Thought Leadership and NGOs: What is it? How can we get better at it?

April 21, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

thought-leaderHere’s today’s 2 minute vlog summary for the incurably lazy/visual

The aid business specializes in baffling, slippery concepts, often adopted as the latest management fuzzwords (like buzzwords, but fuzzy). One recent example in Oxfam was a brainstorm on ‘thought leadership’ – What is it? Does Oxfam do it? Do we want to do more of it? If so, how can we do it better?

My instinctive reaction was hostile (to the term, if not what it describes) – too arrogant, too Stalinist, too top down. And also self-defeating – the essence of thought leadership is that it must be conferred, never claimed. Calling yourself a thought leader is just not done, at least in the UK, where false humility is a national sport.

But there is something there – in some areas, civil society in general and NGOs in particular have at times led the way in introducing and developing new concepts (Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics), or moving existing ones up the agenda (inequality, disability).

Two concepts might be helpful: idea ecosystems and the policy funnel.

In idea ecosystems, the intellectual terrain that helps us understand the world is a complex system, characterized by continuous change and churn. Applying evolutionary theory, ideas are subjected to a process of variation, selection and amplification: new ideas constantly surface (variation); they are then tested and scrutinised, both conceptually and in practice (selection); fit variants prosper (amplification) while others disappear (dinosaurs).

Thought leadership 3In such a system, I don’t think aspiring to be a ‘thought leader’ makes much sense if it consists of ‘we want to be a recognized authority on X, we we are going to appoint a couple of wonks and tell them to do it’. What makes more sense is to see ourselves as ecosystem gardeners, trying to get better at all 3 stages of evolution: encouraging (rather than suppressing) variation, whether inside our organizations or beyond; having more effective (and faster) ways to identify the good stuff and reject the bad; then finding ways to amplify it (see post on spin offs). Sure we can set boundaries – eg we want to specialize on inequality – but what emerge as successful, innovative approaches or ideas within those limits is bound to have an element of chance.

But we can also be ecosystem warriors. Power imbalances shape the ecosystem, filtering out some ideas, and unjustly favouring others. CSOs can champion ideas that emerge from excluded groups, critique those that perpetuate injustice and inequality. Promote intellectual meritocracy, I guess.

The policy funnel, which I nicked from Michael Jacobs (see yesterday’s post), is a handy device to think about how the nature of TL varies according to the maturity of a given issue. At the early, open end of the funnel, getting issues into public debate is all about framing, getting recognition of new problems or responses. It’s about setting the agenda. Further down the line, TL is more about accompanying the move from idea to law/decision to execution. It’s about being propositional.

In either case, we need to remember that there are much bigger beasts in the jungle of intellectual activity – 800 kgTL 1 gorillas like the university system, thinktanks, government research units all dwarf NGOs in terms of staffing and resources. Where might civil society organizations have an edge, whether in identifying what matters or what works? It all comes down to their ability to walk along a series of boundaries and to use connect others that reside on either side of those boundaries:

  1. Inter-disciplinarity: academia remains dogged by disciplinary siloes. Everyone sings the merits of working across them, but the incentive systems that deter it remain strong. Without having to agonize about academic respectability or tenure, NGOs can jump across the boundaries in search of new things to think and say.
  2. Convening and brokering: NGOs in some circumstances can act as ‘convenors and brokers’, pulling together organizations and individuals that don’t see the world the same way, or normally talk to each other. New thinking and approaches often emerge from such ‘awkward alliances’. It’s not leadership in the Stalinist sense, more like acting as the midwife of something new.
  3. Theory and Practice: At their best, NGOs combine intellectual curiosity with a real commitment to change the world. That puts them in a good position to try out new ideas, pilot new approaches, or spot new stuff emerging from the system itself. If ever the awful term ‘do tank’ (cf ‘think tank’) is warranted, it ought to be for them.

Thanks to my fellower wallowers-in-confusion, Irene Guijt, Kashif Shabir and Claire Hutchings, for comments and suggestions

April 21, 2016
Duncan Green