Micro Think Tanks

You Should Consider Appointing A Small Group Of Employees To Meet Periodically And Consider Current And Potential Issues.

By Thomas J. Roach

Think tanks are organizations that research and plan for difficult social, political, economic and military problems. As far back as Homer, there were generic groups of advisors who acted as think tanks, but it wasn’t until after World War II, during the Cold War, that think tanks took on formal structure and became more common.

Given the impactful list of crises that we faced from 9/11 to the recession to the pandemic, and the impact these calamities have had on businesses, I believe it is time for individual companies to create their own think tanks to anticipate and plan for their organizations’ survival in future crises.

Only large corporations can afford to hire people specifically for this task, but any company can create a part-time micro think tank by appointing a small group of employees to meet periodically and consider current and potential issues.

Why is a think tank better than relying on top-down decision-making or quality circle type processes?

  • First of all, think tanks don’t circumvent normal decision-making processes; they provide information for decision-makers to consider.
  • Second, because they are not responsible for making decisions, they operate more freely, similar to brainstorming sessions, and will consider issues more broadly and more thoroughly.
  • Third, when think tanks work in advance of a problem occurrence, they can methodically sort through potential issues and outcomes without the pressure of having to make a quick decision.
  • Fourth, they take advantage of communication research that suggests well-organized groups come up with better solutions to problems than individuals. When we are formally asked to be objective, most of us comply with more discipline than when acting alone and without direction.

What Might a Micro Think Tank Look Like?
Depending on the size of the organization, it could have three, five, or seven members. An odd number is preferable because it makes it less likely that they will reach consensus early and not consider all facets of an issue.

Again, depending on resources, the think tank members could go on a retreat that might last a day once a month or a week once or twice a year. They would have an agenda provided by company leadership, and they would also be tasked with generating their own list of issues to consider. Ideally, the micro think tank group would produce written reports and also provide an oral presentation of their work to upper level management.

The oral report is important because it becomes an extension of the think tank sessions. Company decision makers should challenge the points in the report, and the report will probably stimulate insights that the think tank group didn’t consider and that senior management wouldn’t have considered prior to the report.

Whom Do You Select For Your Think Tank?
You are looking for employees with knowledge of the changing world, news junkies and internet nerds. Additionally, you want to find long-time employees with an in-depth understanding of the company: its history, goals and problems.

You also want to consider creatives, people who use the suggestion box, who have outside hobbies, who aren’t afraid to say what they think even if no one agrees. Another consideration is that the employees in the group should not be people who answer to one another in the normal reporting structure.

Each member needs to feel free to speak up without having to consider possible repercussions from a superior. This isn’t like hiring managers; you aren’t looking for leaders, or best engineers, or people with exceptional social skills. You are looking for people you can shut in a room for eight hours and who will articulate different perspectives, challenge one another and write a report.

Most people resist change; some are intrigued by it. You will know you found the right people if they think this is a good idea and can’t wait to get started.

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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