When I returned to Canada after living abroad, I spoke at the Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Innovation Lab in Ottawa. I had a partner who ran the Polaroid Creativity Lab in the 1990s. What struck me was how little changed in the design of labs over the years; whiteboard walls, Post It Notes and funky props and furniture.
Yet both Denmark’s MindLab and the ISED Lab closed within months of each other, and many US labs closed in rapid succession in the late 1990s. There are lessons for today’s lab directors in these flaws and failures.
MindLab’s final director Thomas Prehn made a number of recommendations, and two of his points are worth repeating:
- “Failure is not an option. It’s imperative that you rigorously return to the problem until it’s resolved. This must be what you promise, rather than promising a smoothly facilitated workshop.” People want to see results, not pictures of Post-It Notes on a wall.
- “Don’t promote methods,” which is much like the truism: “Don’t fall in the love with your tools.” Design and behavioural insights are many labs’ favourite problem-solving processes today. While useful, are they enough? There are other tools out there. US labs used a bigger creativity tool kit. For example, TRIZ, an acronym for the Russian Problem Solving process, helps solve complex technical problems. Many also used cognitive diversity (adaption-innovation) to improve collaboration and problem solving.
Some governments say labs build a culture of innovation. While a comforting idea, it’s wrong. Research from 2017 has found that while many companies and countries are investing in labs, that does not mean they are becoming more innovative. It concluded, “[Innovation] takes a lot more than opening a lab. It takes a disciplined approach on a number of fronts.” As Prehn said, “They don’t help usher in a sustainable change to how organisations work.”
There were several reasons for why these labs were closed. Executives questioned the level and number of successes compared to the expectations they had of what the labs should do. The barriers to success were:
• The effort required to have a major impact on large corporations was underestimated.
• Sponsorship was too narrow to have staying power as executives moved on.
• Time horizons for impact were seriously underestimated.
But that’s not to say that labs can never succeed. Labs can be a useful piece of the innovation puzzle if managers adopt a systems-thinking strategy, thinking more about their role within the wider government, department or company. They need to shape a culture within the whole organisation that is more open to new ideas, and this could be addressed by focusing more on communication.
From experience I know that lab directors can sometimes resist the idea of putting resources towards communication, but if staff communication is not in your current plan, you should change it. Most executives and staff will never see the lab, but they must know how it contributes to the organisation. Use proven innovation communications tactics such as:
• Building visibility with “tips from the lab” newsletters, blogs, guides, or tools. Skip the jargon. Put something tangible into the hands of staff.
• Helping managers by creating team briefs, case studies and articles for team meetings.
• Inviting executives for briefings to build your pool of champions.
• Packaging presentations for staff meetings and manager conferences.
• Creating basic education programs to help staff and teams solve problems on the job.
As an innovation strategist, I believe there is an opportunity to reinvent labs by expanding their focus. What if you focus on four products or end-goals that the public servants working within them are tasked with creating?
- Government policy innovation
- Public services innovation (including service design and digital)
- Science and technology — governments employ thousands of scientists, engineers and researchers. Labs can think of ways for them to become more effective.
- Management systems innovation — “innovate” how government innovates to build skills, capacity and culture.
The first two are obvious; the second two are not. A large department could create four labs or assign teams to focus on specific products. My first job in public services was with New Zealand Post. My team worked like a lab. We focused on (2) to design new services and (4) to create staff and manager resources to improve internal and external services. Every lab should focus on (4) as this drives everything.
Labs should be a beacon of insight and knowledge. Prehn was blunt in saying that staff should “climb down from the ivory tower and avoid the tendency of labs to define themselves in opposition to the rest of the organization,” adding, “Please, lose the arrogant attitude.” That’s sound advice. — Ed Bernacki
(Picture credit: Pexels)