to focus mostly on policy issues – a natural choice for think tanks. Instead, participants came together around two large groups and focused their attention on organisational development challenges.

The On Think Tanks Exchange

It is worth sharing some of the principles that were behind the design of The Exchange. The initiative was first conceived as a series of separate collaborations that would take place over a year. We felt that this presented a series of  challenges. Based on our experience working with think tanks and networks, we sought out a “theory of change” for effective collaboration.

We called it a “theory” because we wanted to test it over the course of the programme. For this purpose, the Exchange’s participants would be involved in a collaborative action learning project to critically study the barriers for collaboration between think tanks in a region and across regions.

We considered the following theory of how meaningful exchanges and collaboration can develop as the basis of The Exchange:
  • Balance: Successful and meaningful exchanges and collaboration require that all parties collaborate as equals – as true partners.
Before meaningful exchanges and collaboration can take place, the following conditions need to be satisfied:
  • Familiarity: of individuals and then of their organisations
  • Understanding: of the context in which the organisations and the individuals work
  • Knowledge: of each other’s objectives and motivations and of each other’s competencies and skills
  • Trust: of each other’s objectives and motivations and of each other’s competencies and skills.
We expected, therefore, that the following interventions or activities could help satisfy these conditions:
  • Practice: Successful exchanges and collaboration require practice and reflection and this can be achieved by:
    • Collaborative pilots: in which participants work with each other in a safe environment
    • Facilitated learning: in which participants have the opportunity and are supported to learn from mistakes and successes in a safe environment
    • Personal and group development: in which the participants are able to observe and reflect on their own progress, as well as that of the group, “pilot after pilot” – or, in this case, exchange event after exchange event.
Interestingly, in our design, we left out tools: emails, websites, Twitter, etc. We thought they are very useful (and used many tools during the implementation of the OTTE), but we also thought that they are no more than tools. Their use should support and not drive what we do. 

What to bond over?
  • It has been easier for participants to “bond” over OD issues, and all the teams formed around such projects. This is probably because, as the participants themselves suggested, their interests in policy issues were too diverse to begin with. It might have been better to focus the call for applications on one or two substantive policy themes in order to improve the chances of teams forming around projects on policy issues instead of OD issues.
  • OD issues did, however, prove to be a very useful subject to bond over. The participants themselves recognised this: since they were all drawn from the “research” side of the think tanks, the projects gave them an opportunity to examine their home institutions from a different perspective. This can not only make a useful contribution to their current work, but also provide them with a valuable perspective as they move into more senior positions in their think tanks.
  • The “stress” of putting together a proposal to work with someone they did not know well in an area where they were not specialists helped with the “bonding” process. However, the process could benefit from more structure and guidance from the facilitators.
  • Matchmaking is a process and it needs to be given the space to happen more organically and allow for progress to be based on learning. Two or more phases could be employed so that learning is built into the process.
Changes, Changes, Changes
  • Changes in staff and organisations are inevitable in a two-year project, particularly when the participants are young researchers rather than senior staff (which was the case for most of them). They are more likely to move from one organisation to another. This turnover must be built into the design so that it does not disrupt the relations between the programme and the think tanks or between the participants themselves.

People, People, People…
  • Participants’ personalities as well as cultural differences and ways of working had a significant impact on the projects implemented through the collaboration. These need to be “flushed out” early on during the matchmaking stage but, equally, they need to be carefully addressed throughout the project: it is unrealistic to expect the participants to deal with such issues on their own.
  • “Multilateral” (as opposed to bilateral) teams found it easier to manage these unexpected changes and personalities, but faced greater transaction costs involved in developing trust and launching the projects. Although this seems counterintuitive, partnerships may be better forged in larger rather than smaller groups. 
  • Larger teams made it possible to **distribute some of the risk in taking on a project on a topic in which no one was a specialist, and this may have encouraged the participants to form such “multilateral” teams.
Organisational Linkages
  • The participants were relatively mid-level to junior staff within their organisations, and more researchers than managers. This has many advantages over the longer run, but if the aim is to engage the institutions more deeply by involving their leaders, this is likely to prove difficult for small projects like the ones supported by The Exchange – even if these are focused on OD. Leaders, however, need other “excuses”’ to get involved in the collaboration.
  • A reasonably long period of time is needed to “build trust,” but two years may be too long from the point of view of staff turnover. This is also a lengthy commitment for a researcher. It may be possible to build trust among the participants more quickly (e.g., within a one-year project or less) by building in more frequent and intensive engagement during the initial stages.
  • Administrative and logistical support for the teams was limited to the meetings but was of great help. Support for partnerships should include this type of input and extend it to more intensive mentoring or coaching processes.

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