Engine Parts

If you want to set up your own brain trust, here are some lessons from the Highlands Forum. "The idea is informal conversation on a topic among informed people," says forum leader Linton Wells.

Focus. Pick a topic, select people to give brief presentations, then let debate erupt. Keep it from becoming a tangent-filled free-for-all. Choose provocative, interesting issues. Read abundantly and talk to smart people to develop topics. Tie session subjects to the work of your organization.

Stay Small. Everyone knows what happens when you get 100 people in a room. The magic number for an effective exchange of ideas seems to be somewhere around 30. Anything bigger reduces openness and also ensures that some people won't be active participants.

Be Discreet. Invite only those you think will contribute to and benefit from a session. And don't try to go to the Highlands Forum. "It's been extraordinarily successful as a low-profile event, and we've been able to manage the attendance very well," says Wells. "I've been cautious to talk about it because I'm really reluctant to raise the profile."

Remain Informal. The Highlands Forum operates under a modified Chatham House Rule, derived from a London institute by that name where members discuss international issues: "When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant may be revealed." The modification is that people can discuss their participation in a forum session. Avoid producing reports or developing recommendations based on an idea-generating conclave. Keep things off the record and relaxed. People speak for themselves, not for their organizations. Leave rank or GS-level outside the door. In these kinds of meetings, it's all about what you're thinking, not who you are.

Accept Immeasurability. In an age of annual performance reports, there's a tendency to quantify the results of everything. Idea sessions and brain trusts like the Highlands Forum aren't appropriate for cost-benefit analysis. Think of it as basic research rather than research and development. There may not be any quantifiable return, but it's still worth doing.

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