Learning to say no: are think tanks strategic?

One may argue that academic research doesn’t need to have real-world impact, but the same cannot be said for think tanks. 

As organisations that exist to shape the policy agenda, influence and impact is the sole end and purpose of all their production (to paraphrase Adam Smith). 

Think tanks are doing more and more, from researching new areas to communicating across new channels, but does this greater variety of work lead to greater impact, or does a sense of busyness give the illusion of impact?

You may see an organisation’s website list the 10 different social media platforms they publish content on. The likelihood is that, while they publish on many platforms, they are mastering none.

Despite being very busy, they achieve less than if they adopted a more refined approach.

The greater risk is if they do the same with their organisational strategy.

Establishing a difference you can preserve

In the classic management and strategy Harvard Business Review article, Michael E. Porter argues that an organisation “can outperform rivals only if it can establish a difference that it can preserve.”

For any think tank seeking comfort in the fact that they are not a commercial enterprise competing for customers, consider that: 

      • you are competing with other think tanks;
      • you are competing with organisations that are encroaching on your territory (universities, lobbying firms, consultancies);
      • you are competing for funders’ dollars;
      • you are competing for policymakers’ attention;
      • you are competing for media attention.

Organisations that outperform are those that differentiate themselves, deliver a superior product, and maintain this quality and differentiation over the long run. 

This builds brand equity and understanding among the audiences you are trying to engage. They know what to come to you with, and they know what to expect from you.

Conversely, a lack of focus in your organisational strategy hampers the quality of your work, for without specialism you cannot develop deep expertise. And as a result it hinders your reputation.

A thought experiment

Consider Think Tank A, that has an environmental policy specialism. All its researchers work in this space, and its communications team has deep connections with the relevant policymakers, journalists and politicians.

And consider Think Tank B that has a much broader focus. Their researchers write on a variety of different topics, and their communications team is good but lacks the depth of knowledge or focus of relationships versus the specialists.

If you were a corporate lobbyist wanting to highlight your client’s green credentials, all other things being equal, which think tank is going to be a more attractive partner?

And if you were interested in funding a think tank to explore a niche environmental research area, all other things being equal, which think tank is going to be a more attractive option: the specialist research team, or the generalist one?

The point is not to be everything to all people. Being evidence-driven is not a specialism in an industry where everyone claims to be driven by evidence. 

The same can be said for coming up with new ideas, publishing objective research, solving societal problems, or hosting events. These are not differentiators.

How to deliver strategic value

In Porter’s words: “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.” 

Doing anything that brings in funding is not a strategy. Strategy is as much about deciding what not to do as it is about doing things. 

When we are thinking about strategy (whether broad organisational, or as specific as a channel strategy) we typically explore four areas of questioning.

First, what are we trying to achieve: define the objectives. What is your bigger picture goal? What world are you trying to create? What outcomes are your outputs devised to attain? 

Second, who do we need to reach to make this happen: define the audience. Is it elected politicians, civil servants, or academics in a specific field, members of professional or trade associations, or the general public? What is the interplay between these audiences

Third, how should we do this: define the strategy. Where do you reach them and how do you engage them? What resources do you need to achieve this (and which do you no longer need)? 

Lastly we need a feedback loop: evaluate your impact. Strategies that do not have continuous learning integrated don’t last the test of time. The world changes. Your strategy needs to adapt with it.

Think tanks are as affected by the specialisation of the modern era as any other sector. The ones that have the best chances of impact are those that lean into that specialisation.

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