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

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

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6 Responses to “Thought Leadership and NGOs: What is it? How can we get better at it?”
  1. Martin

    The analogy of the “ecosytem” of ideas reminds me of the concept of memes, as introduced by Dawkins and developed by Dennett and Blackmore among others, with a meme as an evolutionarily selectable element of culture (as opposed to just a cat picture with a pithy slogan although they have their place as well). Key element is that, as you outline, memes, like genes, flourish in an environment (ecosystem) of compatible memes. I’ve ocassionally wondered what if anything this model can tell us about campaign communications. One obvious challenge is that the ‘point’ of a successful meme is its replicability, not its relationship to ‘truth’ or ‘helpfulness’. The analogy of a gardner is perhaps helpful here in thinking about how we might apply to our work – artificial rather than natural selection.

  2. Peter Morgan

    I’ll respond just to “having more effective (and faster) ways to identify the good stuff and reject the bad”. I suggest that identifying “good” or “bad” too early sometimes is problematic. An analogy often used in Physics is of mountains and valleys. If you’re half-way up a hill (that has a theory at the top), going up is a good way to get to the top, but that will not get you to the top of the next hill or mountain, which might be taller or smaller; for that, you have to go down into a valley, choose a direction, then go up from there. There’s never any guarantee that the mountain you choose is an Everest, and there may somewhere be an Olympus Mons. Imperfect, of course, but it makes graphic what is problematic in identifying “good” or “bad”. Such choices will get you to the nearest hill top, but there may be nowhere easy to go from there.

  3. sam

    Nice post, with a lot of good ideas in it, that need more elaboration. The “ecosystem warrior” idea is strong.

    Back to thought leadership: Being an early adopter is often better than being an inventor. Inequality was very big in the 60s and 70s, until the Gini was generalised and Tatcher were tought leaders (is there a relation?). Wall street, and occupy, restarted the inequality focus, and Oxfam refocused on their old priority (at least it seemed so to me).

    Being the tought leader is rather empty: inventing it? Jumping on the bandwagon and yell loudest? As Ecosystem warrior, you can be a thought (foxy) follower, combiner and be very effective.

  4. Too often the ones with access to the well ostensibly to water the garden are themselves grafted with the smothering, suffocating vine of conceit — they choose which plants to water, and which plants are left to wither. Maybe this water bearer harvests seeds with high potential in order to plant and nurture them in another garden, where they can claim and name as them as they please, to show off in some fair or market as their own. Some without this burden, a minority, will allow them to flourish, and the garden will rise and thrive not on the basis of water or sunshine alone, but always with time, and the soil they’ve sunk their roots in – a kind of patience shorn of conceit that has become so incredibly rare nowadays. One is grotesque, and the other is something celebrated by everyone. I stop here before I ask and answer which one Oxfam is at the moment, at least in the Philippines.

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