Looking like a swan (Budapest)

People like to talk about their own success, although it is not polite to do so too often, is never a good way to make friends and is often bad manners. Indeed, as the style book of the Economist notes: “Do not be too pleased with yourself”: you are more likely to bore or irritate rather than to impress.

It is much better, then, to be invited to talk about the success of an institution one identifies with: then if one bores or irritates it is not entirely one’s fault. It was a pleasant assignment to travel from Vienna to Budapest in mid December at the invitation of the Central European University to give a presentation about ESI. It seemed like a good idea to go afterwards to some excellent Hungarian restaurant and answer questions from a student who is writing her thesis on ESI. I also owe Central European University a debt: it is thanks to CEU that I am an Open Society Fellow, travel around the world giving presentations for 12 months and maintain this blog. If you read this, and derive any pleasure from it, it is due to CEU.

The sad reality is, however, sometimes different from what one expects. I have rarely enjoyed any of my presentations less than the one I gave in Budapest. This had nothing to do with the hospitality of the CEU, which was excellent (my colleague Kristof and myself were picked up at the train station, the hotel was wonderful), or with the audience, which asked very good questions, or indeed with the city, Budapest, which appears to be getting prettier (and richer) every time I come to visit.

It had to do with my head, where a drum was beating without interruption from the moment we arrived in Keleti station, getting louder as I got up to speak, reaching a crescendo at the moment when it came to questions. By the time one student came up to me after the talk to ask something about Turkey (whether Kayseri was typical or an exception) I could hardly stand any more and was afraid of fainting. I found it hard even to think straight and struggled to answer. The most stressful two months of the year (indeed, it seemed at times, of my whole ESI experience) had preceeded this talk, and a week without much sleep was beginning to take its toll as well. In the end, dinner (without alcohol) became bearable due to a lot of aspirin. What a pity, I thought afterwards.

The irony was that – I assume – few people noticed the state I was in, and that the one reaction I most remember was from the woman writing about ESI: she told me that “it all seems too easy”. Standing there, my head bursting with headache, the first grey hair a legacy of a few stressful months, I almost laughed when I heared this. I could see her point: seen from the outside the story we were telling did appear too easy. But this, I told her, was exactly the point of any success.

Let me digress a little. There is a wonderful line in one of the best films I ever saw about successful story-telling: The Making of Nemo (yes, that Nemo, the clown fish): “it takes a lot of effort to make something look effortless”. In the film this line refers to efforts by a large team of creative people at Pixar to portray fishes moving around, to capture different states of light under water, and to communicate deep emotions, such as the desperation of Dori, the friend of Nemo’s father, and her recurrent amnesia. But it might just as well refer to any ESI product: our reports, our discussion papers, now our documentaries. Sometimes it even refers to public presentations (I rarely sleep much before giving one, however often I do it).

To use another image: I once read somewhere that when a swan swims it is actually a major effort for this animal to move, and that underneath the surface there is a huge invisible exertion, hectic activity by its small feet. This obviously contrasts with what one sees: a silent, proud and unphased bird, the very symbol of elegance. I know nothing about swans, and whether this is true for them, but this picture stuck with me as a metaphor: to look like a swan is not to reveal the enormous effort it takes for something to, well, appear effortless. This is of course a normal feature of much human activity. Let me explain what looking like a swan might mean for a think tank like ESI.

The story we told our audience in Budapest was a deceptively simple one: it is the story seen from the outside. A group of friends sits in Sarajevo in 1999 and discusses the political situation in Bosnia. It then decides to create a virtual organisation and begins to write reports. The group does not have money, it is not even an “institution” in any formal sense for another year. Then the first reports quickly attract attention. The Financial Times, the Economist, Die Welt, write about ESI as a “think tank changing thinking on the Balkans”. One year after the group decided to come into existence it has a staff of four, a bit of funding, and works in Montenegro as well. That same year it receives a call from the NSC (National Security Council) in the White House and is asked to brief Leon Furth, vice-president Al Gore’s National Security Advisor, about developments in Montenegro. Other governments across Europe invite ESI to provide input to their internal policy debates: Sweden, Germany, they UK, Greece. Five years later ESI has a staff of more than 10, and works across the whole Balkans, trying to influence debates on Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and EU policy towards the region.

This early part of the story is told in Budapest by Kristof, who was the very first ESI researcher setting up a field office in 2000 in Podgorica. I tell part II, the story of ESI in Turkey. Two foreigners arrive there in the summer of 2004. We look for some young Turks to join us. We set out to introduce our plans to Turkish institutions. We try to raise funding for research in Turkey. Wherever we turn we notice polite skepticism. Why would 2 foreigners, who do not even speak the language, and three young Turkish analyst, who are unknown in Turkey, possibly have any impact on the European debate on this large and complex country? This is a country of more than 70 million people, Istanbul alone has 20 universities, there are a huge number of media and experts and public intellectuals: why would anybody even notice ESI here? One potential donor we meet is particularly honest about this. After we explain what we intend to do he says: “why should we pay for your education?” The “education” was our field research in Central Anatolia that led to our very first report.

In the end, however, this story has a happy ending. We publish our first report, Islamic Calvinists, in 2005. It explodes on the Turkish media-scene like a fire-work: there are more than twenty op-eds about it in Hurriyet, one of the most read dailies, alone, more than a hundred articles in quality media across Europe and the US. There are discussions of the report on 10 different occasions on Turkish TV. The BBC, PBS from the US, German ARD and other TV stations go to Kayseri and report on Islamic Calvinists. The foreign minister (and now president) declares that “I am an Islamic Calvinist.”

While this debate continues, and we are invited from across the world to speak about our Turkey research (even Chinese media want an interview about Kayseri), we publish a second report: Sex and Power in Turkey. It had taken a few months for the debate on Islamic Calvinists to take off. The reaction to Sex and Power is even more immediate. It is the main topic in an article in the Economist in the week before the 2007 elections. It is discussed favourably in Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the BBC and other media across Europe and the US. Leading Turkish commentators (Alpay, Akyol, Ozel) write about it. We notice a record number of visits to our website: more than 100,000 people download the report in four months. We also notice the interest in other ways, as we receive a large number of invitations to speak about gender and Turkey: in Berlin and Vienna, Baku and Tbilisi, at Yale, in New York and at the Wilson centre in DC. In December 2007 Hurriyet writes another long article about Sex and Power, and in January a long interview about it will be broadcast on CNN Turk: it looks likely that this debate too will continue for a while. This, in a nutshell, is the 3-year story of ESI in Turkey: pick a country, create a small team of young researchers, chose a topic, write a report, send it out, wait for reactions. Any questions?

“I do not believe you, it cannot be so easy” was the reaction of the student who writes about ESI. She is right, of course. As we walk to dinner through wintry Budapest, and as she looks for the “true story” of ESI and our impact, I realise, however, that she might be looking for the “true story” in the wrong place.

Her questions focus on how we disseminate our reports. How do we get people, especially influential people, to read them? What are our networks? As I try to answer, I realise that this is like looking into the telescope from the wrong end. One person at the CEU had asked about our “legitimacy” making public policy recommendations: what gives us the right to recommend policy? It is a good question, but our answer was – I hope – convincing too: it is the simplest thing in the world to ignore us! We offer no money and no votes, there is no reward other than the information contained in the report itself. It is the easiest thing in the world not to read our reports, and if more people decide this we might as well not exist. So the real question is: why do people want to read them?

People do not read ESI reports because they know us. People know ESI because they read our reports. Of course dissemination is easier once one is known, has a website and a newsletter. However, in 1999 nobody knew me, or Kristof, or any other ESI analyst in any European foreign ministry or news room. Certainly nobody in Turkey knew us in 2004 or would have expected us to have anything worthwile or interesting to say. It is not the creation of networks, but the production of reports, which holds the secret of any impact. Dissemination is like eating desert: producing a gripping analysis (or documentary) is like preparing, cooking and digesting the whole rest of a 6 course meal. And it is only because people expect a certain type of menu that they return to this particular restaurant and might even recommend it.

But what is the secret of production? I tell the questioning student (Anna) that in our case it is a very simple principle, adopted in summer 1999, to which we have stuck until today: unless we are convinced that a report is truly excellent, and that we would still like to read it one year later without embarassment, we will not send it out. As a result, at least three people (usually many more) in ESI read every report in great detail. And as a result of this, we are often incredibly slow.

This sounds simple, again, but it has a lot of real life consequences. It explains 90 percent of all negative stress inside ESI. October and November 2007 were terribly stressful and sleepless months because of pressures on us that had all to do with production while upholding this principle.

It means, for instance, that when we receive funding from a donor and are committed to produce a report by a deadline and do not succeed in getting a report to be of the quality we believe is needed, we will not send it out. This then requires an effort of diplomacy, to explain, present excuses, give reasons, win a few more weeks, sometimes months, and in the worse (thankfully very rare) case even to risk a quarrel. What it must never mean is to break our principle and send out a semi-finished product early! In the worst case we even return money (we have done so).

This principle also means that when we put our logo on a product, we must be able to identify with it fully. Now take the case of an ambitious film project, that costs more than 1.2 million Euro, involving one production company, two large TV stations, five directors, another script writer, all working under huge time constraints to produce 10 films that are to be “based on ESI research.” In this real life example from 2007 there is a large number of creative and ambitious people who need to be convinced of our own ideas of quality (in terms of content). This requires intense interaction, and can sometimes lead to tensions and arguments. For everybody in this constellation time is money: for us this is also true, but, if need be, we will simply work longer to ensure we are content with the final output. This is at the heart of our institutional identity.

This core principle also means that what we write often (usually) takes more effort (and time) than we had planned or budgeted for at first. For a consultancy company, where time is literally money, this cannot be its working assumption: it must submit as good a product as possible, but within the time allowed (and paid for). For us, however, meeting our internal standards often requires researching, writing and editing until we are done. As a result, we often fall behind. We use up rare core funding quickly. We face recurrent cash flow problems (about once a year). We then have three (or more) things to finish at the same time, requiring us to work long nights for weeks on end, until that drum in our heads calls upon us to slow down. There were many evenings in November when I would see five ESI analysts on skype working at 11 pm, not once, but every night in the week and on the weekend.

If there is a “secret” to our impact on public debates it lies here, and only here: in our methodology of producing reports and the commitment by a team to work as required. Nobody unwilling to work like this will enjoy being part of our team for long. This methodology has also developed for many years now. In the process we created our own working vocabulary and habits, something we notice every time there is a new staff member. In fact, none of this is a business secret: it can be observed, described and (perhaps) also taught. This is what we try with our capacity building efforts. But it cannot be taught in the abstract, just as a team sport can only be taught by actually playing it. It also requires training: you can read about how to run a marathon as much as you like, in the end you need to put on your running shoes.

It also never gets easier: as we say internally, to get a report read by elites (decision and opinion makers) in any country is like playing football in the Champions League, not for pleasure in the gym: it does not matter what games you won in the past, if you play bad once or twice today you get relegated. And since it is a team sport, it requires a lot of attention to be paid to the whole dynamics of what creates winning teams, again and again. As Katzenbach and Smith describe high-performance teams in their classic (The Wisdom of Teams): “extreme commitment to one another as well as to their team’s purpose and performance, out of which blossoms an incredible ethic of work and fun, complementary and interchangeable skills, shared leadership and dramatic results.” And as they also note: “high performance teams are extremely rare”.

In the end, I am happy I came to Budapest. The questions by Anna, the student writing about ESI, remain in my head. I wonder whether it might not be worthwhile to try to explain in more detail how we actually work in practice: the inside story of a European think-tank. It might be impolite to talk too much about ourselves, but in this case there might even be an interest in our story? Perhaps there are other students fascinated by the idea of think-tanking, interested in this example of an interaction between ideas and policies; students who write papers and reports and wonder what it is that increases the impact of ideas.

Here, then, is my little plan for the new year (and this blog): to tell the inside story of a successful small think tank, in installments. To describe how we actually work, from chosing a topic to editing the final version and presenting it to the wider world. This breaks the rule in the Style guide referred to at the beginning of this entry. But then again: the Economist felt confident enough to sell its style guide to the rest of the world.

I have only one request for you, dear reader, in return. If you are interested in this question, please do let me know, and spare a moment to share your thoughts and questions. I do not know who reads this blog. This creates a funny sense of speaking from a chair on a small stage looking into a dark room. This would make it easier for me to respond to precise questions.

I thought about this question more on my way back from Budapest the next morning, sketching out this and other entries for this Observer. By now I looked forward to Christmas. Until the new year then, and the first installment of Inside a think-tank. Otherwise, may your life in 2008 be like that of a swan!