Innovation hubs pt. 1: The good, the bad and ideas for a better approach
At Fjord Helsinki, we’ve been having conversations around the topic of innovation hubs — the pros and cons for both us, as designers, and for the client organisation
The appearance of a hub, lab, dock, whatchamacallit, etc. is usually one of the first visible results of a transformation program.
This is happening with all sectors — private and public — where companies are either building their Design Doing units from scratch, with the help of consultancies or bystraight-up acquiring existing innovation teams.
The trend is up — some may say it’s already peaked — and it can be quite thrilling to play a part when big old legacy companies explore new ways of working. But in reality, where this trend places us, the external designers, can be a lot less uplifting.
At the Helsinki studio, we’ve been talking about the good and the bad (and, in some cases, the ugly) sides of this work. Here’s a look at the different parts of that discussion.
For a team equipped with Service Design methodologies, the work can be extremely productive. If the lab is set up at the client’s site, it’s more informal and we’re able to be part of the day-to-day. It’s also usually the best way to immerse the client in a culture of collaboration and experimentation.
If the lab is hosted in our space — and they’re basically living with us — the learning curve can be quite different. A well-designed space plays an enormous part in how we behave and think while working, and this way, we get to have our own team nearby, which we all value as one the biggest positives.
Best-case scenario: we set up, support and then leave — having made a lasting change in the culture of the organization, which has grown the needed capabilities to continue.
It’s not all doom and gloom — but there’s no escaping the fact that there are some major issues we need to deal with. When an external team joins a change initiative, one of the problematic areas is within the scoping of the work.
First, if the problems we are going to work on are the wrong business problems, a great product with a good business model will not scale, nor will it have any meaningful impact.
In addition, if the people in leadership who are funding the programme do not fully understand or commit to the purpose of the lab, the push that’s needed at a later stage simply will not happen.
It is crucial for both sides to understand – and agree on – why and how we should be involved. What is it that we need to achieve?
Following this, if the design team involved in the project is hastily put together without real consideration of how roles will influence each other or when certain people should actually be involved, time and money gets burnt on both sides — not to mention nerves and creativity itself.
Lastly, if the premise for the lab itself is for an external team to facilitate new ways of working alone, it leaves the owners of the change initiative with very few ways of actually measuring anything.
One example of this is the problem of workshops.
Workshops can be extremely useful. The problem is that these sessions have become part of an agreed delivery — a showcase of How to Innovate — when the reality is that not all projects need large co-creation sessions, and we shouldn’t spend time on one if it is not the tool we need at that time.
So how can we plan better? And how do we protect our own culture and grow our craft when we’re spending long periods of time someplace very different?
The New Checklist
The estimated success rate of large-scale transformations, in the low 30%, is not exactly encouraging, but there are examples of amazing change. At Fjord Helsinki, we started noting down ideas on how to better approach the concepts of an innovation lab.
Start by solving a problem
Identify a single strategic priority — don’t choose a huge, glaring monster, but one that is possible to take on now. Ideally, this would be something you have a strong top cover for, as well as the data to measure progress. It should be an area where employees and target customers would really welcome change.
We see a lot of leadership passionate about high-level visions with huge shifts and ambitious goals. A compelling vision is crucial — but it’s not enough. What would it take for someone to lead the effort full-time?
If it is a priority, make it a priority.
Say no to ambiguity
Innovation strategy should be actionable and approach the service from a holistic point of view. Ask, what it is that you want to achieve?
By doing this, you can better align the operational people with the leadership, which is how change can actually happen.
As coaches, designers need to communicate the necessity of hands-on leadership before the scope is even set. Pre-project parameters of what is considered success can fight ambiguity for both the client stakeholders and for us, the visiting outsiders.
Be open and plan for identity work
Politics and legacy are going to be present with any established organisation. One of the ways we can let go of possible hang-ups associated with the old way of working is to build a new identity. This won’t be relevant for all cases of course (or fully realised until time has passed) but should it help the change effort, we should have the leeway and space to build a better place to continue.
Invest in the space
By creating a safe space for change-minded people, gangs can begin to form within the organisation. These change agents are the people who can push where we cannot, and those are the people who can do with our support, teaching, and inspiration.
The Necessary Toolkit
Here are some tools our team wishes to push more with:
Specifically, sufficient budgets to create meaningful content. We don’t need Hollywood-level investment, but a production of a vision film, for example, should not be an add-on or an after-thought in scope.
The same goes for launch events and our role in them. These are the key moments when we can help the client get the attention and buy-in that’s needed to shift things in a meaningful way.
Brand creation or development
This can be done fast in collaboration if we are ready to grow the team for a short time or work with partners to produce thoughtful, impressive and impactful outcomes.
Ready-to-be-modified libraries that can contribute to a larger Design System can make all of the above work easier — from prototyping to brand assets to communications.
Finally — though this is definitely not an exhaustive list — we should plan for what’s at the core of human-centric design: testing — and a lot of it. Sharing and including everyone who can benefit or contribute to solutions requires commitment from the client and it requires commitment from us too — it is too easy to drop the participatory aspect when deadlines and outputs scream for attention.
This is the first of two articles on innovation hubs. Look out for a second piece, coming soon.