10 things we learned from launching an Innovation Lab

“If you are going to take an innovation job, make sure to buy yourself some time, and then, use that time to make sure you make a difference.”  Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

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It’s now over six months since we launched Bromford Lab. I’ve been asked about setting it up more than anything else I’ve done in my career, so that seems enough reason to warrant a post.

So what’s gone well?

The first challenge of any Lab is to get internal colleagues to accept it. On this we can report success, far from being defensive, our colleagues have used sessions to critically examine their service areas. They’ve been open about failings and honest in identifying areas where we are coming up short.

People are pitching ideas. We’ve had 37 concepts in the Lab so far and people are not slow in coming forward . Customers are pitching ideas too, most notably through a dedicated blog page set up independently.

Internal barriers and silos are being eroded. Any Lab session can contain people from 4 or 5 different parts of the organisation – as well as customers.

There are lots of improvements to make though – we’ve identified that some concepts are not progressing fast enough and we need to boost the organisational metabolism. We also feel we’ve been so tied up with getting the Lab working internally we’ve neglected our wider network, particularly those people who expressed interest through the Twitter only recruitment.

Here are our ten lessons so far:

Think big. Start small.

Some of our concepts have hit a wall because we let them get too complicated. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing anything. If people wait for perfection before they put an idea to work, it will stall before it gets off the ground.

Assemble small teams.

Smaller companies are usually faster and more innovative than their larger counterparts. The same is true for teams. We have a core team of four and we’ll never work with teams of more than seven. We built the Lab to a specific size so they simply wouldn’t fit in.

People misinterpret innovation.

Sometimes they just expect uncontrolled creativity.  Being creative is great, but innovators need to turn creativity into output. That means we’ll need data. Evidence. We’ve had to develop a disciplined process for product or service development.

You have to stop thinking like the organisation.

The first job of the Lab manager is to protect the Lab from its host. Every Lab session starts with “This is not Bromford.”  Colleagues often need to lose their emotional and cultural baggage before they can truly create something new. 

Manage expectations.

Everyone thinks their idea needs attention. Often there’s a need for a more detailed problem definition before we go off creating things. Ultimately a Lab is a waste of time if it produces lots of things that don’t solve the right problems.

Put your network to work.

Many companies continue to assume that innovation comes from the lone genius.  In fact , most innovations are created through connections, and that will include the ones outside your organisation. Having an active social network makes your job a lot easier.

Try to de-risk your ideas as much as possible.

The biggest barrier in most organisations is risk aversion – so anticipate this in advance before presenting anything. Show that you acknowledge risk and have put as much cotton wool around your idea as possible. Governance teams can be your greatest enemies or biggest friends. We went for the latter. 

Challenge everything you currently do.

I’ve got it written into my job profile.  It’s a contractual obligation of an Innovation Team to ask the really stupid questions. Would we honestly do it this way if we started again?

Know when to pull the plug

Not every idea or project is destined for success. Stopping a project is a difficult decision but in certain cases, it’s inevitable. Colleagues want to make things work but that’s not always in the best interests of the customer or the company. You need to know when to pull the plug early to avoid spending more money on well-intentioned projects.

You need to have broad shoulders.

Nobody really says it , but a minority of people are willing you to fail. It comes across occasionally in sarcastic social media messages or remarks that you should get a proper job (The latter , admittedly, was from my Mother).  You’ll get scrutinised more than you ever have before. We laugh things off but have had to work on our self-confidence. A supportive network is critical.

And one final lesson is that it’s just the most brilliant fun.

In our organisations we probably get to see about 10% of the talents that people really have. A Lab approach can begin to unlock the potential that conventional talent management programmes often fail to.

Seeing what people come up with and where they will go next is endlessly rewarding.

Here’s to 2015.


7 thoughts on “10 things we learned from launching an Innovation Lab

  1. Hi Paul, what open and refreshing evaluation. This in itself is a way forward in evaluation!

    I do particularly like your comments about being part of your contractual obligations to ask the stupid questions. In one of our recent shared learning seminars Claer Lloyd-Jones shared her ethical audit approach and she was clearly of the view that there was no such thing as a stupid question, she felt it would be stupid NOT to ask the question. I totally agree with that sentiment.

    Taking that a step further, I feel helps towards assumptions being clarified or not as the case may be as often people are starting from different points, and that to me is the crux of it.

    Have a very Merry Christmas and see you in the New Year.


    1. Thank you Ena – I think Claer is actually right – there is no such thing as a stupid question. Often large organisations are at risk of group think as people are often similar in background and insulated from outside opinions and , yes , questions.

      Have a wonderful Christmas too and keep sending those amazing photos!

  2. Morning Paul

    I always enjoy reading your posts. By and large, I always have something to disagree with you about. I hope that doesn’t come across as being a monumental pain in the rear end but rather as trying to start a constructive debate. Apologies if it’s ever the former

    Anyway, on this occasion, I agree with literally every word. I particularly like the phrase you used: ‘would we honestly do it like this if we started again?’ I thought that was really powerful and interesting and has certainly made me think.

    That said, there’s more than one way to skin a cat (terrible phrase, that) and I do think there are loads of innovative people in housing, working on their project, who will be reading your lessons with interest.

    Have a nice Christmas!

    1. Thanks Pamela – it must be Christmas if there’s no challenge from you!

      Seriously – I always enjoy your contributions as you’re right – we need more debate.

      Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year!

  3. Great point about misinterpreting innovation. Having come from the voluntary sector, I’m used to looking at ouputs to measure success in order to justify grant funding. Working to find a baseline and evidencing change is something that isn’t quite as clear in the public sector. That said, what I often found in the voluntary sector was that people were being asked to deliver outputs that provided little evidence of genuine improvement in service (e.g. number of subscribers), and even worse made organisations work in ineffective ways. This point gets to the crux of that – that we need to evidence why we need change, where we’re at, and then evidence again how we’re improving people’s lives. The challenge is to do so without making the process so arduous that it becomes 90% of the service (fortunately I never had to work on European funded projects).

    Loved the update! Cheers and Merry Christmas (or Nadolig Llawen as we say in Wales)!


    1. Thanks Dyfrig

      One of the biggest learnings from the Lab has been the need to get much smarter about evidencing impact and change. Organisations often suffer from what I call ‘initiatiivitus’ – piling one well meaning project or idea on top of another until you get a sprawling mess.

      You’re right the challenge is to make the evaluation process simple – and my own personal challenge for 2015 – fun too!

      Nadolig Llawen!


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