How to run an innovation lab

Get ready for lots of Post-It notes.

So many Post-Its.

Over the course of my first six months at MoMA, we held three “innovation labs” looking at digital culture across online collections, fundraising, and events in the museum context. What’s an innovation lab, you ask? For us, it was a one-day workshop to explore an issue or opportunity that was too broad or dynamic to be framed as a discrete project or product. The findings of the labs were then prototyped by another team within the museum, and eventually integrated into workflows and products.

Here’s my how-to:

Before the Lab

Step 1: Get the right people in the room

The participants: For our labs, we invited internal staff, selecting a cross-departmental group of no more than 10 people. I would recommend having no more than 12 people in the room, including facilitators. The number is small enough that everyone is forced to be a full participant, but also big enough that people can work in small groups.

Outside facilitator: We considered running the labs ourselves (and even did run one by ourselves), but I recommend having an outside facilitator, for two main reasons. The first is simply that it is easier to deal with logistics like welcoming guest speakers and receiving catering deliveries when there is an outside facilitator as well as an internal lead. This is not a huge deal, but it does make the day go more smoothly. The second is that at some point, you’ll need someone to say, “What do you mean? Can you give me an example?” This is potentially a bit of a head-butting moment, so it’s useful to have an outside person doing that.

For our labs, we worked with Lisa Lindström and Phi-Hong Ha from Doberman, and Bryan Boyer of Dash Marshall.

Graphic facilitator: This was a suggestion from Bryan Boyer, who enlisted Craighton Berman as a graphic facilitator for the second lab. (We then asked Rachel Abrams of Turnstone Consulting to graphic facilitate the third lab.) A graphic facilitator essentially captures the day through illustrations. Although we documented each lab with a plethora of Post-It notes and pictures, we found that because the graphic facilitator needed to represent what was being said in a visual way, they often were able to politely push participants for more detail. This was another way to help participants make the transition from abstract to concrete ideas and helped flesh out what one iteration of an idea might look like. (The graphic facilitators also made everything look much better.)

Guest speaker: For each lab, we invited in an external speaker to talk to the group over lunch. We found it helpful to get an outside perspective halfway through the workshop to inject a few new ideas, but this may be unnecessary if you have external participants.

The Champions: For each lab, we selected two “champions,” who were either senior curators or senior deputy directors. Their primary purpose was to review the prototypes that came out of the labs, and help “champion” the implementation of the best ones into the Museum’s workflows. They often attended the beginning of the day, but did not stay the entire time.

Step 2: Find a room.

Once we had a date, we could book a room for the workshop. For two of the labs, we were fortunate enough to be able to use an empty gallery at MoMA PS1. This was an ideal space for an innovation lab: it was informal, with lots of natural light, and there was a wall in the middle of the gallery which divided it into two spaces.

Step 3: Do your homework, then assign it.

We circulated a written brief at least two weeks beforehand. At a minimum, it was a collection of readings and summaries, but ideally, it was a statement paper. The briefing helped establish a baseline for the group, as well as set clear expectations for the day, which was helpful since most participants had never attended an “Innovation Lab” before. For one lab, we asked participants to go on a “learning safari” beforehand that would become the basis for their “lightning talk” (see below).

The Innovation Lab

Although each lab was slightly different (a/b test everything!), we followed a similar format for each one.

  1. Lightning Talks

We started the day off with five-minute lightning talks by all participants over breakfast. This provided everyone with the opportunity to speak their mind and unload their ideas, ones that had usually been percolating for a while. A bonus was that these talks were really enjoyable; it was a display of the depth and breadth of our colleagues’ knowledge. We learned a lot!

Lightning talks with bad lighting.

2. Core themes

During the lightning talks, we asked participants to note down things that stood out to them, and things they had questions about. Then, as a group, we pulled out core themes from the talks, establishing commonalities. This involved a lot of discussion about the ideas that people brought in, as the participants dug into them a bit further. I would recommend budgeting more time than you think is necessary for this stage.

Core values from lightning talks, captured by Rachel Abrams of Turnstone Consulting

3. Guest speaker

Over lunch, we brought in a guest speaker, who spoke about their work and served to inject new ideas after the initial core themes were laid out.

4. Challenges

After lunch, we divided the participants up into small groups to work on a series of “challenges” or “questions” (usually three of them). We gave them personas to help channel their ideas into concrete actions. After all the challenges, we again pulled out the core themes or concepts from the afternoon, and compared them to our initial group of ideas.

Any idea session started with people working individually, and then sharing their best ideas with the group. It was important to us that everyone shared something.

5. Prioritization exercise (“heat mapping”)

At the end of the day, we used “heat maps” to prioritize the ideas of the day and decide what to prototype. First, we placed each idea on a matrix that looked at impact, effectiveness, and difficulty (both technical and cultural).

Then, each participant marked their favorite and least favorite ideas with five blue and three red stickers. We required everyone to give out every sticker, particularly the reds, because we find people are generally very positive and we wanted to force the issue a bit. It was interesting to see which ideas were the “purples” — ideas that received both red and blue stickers.

Heat mapping

The heat-mapping served as a cost-benefit analysis, helping us discern what could be an easy win and what might be more trouble than it’s worth.

After the Lab: Prototyping

From the workshop participants, we selected two prototyping leads who took the ideas prioritized by the group and worked with a separate team to refine and develop those ideas. The goal was quick comps that were just enough to make a concept believable. (This often ended up being a deck with visualizations.)

Prototype for subtle digital signage (not currently possible because of the state of e-ink technology)

Prototyping was actually the most difficult part of the labs. We found that internal staff struggled to prioritize the project over the course of two weeks when competing with their other work, often leading to delays in the delivery of the prototypes. And although we specifically encouraged the teams not to be held back by existing policies or practices, they tended to get bogged down in our internal culture once they left the workshop setting.

Prototype of custom URL shortener in use. We have since started using on our digital channels.


Of course, there were logistical challenges — it is difficult to get a group of ten staff members for an entire day, which is why we scheduled the labs offsite but still in New York City. (The Rockefeller Foundation’s social innovation labs take a different approach, sending participants to faraway locations, turning the labs into an experience similar to a conference or retreat.)

There was lots of candy.

We made it clear we would provide food (including fresh fruit) and caffeine throughout the day, and scheduled breaks where participants could check email to limit distraction during the actual sessions. We also had candy in the afternoon to inject some sugar into people. Nevertheless, there were participants who could not stay the entire day for each of the labs. This was most problematic when they had to arrive late, as they missed the lightning talks.

The single biggest challenge was that our participants were often most comfortable thinking abstractly. This meant that they struggled to articulate a concrete example of their ideas, and always seemed dissatisfied with the translation of their ideas into something specific. Using personas helped them make that connection between an abstract idea and a concrete one, but it was not always easy. That’s where the facilitators were vital, stepping in to provide suggestions or find new ways to help participants think through how to translate an idea into something actionable.

What would I change if I were to do it again?

  • Ideally, the lab would take place over two days, starting with a dinner on the first day to allow the group to get to know each other in a more casual setting
  • Include a mix of internal and external participants, from a variety of industries (not just museum folks)
  • End with a crit, with internal and external judges (the internal ones could be the “champions”)
  • Commission prototypes for the ideas that come out of the Lab externally, then review the prototypes with the lab participants and “champions”

Have you held an innovation lab or similar workshop? We’d love to hear about your experiences!