What do innovation labs or teams do that existing structures and processes do not? Why are they needed? My own perspective on this question has undergone some evolution, informed by my involvement in an Australian experiment with an innovation lab – DesignGov. DesignGov was an 18 month pilot innovation team set up to explore different forms of collaboration and the application of design-led innovation to issues spanning multiple government agencies.
As someone involved with establishing the argument and business case for such a lab, I originally concentrated on certain aspects of why this should happen. To begin with this included points such as:
- Dedicated teams are needed that have the mandate and freedom to explore outside ‘business-as-usual’ work. The day-to-day routine can squeeze out the time for non-urgent innovation (though, as others have said, this is not to mean that such teams should be exclusively responsible for innovation)
- Existing structures for collaboration are often ill-suited for exploratory and innovative approaches – they are often built around incremental adjustment or for implementing significant changes that have already been decided
- There needs to be a locus for innovation efforts when there is no clear owner or lead agency and where the appropriate response is contested.
All of these aspects are important and hold true for me as much as they did before my time with DesignGov. However the experience of DesignGov also opened my eyes to the importance of some other reasons. For instance:
- Organisational silos are major shapers of how we think. Within an organisation it is easy to think that you are taking a citizen-first or a whole-of-government perspective. However, until you are outside of that silo and fully exposed to other views and experiences, it is hard to truly take on and understand the view of the citizen and their needs. Innovation labs are set to look at problem areas rather than taking the view that the current approach can be incrementally fixed. They allow you to more easily divorce yourself from the existing systems and response. Labs can help facilitate a more ‘outside-in’ view
- Organisational cultures, leaders, traditions and history all influence how members of an organisation think and act. There are often dominant preferences, biases, and favoured disciplines/methodologies for each organisation. Yet these inbuilt defaults can inadvertently limit the cross-fertilisation and experimentation of combining different approaches – either within the organisation, or from collaborating with other agencies and partners. Innovation teams are a quick way to free people from those legacies and to encourage more intellectual and disciplinary flexibility
- Innovation labs can act as a conduit or a bridge from the ‘edge’ to the centre. Innovation often happens at the edge where there is greater exposure to many emerging problems or issues, where the idealised practice meets the realities of delivery, and where different or diverging voices and perspectives are more easily found and heard. Innovation labs can help tap into the experience of the edge and channel it in a way that can be used by the centre to improve understanding and possible responses
- Innovation already happens across public services, but for a variety of reasons it can be hard to see or know about. This might be because those doing it do not see it as innovation and therefore do not think to highlight it, there might be anxiety that if an innovation gains profile it will be noticed and then stopped, or because those undertaking an innovation do not know who else should be told. Innovation labs can easily act as a connector of different parts of the system, linking an innovation in one area with another. They can raise the profile of what is already being done and act as an exemplar of what could be done
- As both connectors and conduits, innovation labs can potentially operate as hubs or brokers. Labs tend to be natural attractors of issues and problem areas within the system, and can identify and connect disparate parts of the system more easily than more established areas. They offer a way for problems to more easily find or bring together the relevant ‘owners’.
There are other advantages as well, but these were some of the contributions of innovation labs that I did not fully appreciate until actually having been involved with one. They helped me understand how important organisational form or structure is to achieving its function, and how innovation increasingly requires different organisational forms to those we have traditionally used in the public service.
While the DesignGov experiment finished in 2013, the ongoing growth of such initiatives around the world (and in different forms within Australia, e.g. the Development Innovation Hub) shows that there is widespread recognition that new organisational forms and structures are needed. Innovation labs are no panacea, but they are an important addition to the repertoire.
I think it is exciting to see the new models being tested and to see how new organisational forms can provide us with new insights and perspectives.