Working towards a vision: The story of THNK

Working towards a vision: The story of THNK

High up on the top floor of an Amsterdam hotel a vision is realized: a hundred entrepreneurs and corporates from all over the world are meeting for a celebratory dinner. It’s called the Meeting of the Minds. Some have just completed an 18-month program that others are still in the middle of and that yet another group, possibly with the most bewildered look, is just beginning.


Each has come with their own dream: a project or company which they are conceiving, realizing or scaling. The program itself includes extensive coaching on creative leadership, working intensively in small innovation teams on societal problems and the nurturing of their own brainchild through feedback, business plans and by connecting across the globe with each other. They are what THNK dreamt of: excited engaged creative leaders from around the globe, the first four classes of THNK participants, coming together for a meeting of minds and hearts.


THNK School of Creative Leadership is a school without lectures, classrooms, reading lists, grades, or diplomas. There is no theory taught for the sake of theory; there are no case studies and simulations. Everything is real: real people, real plans, real companies, real impact and real change. It’s only when you experience how hard it is to explain what THNK is that you realize how radical this approach is.


How did this happen? What is the story of how the vision of THNK became true? To the extent it is of course. The vision is never truly finished. It aims to support hundreds, nay, thousands more creative leaders and enterprises in realizing their visions in the world. And also THNK is still a start-up, so let’s not proclaim victory too early.

THNK School of Creative Leadership is a school without lectures, classrooms, reading lists, grades, or diplomas. There is no theory taught for the sake of theory; there are no case studies and simulations. Everything is real: real people, real plans, real companies, real impact and real change. It’s only when you experience how hard it is to explain what THNK is that you realize how radical this approach is.

Still, the story of how the core program itself came into reality, contains insights on creative leadership that are worth sharing. It is itself an example of creative leadership because, simply put, creative leadership is developing a vision and realizing it.

It’s also a journey we know more intimately than any other. We set out with an innovative dream in mind and tried to keep focused on it. It has been bumpy because the road of realization has been paved with surprises, learnings, success, failures to overcome and serendipity. It is a journey of iterations and adaptations, of benefiting from the unexpected and of forcing the world to give you its lessons about what works and what doesn’t.

Creative leadership is about hitting the road, welcoming the inevitable bumps, and using them to bounce off in a better direction, towards the next bump. All this is done without ever losing sight of the vision that started the journey in the first place.

So we can tell our story and from it draw ten lessons looking back at the journey of realizing the vision of a top-education institution on innovation in Amsterdam.

Watch the video to learn more about the THNK Executive Leadership Program.

1. Hit the road early and visibly

Put something out there. Kick the ball so you have to run after it. Put a star in the sky and then live up to it. The idea is to get on the road early and visibly. Even when one hardly has anything, make a first concrete manifestation of your vision.

In 2008, a high level public/private sector consortium called Innovation Platform developed the strategic briefing to build a new top institute in Amsterdam to help leaders of firms in the creative sector manage their business successfully and bring creativity to other sectors. The idea was to run a postgraduate management course in creative leadership integrating business, creativity and technology. Over time this top institute should attract students and faculty from around the world.

A meeting at the Mayor’s house with thought leaders and creative leaders from Amsterdam also brought Menno van Dijk (then Director at McKinsey) to the table, who made some suggestions. First, the creative leadership institute should be set up by one or two entrepreneurs, not by a committee. After all: “There is no town, there is no city with a statue for a committee”. Second, to build the institute would require very significant funding.

In the summer of 2009, Bas Verhart, then CEO of Media Republic, was asked by Amsterdam Vice-Mayor Carolien Gehrels to develop a business plan. Bas had two conditions: 1) the creative leadership institute should practice what it preaches, and therefore be very entrepreneurial, and 2) we should go for something truly unique and world-class.

Bas started writing the business plan together with fellow entrepreneur Vincent Rump. First Bas came up with the name – THNK – and then very quickly they made a THNK video to capture the essence of the vision. When one hardly has anything, it can be incredibly galvanizing and powerful to make such a concrete manifestation. It forces one’s thinking and it communicates strongly to all parties involved.

story of THNK
Even if you don't have anything concrete, try to make a first concrete manifestation of your vision. Click To Tweet

2. Fundraising takes time

As always, raising the funds took longer than expected. In this case it took a full year until the summer of 2010. Under leadership of the City of Amsterdam, the Province of North Holland, the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and a number of leading corporations, the funding was put together. While precious time was lost on the initial schedule and deadline, the launch date stayed. However, there now was a very serious start-up budget. An operational team was established in parallel with a foundation board. Menno had kept close contact during that period and he joined Bas on the foundation board.

story of THNK
Raising funds for your business will always take longer than expected. Click To Tweet

3. A big slow down might require an intervention

With the operational team in place, THNK developed its great visual identity with Lava, started developing a curriculum and worked closely with the local creative sector and university. By this time, THNK had a sizable staff and a significant burn rate. At the same time, progress was slowing down as THNK struggled with defining who to target, what curriculum to offer and how to deliver the program. We were defining a new category in higher education, which is not an easy job. Also the team had not really worked together before and struggled to converge towards a new educational concept. A lot had been accomplished in developing the THNK brand, but the wheels had started to spin in the sand on the core design.

In spring 2011, THNK went into a major reset. Menno had just left McKinsey and stepped into the MD role. Chief Design Officer at Philip Stefano Marzano was brought in as Dean, together with a new core faculty. That August, Bas left Media Republic to join Menno and play an operational role.

Under Menno’s leadership came some major design changes. The first one was to move from a Masters program to an Executive Creative Leadership program. The second was to move from a full-time 4-year program to a part-time program. The third was the design of the curriculum into four main streams: the Challenge, Forum, Quest, and Acceleration.

story of THNK

Today, the THNK Executive Leadership Program is made up three integrated pillars: Quest, Challenge, and Endeavor.

4. Get feedback and be prepared to change your thinking

By Autumn 2011, we began market testing in two ways: we started talking to potential participants and to potential corporate partners. The corporate partners gave us very harsh feedback: “The program is far too intensive – our best talent cannot be freed up for so such a long time and what is the value for us?” We concluded that we had to do Challenge projects that would be meaningful for society as well as for business and that we needed to get serious about helping corporates become more innovative.

With market testing with participants, we also had to start from scratch. Our newly-hired recruiter Eduard Burer stated: “We have nothing: we have no curriculum, we have no credibility, we have no history, and I have to ask participants for money? What is the pitch?”

We decided to have dinners with interesting, inspirational people from around the world, and rather than talk about ourselves, we stumbled on the idea to mainly listen to them. Instead of having a traditional university mindset of: “we have great stuff to bring to you” we decided to turn it around. Just as venture capitalists do, we scan the world for outstanding talent in creative leadership, and ask them: “what do you need?” This was a major shift in our thinking.

story of THNK
When testing your product or service, get lots of feedback and be prepared to change your thinking. Click To Tweet

5. Get a home and make it special

We also needed to think about a location for our creative leadership school, our THNK Home. We got a lot of help from the architecture firm OMA, who had just designed the Strelka Institute in Moscow. They said: “first of all, never go and look at any school or university, because it will just pollute your mind. Think fresh.” They had three great ideas. First, design your entrance like a shop front so you’ll maximize serendipity. People will just wander in for the wrong reason, and you only have to be hospitable to make connections. Second, the most important thing in a school is the bar. The first thing you should see when you come in is hospitality: a place to have breakfast, lunch and dinner and to party, which is why you’ll need some great audio equipment. Third, go for an overdose of light.

There was a lot of vacant space in the city but after a long search we ended up taking over the town hall of West Amsterdam at the Westerpark. This still guarantees daily accidental walk-ins. We were very lucky with the interior design firm Concrete. They had promised to support us and they came through big time. They designed the overall concept, the primary colors, the movable furniture (that could be combined into our logo), and the idea of a design space. They made the brand come alive in our home. Establishing our THNK home was a gift at that time and gave us an enormous amount of energy.

story of THNK

The THNK Home in Amsterdam was designed by architecture firm OMA. With an open entrance and a bar-like atmosphere, the THNK Home is a perfect design space that maximizes serendipity and helps THNK come alive.

6. You will never be ready, so move to continuous beta

Naturally, we had preferred to have more development time prior to the launch of the first creative leadership program. There was just one pilot, which had proved very insightful in particular in making us realize how much was still unclear.

As we had signed contracts with the first group of participants to start early March, that is what we had to live up to. We had only a small team with one curator (Karim Benammar), two creative leadership coaches (Elly van Gils and Robert Wolfe), one challenge coordinator (Berend-Jan Hilberts), a program manager (Merel Post), and a general manager (Mark Vernooij).

To deal with this pressure, we decided to adopt the concept of continuous beta. We started collecting detailed feedback from the participants at the end of each day. In the very early hours of the next morning, we interpreted the feedback and decided on design changes for that day. At the end of each module we also collected feedback on each of the faculty – which we shared within the full faculty team to encourage supporting each other to be effective. Most importantly, we invited our participants to become co-creators and take co-ownership for the program and THNK. We became religious about Net Promoter Score and had a huge hoorah once we reached Apple’s league.

Working Towards a Vision - The Story of THNK 1
Invite your customers to become co-creators and take ownership of the way they use your product. Click To Tweet

7. As your funding changes, change the structure

By June 2012, we were fully engaged with the first group of participants when we were confronted with a major restriction. The municipality told us they would stop structural funding. So it was clear we had to become self-sustaining. Our CFO took the lead in this major transition. To finalize the subsidy period, the municipality undertook a major audit, declared that we had passed all 35 requirements with “flying colors”, and sent us the closing amount for the first phase build-up. We took our own responsibility for financial stewardship going forward and we structured THNK into a combination of a foundation and a social enterprise, with a social mission and a responsibility for a financially sound model. The relationship between the Municipality and THNK is now one where Municipality leverages THNK and THNK contributes back into the city.

story of THNK
As your funding changes, learn to adapt to and embrace different methods of funding. Click To Tweet

Photo courtesy of Samedaypapers.


8. When thinking big, stay true to your nature

At the same time, we started getting new opportunities to expand the THNK creative leadership concept internationally. Although it was all very fresh, we first decided upon a strategy, which we called “Revolver”, to have several locations around the globe and do every module of the program in a different continent. Module 1 in Amsterdam as a tribute to the birthplace, module 2 in Vancouver, three in Shanghai and four in Sao Paolo. A truly global program initiated in Amsterdam, wouldn’t that just be cool?

After some thinking and testing the idea, we found reasons to change our mind. There is danger in being top-down and mechanistic about the structure – basically dictating when and where we want to be. A creative leadership school needs to be a combination of long-term vision and bottom-up entrepreneurship. Many participants have been saying they’d love to start a THNK program in their city, and we should support them instead of deciding where we want to go. And so we did. Rajiv Ball joined THNK from McKinsey to lead this effort. THNK Vancouver, spearheaded by one of our first participants Lee Feldman, opened its doors on September 2014. THNK Lisbon is spearheaded by another participant Livia Tirone, and opened in January of 2015.

THNK Co-Founder Menno van Dijk discusses what it takes to build a successful scale-up.

9. THNK Online Education is a different ballgame

We always had the dream that THNK Online Education would be larger than THNK itself. At THNK, we can reach and support a hundred people a year, but with Online Education we could potentially reach hundreds of thousands of people.

However, online education is an incredibly complex field. One thing is clear: just copying what works offline for creative leadership development to online is a recipe for disappointment. We have done a constant stream of experiments, ranging from an online community, to online tools to online DIY training and are committed to keep trying. Although we have not found the magic formula yet, we are committed to making it work.

story of THNK

Although we have not found the magic formula yet, we are committed to making THNK Online Education work.

10. If needed, reinvent an industry

Each of our Challenge projects with our corporate and organizational partners so far has resulted in a concept for an innovative venture that solves a relevant social issue and has significant business potential. But the last thing we want is for these concepts to remain ideas on paper. We want these concepts to become real enterprises with strong corporate partners and good creative leadership, so we want to put all of our weight behind these.

This means we need to attract funding-at-risk for an investment class that does not really exist: social enterprise incubation with significant profit potential. We found out that we need to offer much more than any typical incubator in terms of strategy articulation, leadership development and design thinking. In a sense we need to reinvent Venture Capital.

story of THNK
The last thing you want is for your ideas and concepts to remain on paper. Get your ideas to become real enterprises and reinvent an industry if you have to. Click To Tweet

What is THNK now?

All these developments have led to some reflection about the identity of THNK. THNK is always about creative leadership, but is it a school? With an approach and curriculum that can be fruitfully copied and scaled internationally? Is THNK a series of joint ventures, an innovation partner with a diversified portfolio of projects? Is THNK an incubator of startups led by our participants?

We don’t mind if the form cannot be pinpointed. What is crystal clear is our mission: to solve the world’s largest societal challenges by supporting global leaders from all walks of life to unlock their full creative leadership potential. These societal challenges are defined by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

This mission guides our constant experiment, our learning and adaptations. As THNK’s mission is rather unique, so THNK itself should be.

Learn more about the THNK Executive Leadership Program.