Think tanks are often referred to as idea factories, and for good reason. A think tank is an organization that assembles experts with the sole purpose of coming together to think--more specifically, to think of ideas on how to solve a particular problem. Most think tanks in the United States are funded by the government or political advocacy groups, but some are run as for-profit organizations and sell their intellectual property--ideas--to businesses and governments.

The "One Roof" Model vs. The Think Tank "Without Walls"

The one roof model for a think tank is fairly self-explanatory. The idea is that a diverse group gather in one place--under one roof--and have interactions that are immediate and face-to-face. Prior to the one roof model, think tank members communicated solely through telephone and written correspondence. Fifty years ago, the cost of travel often prohibited the group from physically getting together, so the one roof model was a significant advancement. In 2009, the one roof model is a much more cost-efficient than it was in years past.

The one roof model is an effective think tank method to use when immediate interactive conversation will facilitate a heightened thought process.

A think tank without walls does not assemble under one roof. But that doesn't put the think tank back a half century, as the Internet has helped to facilitate immediate communication through emails and Internet telephone. In 2009, a think tank without walls is used by organizations that don't have the funding that a one roof model has. Typically, most overhead costs, such as computers and utilities, are not paid by the think tank in this method, and the think tank's money is spent primarily for research.

The think tank without walls is an effective method for organizations with a limited budget.

Basic Guidelines to Effective Think Tank Methods

Whether a think tank is under one roof or without walls, it will be most effective if basic guidelines are established to foster an environment of cooperation and respect. For example, in think tanks that meet under one roof, having discussions while sitting in a circle has proven to increase individual participation and dissuade rude or disparaging comments. The method of working in a circle creates an atmosphere that boosts morale, productivity and staff retention.

Other basic guidelines can be established based on Raymonds Struyk's work. In 2002, Struyk introduced eight management principles for think tanks transitioning during the post-Communist era. His first three principles focus on employee motivation, quality of work and internal innovation. The next four focus on the organizational structure of the think tank: choosing the right team leader, external oversights, the structure of the group, and financial management. Lastly, Struyk points out that even the best think tank results will not be effective if they are improperly communicated.

Think tanks can vary in many ways, but there are two essential factors in effective think tank methods: employee motivation and retention, and clear and proper disbursement of information and conclusions.