Credit: A real ‘love in’ at Helsinki Design Lab closing 2013.
Originally published in March, 2016.

Open Letter: Dear colleague-So you want to launch a “design lab”? The first thing you should do is Kill the Design Lab*

Originally sent as email to a colleague inquiring about starting a corporate design/innovation lab

Dear colleague:

You’re the fourth person to contact me about launching an in-house design lab in so many days. It seems “labs” are certainly fashionable. I’ve recently had government officials from two ministries, an executive from a bank and well now your inquiry. This is very exciting and I’m happy to share my experiences, some possible steps and considerations.

Now you might not know this coming from the energy sector, but the natural habitat of the designer might be thought of as a “lab”. Although, I suspect few of my predecessors would have realized the hidden asset value they had in their eclectic, borrowed and probably stolen work spaces, located onreal-estate of marginal value! But with the advent of design-thinking, it seems that design/innovation labs, as practiced by a variety of business-design folks, are the new creative place (or event) for generating amazing ideas, making sense of complexity and bringing diverse stakeholders together to build the future. As you know, there’s certainly a need for these things in our increasingly ‘stuck’ corporate environments.

So here are a few possible steps with considerations:

Step 1: Kill the Design Lab or Change Lab or Whatever Lab

Now the first thing you need to do is kill the design lab, as you are currently thinking about it right now. Just delete this idea from your memory. Maybe don’t even name this thing a “lab”. And maybe don’t call yourselves designers or social innovators or entrepreneurs. The trouble with labs being so fashionable and popular now is that they’ve changed from being a marginal and contextual sideshow for a few people living on the corporate edge; to a template simplified for the median corporate culture. This was necessary to appeal to a wider audience, but the issue I have is with the “templating” of something that was intended to be contextual. Context is the net emergent qualities that make a particular situation materially (or immaterially!) unique relative to other situations. Context includes permutations and combinations of events, patterns, structures and cultures overlaid on a situation. Your business has unique variations in corporate culture, history, ideas about leadership and success, modes of problem solving and behaviours that form a unique landscape. If these things were easy to replicate, innovation would be far simpler, we could simply buy the best ideas and templates. Sometimes that is possible, but high value innovation is contextual, that’s what makes it innovative! So the idea that there is a template, that can be copied and with similar effort, arrive at similar result should be questioned. There are large design firms who sell expensive products and consultants who attend conference all in homage to “labs”. Perhaps we are at ‘peak lab’ but I’ll leave that for the more studious among us. All this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pursue your dream — it means that the first step isn’t to copy and paste a concept from somewhere else but to understand your landscape and develop an appropriate solution that fits somewhere between the need for innovation and available resources.

Step 1 redo: Understand the Need For Innovation

Ask yourself: where do we need new value created? When I first joined the government in 2012, I was sent to Helsinki and Copenhagen to assess if the Helsinki Design Lab (HDL) and MindLab models could be imported to Alberta. HDL had a distinctly expertise-led (architects) operation focused on disrupting poor performing patterns and MindLab was more participatory, trying to reorient government services around people’s needs. Both seemed exciting and both were novel, but I was struck by the very different cultures where these innovations emerged. Alberta is a different landscape: we’ve generated most of our wealth by growing and extracting things from the ground. Our mindset is far more stoic, material and shaped by a very spacious, lonely, and diverse geography and climate. People here don’t inherently trust government — they value intuition, proven results, independence and self-sufficiency. Our (corporate) metaphors and stories are coloured by the landscape and the industries on it — including cowboys, oilmen, homesteaders and hudson’s baymen (you see the stoicism now, eh?). Contrast that with the Nordic view…other than our shared climate and value of intuition we might remain polar opposites. So if that’s our macro context, then how might that translate into your corporate landscape at the meso- and micro- scales? And where do you need innovation?

In co-founding the Alberta COLAB with Alex Ryan, Keren Perla, Sandra Honour and Doug Lammie we invested time in understanding the particularities of our own context and where we needed to unlock value for clients. This involved interviewing champions and making sense of our landscape. Given the prevailing culture, we identified a need to shift the public service’s culture away from past patterns of behaviour towards something that was more systemic and long-term. Accordingly, our business model would include in-house futurists (to conceptualize alternative futures), systems-thinkers (to reframe connections and avoid unintended consequences) designers (to build the future now) and strategists (to help reframe impactful issues). This odd team would build capacity, make sense of complexity and make advancements in key policy arenas. Training and development, succession planning and knowledge transfer would be key activities. We saw the “lab” as a strategic “cultural” innovation itself, a tool to change patterns within the public service. We loved the idea of bringing Albertan’s into the policy development process but we also knew it would be a serious cultural shift to bring government towards a co-design mindset. We risked killing COLAB if we jumped right into co-design with citizens, so we started by building credibility within the institution. Key point: you should understand the need for innovation and define near and longer range success based on research.

Step 2: Work with Available Resources

What is a lab? and what resources do you have? Labs have been described as a structured process to deal with complex problems, that enables creative, constructive and hopeful solutions, housed in a co-productive, collaborative, diverse but salient environment. Typically labs are concerned about unlocking value and affecting some sort of change often by applying people-centred and/or systemic methods to understand things from many scales and points of view. They rely on a mix of logical, expertise, participatory and intuitive methods. Labs can be temporary or short term, like a workshop, or an active business model within government, like in-house consultants. MindLab, MaRS Solution Lab and COLAB are permanent facilities with full-time in-house staff and consultants. Citizen Action Lab is both a permanent facility and hosts a lab process that can live as briefly as a few hours. HDL lived for a few years with a defined timeline and goals (BTW. they call it a “Strategic Design” studio). The Strategic Innovation Lab is a permanent facility housed at OCAD University and connects faculty and students with projects. Given resources available and the need, what is desirable, viable, feasible? Start small if you’re an insurgent near the bottom of the hierarchy and, if you’re near the top, you’ll need some experienced and crafty people inside, at the edge, or outside your organization that can challenge your assumptions. Key points: Not every situation requires a purpose built facility or a permanent team. Consider a temporary, low cost, reorganization of space and people around a project, an event or a series of change events.

Consider: Where you’ll place the lab and team? Inside your organization like Alberta COLAB; if so, where? At the edge in a more autonomous role? Like MaRS Solutions Lab; Strategic Innovation Lab; or MINDLAB; Or outside, perhaps by bringing in consultants like Bridgeable; IDEO; Idea Couture; Jess McMullin.
Consider: Will your lab initiative focus more on front-end innovation; generating good ideas, sensemaking for others to implement? Or will it focus more on action/impact; delivering and capturing value? At what scales do you intend to operate? Will you focus on process and micro service innovations? Or do you intend for systemic, macro solutions to big wicked problems? These aren’t trade-offs, a lab can “live” in all these quadrants, you’ll just need more resources and time.

Step 3: Be Clear About Success and Track It

Define it and be clear about what success looks like. Building capacity should probably be one of the objectives. You might have performance targets for engagement, support network reach, number of facilitated events, satisfaction/experience, value for money, and impact on innovation priorities (if you have an innovation strategy; i.e. make progress in key value centres). It’s important to track these things: 1) so you don’t just admire problems and build capacity to admire problems; and 2) so you can justify the lab’s value. For COLAB, our bar for success was that we would help government reframe its understanding of challenges, enable coordinated and cooperative solutions, think systemically, and build capacity. Key performance measures are tracked on an engagement basis. Key point: success criteria become your value proposition/sales pitch.

Rant: I have an action/results/impact bias, so I define innovation largely around the idea of improving the lives of people and that’s reflected when we make an impact, even if small in scope. You have to avoid the “satisfaction trap”, as most people who participate in novel and creative activities will provide favourable feedback. Your team must always understand impacts both intended and unintended. I’ve heard others argue that deep collaboration around complex or wicked problems alone is success. I think this is a pretty low bar and simply causes more problems – notably, a relevance and commitment issue with participants and clients over the medium time frame. Also, my views are coloured by my experiences in designing and deploying labs across Canada and mostly in public sector settings, which naturally trend towards admiring problems.

Key point: Defining and tracking success helps to demonstrate your value, build credibility, rally resources, and assess your team’s impact.

Step 4: Consider a Few Other Variables

Limitation: My experiences are largely about setting up innovation activities in large and bureaucratic institutions with complex systemic challenges, both inside the public service and across our geography.

Some considerations:

What’s innovation for you?

Having some framework or strategy for innovation is probably a priority activity for your new team. I think there are a series of questions you might always work on:

  1. Where do we need redesign and why? (As opposed to optimization) where do we need to create, deliver and capture new value? Look to major cost/value centres for poor performance and explore underlying causes, assumptions, and alternatives.
  2. Where have our existing approaches failed, are failing, or our business/service models have been disrupted? You might examine current activities, partnerships, channels, resource flows, services, etc.

In my current role we’ve identified areas where investments have not been getting great returns, so we are very involved in service reforms, funding model redesign, governance changes, performance management, incentives and emergent policy development. I would recommend keeping your lab focused. If it’s a temporary, few day, lab event, then I would focus it on a specific challenge. If it’s an active team, then consider focusing on a sector or the impact and change you want to see. If it’s a sector, it doesn’t need to align with a particular department or structure, in fact it can straddle or fall between a few.

Temporary or Permanent?

Decide your level of investment. Will you launch a temporary lab (i.e. for a few days) or an active team (for a year or more)? In any case, I would set a fixed timeline and budget. The biggest challenge that you will find is recruiting crafty team members and leaders with the skills and capabilities needed to manage or facilitate the work. For example, in our various labs, we’ve hired consultants, contract staff, and permanent staff. It’s been difficult recruiting to Edmonton and there’s not a lot of people with practical experience. Also, there are advantages and disadvantages to where you “place” the lab team in relation to government. For example, consultants can reduce perceived risks and allow for more creativity, but in-house government staff can really understand the issues and can be cost effective. ‘At the edge’ of government teams have incredible flexibility to engage or simply buy lunch that in-house teams lack, but require additional governance. Where you place the team relative to champions and the hierarchy is worth some thought. We’ve generally minimized the reporting lines and treated the lab teams as in-house consultants. Our teams were placed within Ministries with a small function housed at the centre of government.

Other thoughts…

Leadership and talent. Probably the most important factor will be the quality, skill and craftiness of your leadership and talent. You know your organization best but whom you select to lead the practical implementation of this creative endeavor is the most uncertain and high impact decision. Last year Alex Ryan and I developed a short list of some attitudes associated with systemic- and design- thinking that you might seek out (hey Alex, shout out if I missed any!), in no particular order:

  1. Embracing complexity: considering multiple scales and perspectives, broadening and expansionary thinking (for example, mapping, visualization, sense-making, etc.)
  2. Embracing difference: ability to find the edges; variation and diversity; active engagement; ability to openly reflect on biases; appreciating that data is more than quantities; apply logical and rigour with creativity.
  3. Acting collaboratively: demonstrated co-creative and co-productive experiences; generative and iterative thinking; aptitude for positive, hopeful and action orientation.
  4. Appreciate a multiplicity of choices and futures: translating speculative and futuristic thinking with organizational impact and outcomes; aptitude to challenge the problem as presented; client service orientation; long-term and futuristic perspective.

Scale. Labs are among a cluster of tools that are helpful where redesign is needed. But redesign can happen at any or multiple scales. So the lab can help in building a big picture strategy, policy, a new organization, business model, program or service, or new events that shift mindsets. When you’re recruiting, people have talents and skills which lend to work at different scales.

Depth of focus. In the past, a challenge that COLAB has encountered is that they became in-house facilitators, conducting some 90+ multi-day sense-making sessions/projects spanning every government department. The trouble, I think, with this approach was that great ideas were not stewarded much further than ideation or concept. The COLAB team has since adjusted their business model. I’ve experienced, that longer engagements/projects minimize the risk of just admiring the problem. A deeper focus and longer engagement on fewer projects is needed to get to impact. But, I’m hoping my colleagues will comment, as there are trade offs to different approaches to stewardship.

Our successes. In the past few years we have used labs to design a new resource management system for our province, a new multi-billion dollar energy sector regulator, a new environmental monitoring agency, a governance model for our province-wide health service, integrated health needs assessment, government-wide information systems, an early childhood development strategy, the provinces energy, economic development and health strategies, and many many policies spanning government. I think these are practical examples of macro- and meso- scale innovations that benefit from the temporary reorganization enabled by lab activities.

Stakeholders. Some organizations are reluctant to engage with stakeholders to redesign. My advice would be to allow stakeholder involvement in lab processes, especially where shared action is desired.

Step 5: Build and Sell the Case

I will not say much about selling the case. I think the quality of a good lab is determined by the quality of execution and the quality of impact. But it certainly helps if champions, participants and your leadership build the case and sell it. A large part of my time has been presenting case studies, writing articles and responding to inquiries.

My last piece of advice is to be like Keren, leave your sticky notes at home and “get dirty”!

My friend and colleague Keren leading the two-day Systemic Design and the Art of ‘Homo Empaticus’ studio at The Banff Centre for the Relating Systems-Thinking and Design-Thinking 4 Conference in September, 2015.

Jonathan Veale is a design executive based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has held leadership roles with Calgary’s Civic Innovation YYC Lab and previously led an in-house team at Alberta’s Ministry of Health specializing in the emerging field of public sector strategic design. Before that, Jonathan co-founded the Alberta CoLAB at the Department of Energy and served as in-house design strategist and futurist for Alberta’s Executive Council. Jonathan founded NEW PATTERN, a people-centred, futuristic, design agency that experiments with new and emerging approaches to collective problem solving.

*Opinions and content here are my own.