The Center for
Creative Community

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A Guide by Leslie Caliva and Ivan H. Scheier

The Center for Creative Community

Santa Fe, New Mexico

July 1992

@ -- permission for use-with-acknowledgment

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People helping people has been a necessary way of life since the dawn of human kind. In essence, the majority of volunteer work is to this day on a one-to one basis. However, as societies grew and became more complex in nature and organizations developed the delivery of human needs, so did systems for the involvement of volunteers. Only in the past century have we seen the growth of these voluntary agencies blossom into a major industry of their own, thus leading to the need for specialized career fields targeted to management and administration of volunteer programs and training at all levels of these programs.

A myriad of materials, workshops, and seminars exist that address the specific and basic needs of volunteer programs. While these excellent resources assist the administrator in the daily functions of running a program, only a few are directed at the administrator’s own personal growth. Consequently, many of those working in volunteer programs, eventually find themselves searching for something more, something to challenge them beyond the ongoing tasks of their jobs. Some find that they have become jaded and others suffer from burnout. They find then a need for a challenge and a change of pace.

The think tank or reflection pool was developed to aid in addressing the needs of those people and indeed for anyone who is looking for the opportunity to expand his or her thinking process in a free-wheeling, no-holds-barred environment. Prior think tank participants have come to term this releasing of the fetters as soaring. It is an exquisite description of the spirit that these groups experience and the participants take back to their respective work places.

As a result of dozens of think tanks coast to coast, these guidelines have been developed to assist any group which is interested in introducing the process to its members. This guide when used with "Exercises for Creative Gadflies" should provide a firm foundation for entering into the process. Throughout we have attempted to address both the philosophy and the nitty-gritty logistics of think tanks and to encourage the use of this method. To those of you joining us in the journey into the wild blue yonder of mental flight, we wish you gentle winds on which to soar beyond your dreams.

Leslie Caliva

Ivan H. Scheier

Why Organize A Think Tank?

Under the current scheme of things, the primary method of learning and problem solving for those involved in volunteer programming lies in workshops, conferences, consultations, and materials related to specific areas of volunteer administration. All must usually be relatively structured resources directed to goals, tasks, and immediate problem resolution. Each of these addressees the very real needs of volunteer leadership. The think tank process endeavors to step beyond practical needs and…

The basis of these expectations lies in the outcome and feedback of dozens of think tanks held over the past decade. However, think tanks still remain relatively rare, and somewhat an elitist phenomenon in the field. The purpose of this guide is to change that, the belief being that a substantial proportion of volunteer leadership will find think tanks do-able as well as valuable.

What Is A Think Tank… Really???
The term "think tank" (some prefer "reflection pool") is a relatively new one, only appearing in standard dictionaries in the past twenty years or so. Most of these reference sources define a think tank in terms of an organization or group focused on the resolution of a particular problem or task, particularly in the reams of science and technology. However, the authors believe that the think tank is better defined in terms of a process rather than a structure. Therefore, for the purpose of these guidelines, a think tank is defined as a process for in-depth consideration of issues and challenges whose relevance reaches beyond the individual person or program and the immediate time frame.

Key to the definition and the process itself are the concepts "in-depth" and "beyond the individual and immediate." An in-depth approach seeks not just to list but to analyze potential factors or proposed solutions. It releases and identifies underlying assumptions, and even challenges their essential validity. Participants learn to question the question itself. Restated, the in-depth process goes beyond "how" to "why" and beyond "what" to "what if."

"Beyond the individual…" suggests a willingness to deliberately sacrifice relatively quick, concrete answers and solutions in favor of longer-term benefits and visionary ideas for a larger future.

To illustrate, a starting question might be "how can we design training for paid staff on the utilization of volunteers?" In a straightforward problem-solving session, the group might immediately brainstorm possible approaches, then prioritize, evaluate, and establish a plan for implementation. By contrast, a think tank might produce some unsettling but potentially energizing responses, such as:

Such samples demonstrate why think tanks and think tankers are often misunderstood by more conventional or task-orientated individuals.

Of course, there is still room for problem solving in a think tank, but it is rarely all of it. Likewise, a think tank may produce a practical, specific action plan, although it should not be considered a necessary outcome.

What Can Be Expected?
Unrealistic exceptions can poison any process, especially think tanks. From prior think tank participants, the following are some reasonable, expected outcomes:

No one should expect all of these and every participant will bring their own set of expectations based on their own needs and ideas. Actual experience will differ from person to person and session to session.

The personal tone indicated in the above list is reflective of many think tanks or reflection pool sessions. Such a tone is to be expected when people in small groups are encouraged to take both emotional and intellectual risks with conventional assumptions, close to a bedrock of personal and social values. PLEASE NOTE: While the session may well get personal, participants should not be led to anticipate a group therapy session. Organizers and facilitators are clearly advised and warned against establishing that premise or atmosphere.

Perhaps the most eloquent and apt answer for why a think tank comes from a paper by Nancy Cole, an early participant: "To shake up the status quo… To encourage visions, dreams, possibilities… To generate ‘what if’s’ and ‘;why not’s’… To get in touch with our personal professional philosophies about education, leadership, volunteers… to get loose from the fetters… To move from ‘why’ to ‘why-not’.. To blow the lid off… To stir up… To make uncomfortable… To challenge the comfortable equilibrium… To re-examine attitudes, assumptions, beliefs… The think tank – an ongoing seminar. A place/time to process information rather than simply choose and prioritize facts to support a decision. Allow for differing behavioral styles and approaches to life. Suspend judgement. Talk about thinking. Work towards understanding rather than knowledge. Challenge and support. Enjoy!"

In considering the many factors important to a successful think tank, the critical one is the gathering of participants, because in this process THE PEOPLE ARE THE PROGRAM!

Who Is It For?
Leaders of volunteers, community groups, non-profits, etc., who are:

Who Is It Not For?
Individuals who:

How Do You Decide?
In the vast majority of cases, the decision for participation should lie with the potential participant. Given a thorough background on what the think tank is about and for who it is and is not targeted, most individuals are capable of making a suitable judgement of their own capacity to benefit from and contribute to the process.

NOTE: Only under rare conditions should organizers intervene to discourage or encourage the blatantly unsuited or suited.

Some organizers prefer the invitational method of participant selection, using numerical criteria, such as number of years in leadership, education, publications, etc. However, the authors firmly believe that the important qualifications for think tank participation are based more in the character and style of the person and are far better judged from the inside (by the individual) than from the outside.

Our observation and experience suggest that some people become more rigid over the years and others more restless. Neophytes are often overwhelmed with the "how-to" and cannot devote time or effort to the "why’s" and "what if’s." However, their newness can just as likely infuse a group with fresh approaches and energy. Again, experience from pervious groups leans strongly towards group heterogeneity, drawing on the power of a variety of experience levels, backgrounds, and mission orientations.

If you are planning a think tank for a particular group or organization, with renewal and motivation as the central theme, then of course the group will be somewhat homogeneous by the nature of their work.

How… The Elements and Logistics
A perfect pattern of ideal conditions is highly unlikely, nor do all factors pertain equally well in every kind of think tank. In general, the following are basic ingredients.

Group Size: Ideally groups range between five and twelve participants. Larger groups can be facilitated by using a mix of general and break-out sessions, with the general session being as large as thirty but no larger.


Time Frame: The "ideal" think tank allows time for the participants to become aquatinted, adequate time for in depth discussion, and wrap-up time. A pattern utilized by most "Challenge" think tank organizers has been to start on one evening, proceed over one full day, and wrap-up by mid-afternoon of the third day. This pattern allows for the basic elements to take place and is functionally compatible with most people’s work week or can be conducted over a weekend.

However, limited time should not be a deterrent in the initiation of this process. Some successful think tanks have been held on a one-day basis and there have even been one-evening gatherings. Much of the successes of abbreviated sessions will depend on the participants’ level of think tank experience and congeniality and the time afforded by them and the organizer in pre-session preparation.

Climate: If there is one hard and fast rule about think tanks it is: Establish a suitable climate!!! Key elements include:

Organizing: Putting together a think tank is like organizing any other type of meeting or workshop, with certain steps necessary to ensure that the participants are well-informed about prospects and basic process, know how to get there, and are well-cared-for during the time they are together. Ideally, one of two persons will see to all of the logistical planning and if at all possible remain on site during the think tank to ensure that needs are met. Such persons may also participate in the process, but should understand that their job may sometimes take them away from the group to tend to overall climate-setting.

Employing Outside Help: While we believe think tanks can be effectively planned and conducted with the help of this manual, we may also be able to suggest a veteran think tanker or two from among the 300-plus people who have experienced the process. These persons, especially if they are nearby, might be invited to help or serve in the role of facilitator. Please feel free to contact The Center of Creative Community for possible referrals (P.O. Box 2427, Santa Fe, NM 87504, or telephone 505-473-7711).

Think Tank "To Do’s"

_____ Confirm facilitator(s) of the process

_____ Set dates and time frame

_____ Locate and confirm meeting site

_____ Several moths prior: send out the initial announcement

(This is necessary so that potential participants can plan their time and for funding.) Conduct a survey of interest, suggestions regarding participant selection.

_____ Two months prior: send out registration forms with deadline.

Participants should include a short biography and stated expectation of the think tank. A short form can be provided.

_____ Two weeks prior: send information packets to participants.

_____ One week, or as designated by the facility, confirm reservations and meals. KEEP IN TOUCH WITH THESE FACILITY HOST PEOPE ON A REGULAR BASIS!

_____ On site:

_____ Follow up

The Program Process… How To Do It!!!

Having followed the guidelines to this point, you can now have an "electric" group sitting around an inspirational setting in their grubbies and prepped for take off… they are ready to soar!!! Okay, so the place is mediocre, it’s raining, and some of the participants are cowering in the corner somewhat intimidated by the whole deal!!! So, let’s look at methods and elements that will overcome the inhibitions and the weather… and loosen the mind.

  1. A get-acquainted, climate-setting activity is a must to help people become comfortable… before dinner snacks, such as a "wine and cheese," a meal together, or just informal time to chat. If you choose a formal introduction "game," remember above all else to keep it simple and fun!!!
  2. Review relevant conditions and reinforce them, if necessary:
    1. Establish a climate of trust, support, sharing, flexibility and tolerance. Talk about the responsibility of each person to create and maintain an atmosphere which is supportive and non-judgmental.
    2. Discuss, as much as needed, the danger of over structuring the discussion. This is not a classroom and every questions need not have an answer (or an immediate one).
    3. Develop and/or review guidelines and expectations for the think tank dealing with personal and/or job-related subjects.
    4. Reinforce the need for personal commitment to the process. Participants need to stay for the entire session and should avoid interruptions. The process is damaged by people who arrive late, leave early, or exit intermittently. The main equipment for a think tank tank is scissors to (figuratively) cut the phone line.
    5. Discuss various and possible group roles, but DO NOT get hung up on this. As the think tank progresses, roles such as monitor, facilitator, classifier, counselor, and "on-call iconoclast" become very fluid, indeed, with participants unconsciously assuming one or many roles for a time.
    6. Confirm or clarify the rules for choice of discussion areas. Generally, the group as a whole concentrates on one specific issue (agreed upon by consensus) or the approach may be for each participant to present an individual challenge within the scope of the subject and allot so much time for the group to address it.
    7. Should the focus of the think tank indicate possible recommendations for action, clarify beforehand the extent to which the group is responsible for implementation. Thus, John should not be disappointed that usually the group is not going to help him with the plan developed during the process nor will the group be shocked after creating a fantastic idea in theory that they are expected to carry it off – by next week!!!

NOTE: One type of think tank process deliberately excludes the obligation to implement and is often an attractive way to introduce people to the process. In this approach, the group is asked to visualize an ideal future with regard to a particular area. In such cases, the group is free to dream without worrying about "how to get from here to there." An example would be: "Imagine what ideal volunteerism will look like ten years from now. Wishful thinking is what we are looking for. Don’t worry about whether it seems practical as of today, just dream!"

AFTER the dream has been allowed to emerge, largely unfettered by feasibility, the group MIGHT want to address practicality by developing a step-by-step plan that will achieve the dream. This is a real challenge but offers additional opportunities for creative and open thinking.

Sequence Example

The chronology of any think tank is apt to vary considerably from one group to another. The following provides an idea of the average process.

  1. Climate setting: as discussed previously.
  2. Participants introduce themselves both as resources and as seekers, either in writing before coming together, informally during the social time, and/or during the first gathering of the group. Time limits and formality are taboos. This time of getting to know each other is crucial in setting the tone.
  3. Discuss the clarify relevant conditions, expectations, etc.
  4. Loosen up the mental process by discussing and practicing one or more exercises, such as "Question, Question…," "Upside Down and Inside Out," "Anchors Away," etc. which are described in the companion piece to this manual, A Reconsideration of Volunteerism – Some Exercises for the Creative Gadfly, by Ivan H. Scheier. If the focus of the session is the think tank process as a tool, then of course more time should be allotted to these exercises.
  5. Discuss, clarify and modify the starting question(s). Whenever possible, make the starting question(s) available ahead of time (if this is the focus of the think tank). Recognize that the starting question may not be the final, "best," or key question actually processed. In fact, the major achievement of a think tank may be to come out with a better question.
  6. The process matures as the group’s energy comes to bear on the issue. Identification, enumeration, and analysis of possible factors revolving around the issue are raised. Typically this includes identification and critical examination of underlying assumptions, and sometimes recommendations for future action.
  7. If recommendations do occur, discuss what to do about them. Options include the group taking primary responsibility, delegating to others, or simply letting go as participants, having benefited from increased insight into the problem or issue discussed. At this point, the group may wish to make a decision on publication or some other sharing of sharing of think tank proceedings.

NOTE: In think tanks which extend over a number days, organizers may wish to include – and participants will probably rise up and demand – at least a few hours of "free time." This is usually scheduled mid-afternoon of the second day or is simply allowed to happen when people decide they need it. This provides time for everyone to digest and reflect. Additionally, a little fun time of singing, games, or story telling, one evening, has proven to be good for the spirit and the process.

SPECIAL NOTE for the reunion groups: Over the past years several Challenge think tanks have participated in reunion or seasoned think tank groups, the prerequisite being participation in a previous think tank. The authors’ experience with such groups indicates an even less-structured sequence than described previously. These seasoned think-tankers return with the idea already implanted to let go of conventional thinking and are anxious to soar with their colleagues and friends. Consequently, many of the foregoing steps take care of themselves.

Additionally, in such groups the participants are more adept and practiced with group roles, shouldering them as needed and passing them on as appropriate. There is group rather than individual leadership. The group seems to find its questions in the needs of the participants and in the events currently affecting their field. Typically one issue slides easily into the next. Perhaps the greatest challenge with these groups is harnessing the energy and ideas… be prepared!!!

Instructions for the Facilitator…
or what the on-call iconoclast needs to know

Responsible iconoclasm is the main characteristic distinguishing think tanks from ordinary problem-solving. "Let no assumption go unchallenged" might be our motto, provided we’re not wrecking conventional certainties for the sheer perverse joy of it. We should understand that analysis often produces even greater faith in previous assumptions, because now we understand why…

As previously discussed, the very success of a think tank may depend on the ability of the group to examine the question presented and analyze whether indeed it is the question needing to be addressed. Often groups are so anxious to get to "the problem," they fail to see that perhaps the question itself needs to be turned around to find the "real" problem. Hence, the job and value of iconoclast or devil’s advocate. Here are a few examples of how astute challenging can assist the group to more effectively focus its attention. Again, the authors warn against the temptation to over-structure and control the process.

The iconoclast or group facilitator will regularly transform the "how-can-we" question into "why," thereby leading the group to root out underlying assumptions and issues. For example, look at a question, such as "How can I get more training for my board?" The facilitator may ask "Why does the board need more training?" or "What if the board had more training?" Such questions might open the door to the insight that the current board membership is not suitable to the needs of the organization or to its management. Thus, a better question becomes "How do I get rid of the current board and get better members?"

Sensitivity to words that indicate one particular function is also necessary, such as "How can our nominating committee choose better officers?" The work "choose" implies that there are a number of candidates from which to select. In fact, through further discussion, the point may be that there are not enough good people willing to run for office. A productive change takes place in a better-asked question, such as "How can we encourage more good people to run for office?"

Another trick of the iconoclast is to turn the question around. "How can we help the homeless, culturally diverse, poor, older, etc., people?" might become "How can they help us more or how can they help themselves more?"

These are not necessarily replacements for the original question but rather additional alternatives or enrichments to it. Such simple reversal of predicated can result in fresh, new ides, strategies, and perspectives for any program and consequently for the people it serves.

Working the Circle
As alluded to in these guidelines, the authors have found, not to our surprise, that this freethinking process is best facilitated when participants are gathered in a circle formation. We say "not to our surprise" because it is obvious that this method eliminates head tables, facilitator domination, and any back-of-the room hiding out. It does allow for and encourage feelings of openness, equality, and perhaps even suggests for some the magical qualities the circle has had through the ages… remember friendship circles and Stonehenge, just to name two? Physically, circles prevent blind spots and enable both the facilitator and the participants to maintain good eye contact with one another. This enhances general interaction and it is an important factor in managing the process. The circle concept can be enhanced through the utilization of casual seating options such as rockers, couches, and floor cushions, whatever is comfortable and available to the participants.

As previously mentioned, it is vital to set the ground rules for these sessions. Giving and taking feedback can be a threatening experience for the novice. First, remind participants that everyone’s ideas and opinion are valid, at least to the contributor. It becomes the responsibility of others to relate new information to the question at hand or, perhaps, to past ideas. Perhaps the comment will lead to new discussion. Everyone should be reminded to offer differences of opinion in that mood… that the other’s ideas are honored, but that the person has a different insight, belief, or experience to share. Pooh-poohing is never allowed… open, exploring questions are.

The way remarks are made sets the tone for what is heard. When comments begin in a negative or even an attack mode, e.g., "WRONG… when I did it…", the affected person and possibly the whole group reacts, often unconsciously, in a negative manner. That negative reaction inhibits positive, worthy information from being heard or accepted. Group members should take special care to "watch their tongues" at all times.

An example of more positive wording would be "That’s an interesting point, but I’ve experienced something different…" The facilitator may wish to condition the group and emphasize the importance of tone through a brief practice exercise where the group turns examples of negative statements around. Perhaps the greatest outcome of working through this technique is that some will carry it away with them and put it to beneficial use in their day-to-day lives! Such positive attitude changes and certain aspects of the think tank process can be used in almost any problem-solving meeting or workshop. However, the authors feel strongly that the term "think tank" should be reserved for the full complement of activities described in order to preserve the uniqueness of this process.

In experience groups a trust pattern emerges naturally, perhaps because mutual respect has already been established and the safety net of mutual support is in place. But, if this is a first-time think tank group, much of the successes of the support circle depends upon the climate that is set and maintained.

To be effective, facilitators must be strong enough to guide the group’s activities and agile enough to offer their own opinions and experiences in the conversations… or even to be the recipients themselves of enlightenment... no mean trick! To accomplish this, facilitators need ample knowledge and experience in-group dynamics.

After explaining the necessary ground rules, the group leader should initiate the discussion either by using a pre-set question or perhaps piggybacking on something he or she has picked up on, utilizing some of the techniques mentioned in the exercises. Key elements of facilitating the discussion are to:

Perhaps this sounds like an overwhelming task, but it actually is great fun once you get into it, for the reward lies in seeing that indeed the circle has worked its magic and the reflection pool has show its glimmering treasures to each person. Some participants signal this success in deep contemplation, others in exuberance, but all usually experience and indicate some sense of renewal and growth.

Think tanks provide a unique opportunity for individuals and groups to expand the thinking process. Key points to remember in utilizing the process include;

Think tanks are not for the faint-hearted. Participants will have to take risks and question basic assumptions, possibly touching the shaking the very roots of their philosophy. However, once a person assumes the practice of less limited thinking, of looking beyond the now and obvious to "what if?" and "why not?" then indeed there will be no limit to the creativity, energy and visionary thinking set free. We wish you luck with your think tank/reflection pool and hope that these guidelines will help you in that quest.





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Ivan Scheier
607 Marr
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, 87901
Tel (505) 894-1340

For comments and editing suggestions please contact Mary Lou McNatt