12 things we learned from setting up a corporate lab

A couple of months back, we (Jos & Lassi) got an amazing opportunity from Makerlab to set up a corporate innovation lab for a media company that’s in the middle of digital transformation. We’ve written this article together about the way we approached the challenge. And especially to share what we learned along the journey.

The Setting
Most of the traditional models for setting up corporate innovation are based on a world of relative certainty. Predictive models are preferred over experimentation, and more work is spent planning than doing. The management prefers elaborate Excels over validated testing using small groups. To turn this around, you need to redefine corporate innovation — here’s our twelve point plan for doing it.

1. Scope

You need a clear scope — which means having agreed on answers to the following list of questions. Unless you can agree on that, there is no point in setting up a corporate Lab structure.

  • What type of products is the company looking for — exploiting or expanding on existing assets, or exploring new opportunities?
  • What size revenue streams do they expect and in what timeframe?
  • How should ideas that are already in the company be treated? Is there a priority or preference on source of idea?
  • What methodology does the company like and do they agree on the prerequisites of freeform experimentation?
  • How much budget is allocated for both exploration and actually building a working product or prototype?
  • Would there be more focus on actual product development and/or fast paced learning? And if combined: how does that look?
  • What would you define as a ‘win’ for the Lab?

By setting a clear goal of deliverables and prerequisites, the team knows what it sets out to do and can avoid annoying discussions in the middle of the process. But here’s the caveat: you get what you measure, so if you define the wrong deliverable, don’t be surprised if that’s what you get!

2. Outside in

If you plan on creating new products in a established sector, you will need insider knowledge on the industry, but from as broad an experience as possible. Luckily, both of us have worked for multiple sizeable media companies before, so we (think we) know what we’re doing. This is a key factor in creating products. Just training people can be done by anyone who understands innovation methods in any sector, but the importance of having a general understanding of the rules of an industry (and how to break them) shouldn’t be underestimated. This of course can be avoided by a creative combination of outiside and inside resources, like in our case having a smart “insider” from the company joining us at the Lab.

3. Branding & design

One way to make a ‘Lab’ a sticky product for the people in the company is getting the staff engaged. You need collaboration tools, but you also need some visible branding & design for the lab. We ordered a banner, some stickers and we got a good space next to the editorial team to be part of the “floor”. We created a minimum viable logo, which we use loosely on some products and in internal presentations. It’s good to use with care: mostly the point of communicating about a Lab is internal focused. Customers do not care if a product is a Lab product or not: they simply want the best user-outcome possible. For the company though — especially for the CMO and such — the question of what to launch with the company brand, what with a Lab brand and what without recognizable branding is a crucial one. For example Adobe does all their experiments off-brand (because whatever they do with their brand attracts a lot of noise instead of early adopters); Telefonica on the other hand works in the three stages: off-brand, Lab-brand and finally on-brand with some traction.

4. Tools

Our team is currently using Slack, Unbounce, Trello, Mailchimp, Intercom, Segment, DigitalOcean and WordPress. We brought in a lot of new tools. Slack was adopted very fast. Within weeks we had 25 users, varying from the editor in chief to marketing-interns — also changing the way the whole unit operated together by switching to more informal communication. Other tools, like Trello were abadonned pretty early because we have offline alternatives for them (a big whiteboard, with all the team able to access it during office hours).

5. Online vs offline

That being said: not every tool is created equal. Offline tools, like experiment-boards and scrum-boards will help getting the mood right: physical tooling is often so much stronger than anything happening virtually. Tangible things play into the feeling of “things happening” — post-its are harder to ignore than virtual tickets, and putting printed photos of people’s faces next to tasks creates ownership.

6. Tech

Assuming you want to use some kind of lean startup methodology approach, you’ll need some tech in place. For example a small cloud server, a domain registrar and a tool like Google Apps for domains for creating e-mail accounts from your fresh entity. Don’t bother about the existing infrastructure which might be in place in the corporation: the governance is there to protect the big business processes, but it will hamstring the Lab effort. Use the ‘when it’s viable, we’ll investigate how to move this into the normal processes’ as an argument. Tools need to be fit for purpose. We like DigitalOcean, that’s why we set up shop there. Use anything you like.

7. Culture & Process

We’re big fans of doing scrum, but not necessary in an orthodox manner. The goal matters more than how we get there. Using weekly sprints, we do a standup at the beginning of the week, and a retrospective at the end. We added some personal touch to ask each of us to share what we learned over the weekend. This turned out to be a good conversation starter for a lot of running projects — and some bad jokes as well. Getting offline scrum tools in place allowed us to move faster and get a more transparant approach: anyone could look at the board and know what colleagues were doing. For obvious reasons these meetings are offline, and we like to get the whole team involved in these meetups.

8. Reporting & Innovation Accounting

Wheter you like it or see this as a major distraction: you need a clear reporting format to satisfy the corporate sponsors. In this way they’ll stay involved & engaged with products you are working on. Creating a slim format in reporting is crucial for well-being of the lab: and the more you share about what’s happening, the more you create both buy-in and trust that the effort is not just a lot of noise but concrete outcomes every sprint. We made sure to show every week both the results of the experiments and the speed of learning, and always showing what’s happening next to avoid nasty surprises.

9. Continuity

After twelve sprints we are wrapping up our involvement in the Lab but leaving the organization running. So we need to make sure that the methodology sticks enough that people continue doing what they do. This means facilitation, and getting the right team internally. Not falling back into ‘normal’ busdev is crucial for the medium-long term relationship with innovation. Spinning out concepts is as well: clear guidance on when products will leave the lab is a vital part, but that shouldn’t be done too early (EBIT pressure will kill things if handed into running business) or too late (no product focus and getting stuck in the experiment-cycle will also end up being harmful). Working products that actually need continous production work, like writing articles, need to get resourced. Because getting committed resources for the “not-business-yet” products is hard, finding employees who enjoy being part of the new and who are willing to dedicate some time to support is crucial.

10. Transparency

Part of the success of a new innovation team is sharing the successes, but also the failures. You can do this over lunch, or at the coffee machine. Or within #general of Slack. Or in the weekly reports. As long as you keep on sharing what worked, and what didn’t, you are creating a culture that starts understanding both winning quick and failing fast. We’ve had some opportunities to pitch for the entire company and we got amazing feedback because we shared what didn’t work out. Failures can happen — and should happen. But they also should be shared and learned from.

11. Out of scope

Not every idea written down on a napkin should automatically become material for experiments within the lab. Ideas are cheap. Set clear rules of thumb engaging these ideas and seek for commitment from the person pitching the idea — you can’t just become a proving ground for half-baked ideas without ownership.

12. Build a team — and stay in sync

It doesn’t matter how big or small the team is, but keep in sync. The process should facilitate in having regular conversations about each others concerns and impediments to success. There will be tensions — everyones performance levels and focus fluctuates, some weeks require more from someone technical, some from business or design. But product building is simply hard work. You’ll fail big at some points, or lose some energy. That’s when you need your team to stick together. Corporate innovation stays a tough job — but that’s why you just finished this article and want to keep making things better.

Good luck out there!

ps. If you enjoyed this and need help setting up a corporate lab, feel free to drop me an e-mail.