Think tank management: an oxymoron?

Thank you to Jim Della-Giacoma for tweeting the link to the blog I wrote last week, think tanks underinvest in management, and for putting the question as to whether think tanks and management is an oxymoron.


Are the words think tank and management contradicting each other when put side by side in the same sentence? Borrowing an Italian metaphor, we could ask whether the research done in think tanks and the management that is often associated with private sector, business and consulting can blend or are they more like oil and (balsamic) vinegar?

I have worked on project management in think tanks in few projects. In 2007 I was an advisor in a UNDP project implemented in Vietnam to introduce a management process in a policy research organisation. Later on I have been involved in a project at the research institute where I work, the Overseas Development Institute, that aimed at developing more structured ways to manage policy research within the institute.

From my observations, it is not easy to bring management into think tanks. I am not talking here about the management that concerns operational functions like HR, finance, IT, etc.   What I mean are management processes that researchers have to take on or follow.

What I have observed is that researchers are generally reluctant to endorse management tools and processes. Why is that?

  1. Think tanks are non-governmental organisations. I think that the staff working for them values the fact that they are working for a non-for-profit. I do. The staff may worry that bringing in (too much) management carries the risk of changing the non-governmental nature of the organisation;
  2. Researchers like their research job and as long as they bring in projects that pays for their salaries and deliver on them, they may not want to be bothered with management tools and processes; and
  3. I think researchers feel that introducing project management within their think tank can result in a more bureaucratic organisation and a shrinking of the space and flexibility they need for creative work and thinking.

I think that these worries are often exaggerated by the aversion to change that can be found in all types of organisations. The resistance to project management processes and tools in think tanks often does not recognise the fact that often think tanks are project-based organisations.

Within these organisations, projects are the result of a combination of policy research activities, publications, and communication; knowledge brokering and intermediation; and workshops, forums and discussions of variable sizes, duration, and complexity. As other project-based organisations, think tanks do face typical project related problems, including:

  • The final outputs (e.g. a policy research report or a workshop) do not fully meet the requirements or needs of the client(s);
  • The client’ s ideas about project activities and deliverables have changed, without the research team realising it, or vice versa;
  • The costs and time required by the project escalated, without the team realising it until it became too late;
  • Staff and team members are overworked and, if they work in team, do not know who is responsible for what;
  • Team members are unsure about who is responsible for decision-making and the level of delegation for decision-making within the project team;
  • The finalisation of research outputs are rushed, which results in low quality outputs;
  • The research outputs are submitted late and above budget; and
  • The team and the think tank do not learn from its activities.

Project management, matters for policy research organisations, despite the fact that in my experience some researchers see management as a burden and as an additional task that detracts them from their main job, which is to conduct policy research and produce policy research outputs.

There are different approaches to project management which we can define broadly as:

  • Top-down blueprint approaches;
  • Participatory collaborative approaches (for example, Total Quality Management); and
  • Iterative, context-sensitive approaches (for example, PRINCE2).

From my experience, the principles embedded in PRINCE2 (the approach I have learned when working with UNDP in Vietnam) seem to adapt well with the nature and work of policy research think tanks (See The RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach and project management for policy change).

I think that researchers need creative space. Heavy and top down project management processes should not burden them. At the same time, researchers do need to be conscious that project-based organisations require some form of tailored and context-sensitive project management processes in order to reduce the project-related risks mentioned above.

Think tank and management may not be not an oxymoron, but it is neither an easy relationship. It reminds me of something John M. Keynes once said: The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.

It seems to me that despite the fact researchers in think tanks live in the world of ideas they sometime struggle to accept project management ideas as something that is new and can be helpful for their work.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Think tank management: an oxymoron?”

  1. I fully agree. Solid project management techniques can help think tanks (and really any small organization) get it right. Fumbling along isn’t a great alternative. In my experience, it’s not so important which specific approach you choose, but that you have a single and relatively consistent framework, that covers various aspects of coordination. When looking around, I found some of the ideas of AGILE project management quite useful, since they allowed flexibility, and emphasized iteration.

    But it’s not just project management itself. It’s about broader management issues. Small think tanks often suffer from similar challenges, related to financial planning, communication and staff management. One resource worth mentioning is Raymond Struyk’s Improving Think Tank Management which also has lots of examples from non-traditional think tank contexts.

    In pitching this to think tank people, I have found it useful to say: “when you undergo heart surgery, would you want to be operated on by a surgeon who is connected to ongoing research, and best practice, across the world – or by someone who is just doing their own thing? If you want someone who’s connected to ongoing practice, why not connect to that practice yourself?”

    This makes the basic but important point that we should think of certain fields of human endeavor as practices (cue Alasdair McIntyre) that are deeply connected, and that cannot successfully be undertaken alone.

  2. Winnie Tirelo

    Thank you so much for this article. I work for TT as their Programs Coordinator. I have been struggling to get buy in to standardise our PM practices. This article gave me hope and I intend on doing more research to find out the balance so that I can come up with something that works for our organisation.

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