Build a Collaborative Web Instead of a Government Innovation Lab

A week or so ago, GovLoop started a discussion on what a government innovation lab would look like. Some great comments on how to build collaborative workspaces but I felt that the discussion missed the greater point of how to make government agencies more innovative. The major problem with innovation labs is that they may be good for short-term creativity but they interfere with long-term innovation as Sawyer (2007) observes. “An isolated ‘skunk works’ [innovation lab] usually has trouble communicating with the rest of the organization because innovation requires collaboration across the company” (127).

In Sawyer’s book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration (2007), he advocates ten secrets for making the entire organization creative through collaboration.

1. Keep Many Irons in the Fire (p. 128) – have a number of small projects going at once so that when the circumstances are right, the organization can capitalize on the small project. For example, animators at Pixar are constantly creating small films that either becomes the basis for a larger film or a new animation technique that could be used later.
2. Create a Department of Surprise (p. 129) – Keep mining your past failed ideas. Something that didn’t work in one department can be the perfect solution in another department. Openly share all ideas across silos.
3. Build Spaces for Creative Conversation (p. 131) – Some of the best ideas come from chance conversations. The architectural ideas suggested in GovLoop’s discussion should be applied throughout the organization.
4. Allow Time for Ideas to Merge (p. 132) – Give people and ideas time to incubate and grow.
5. Manage the Risks of Improvisation (p. 133) – There are three risks to innovation that must be managed: too much time innovating and not enough time spent on planned work; creativity can make it impossible to sustain a vision and strategy; and too many ideas causing organizational attention deficit disorder.
6. Improvise at the Edge of Chaos (p. 134) – There has to be a good mix of structure and innovation for the optimum of creativity. The key is to find the “edge of chaos” where the most successful innovations can thrive.
7. Manager Knowledge for Innovation (p. 136) – The most creative organizations are great at spreading processes for innovation from one department to another.
8. Build Dense Networks (p. 137) – Innovative organizations share knowledge and decision making throughout the organization. Employees can easily access the total knowledge of the organization to help them learn about creative solutions developed in other parts of the organization.
9. Ditch the Organizational Chart (p. 138) – Or at least make it easier for employees to collaborate across the organizational lines.
10. Measure the Right Things (p. 140) – Sawyer suggests measures such as the time employees spend on personal projects, analyzing social networks to determine if collaboration is occurring across departments, or measures for how much knowledge is being created.

The end result of these ten secrets is the creation of collaborative webs such as the network of inventors and pioneers who helped create the early airplane industry or made Silicon Valley so successful. You are probably viewing this blog posting on one of the most successful collaborative web in history – the Internet.

The final issue with the closed-off innovation lab is that it prevents government agencies from the most fruitful collaborations – engaging the agency’s stakeholders. In Chapter Ten – Collaborating with Customers, Sawyer (2007) found that the most innovation occurs when companies and their customers work together. He gives the examples of Lego’s Mindstorms, Amazon’s Shops, Microsoft’s Kinect, and Google Map applications among others. Several government agencies are finding the same results as they post challenges and offer prizes for building health apps or building the one-hundred year spacecraft.

Innovation thrives in an open and collaborative environment where all employees and stakeholders have an opportunity to suggest ideas, build on the ideas of others, and spread creative processes throughout the organizations. Each agency should build a creative web that connects to the other creative webs spanning the government. Make every employee’s office a networked innovation lab.

Sawyer, K. (2007). Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. Basic Books.

Disclaimer: All opinions are mine and do not reflect the opinions of my employers or any organizations I belong to and should not be construed as such.

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Christian Bason

As Director of MindLab, one of the world’s first, and arguably oldest, innovation labs in government (we are celebrating our 10th anniversary this year), I have been following this discussion with great interest. In particular Bill Brantleys post on collaborative webs is extremely interesting as a challenge to the notion of innovation labs. The ten secrets about creating collaborative innovation are right on the mark. And the idea of “making every employees office a networked innovation lab” is beautiful. However, I am afraid it misses the point.

The real question is not whether we would like more collaborative webs in government. The question is how to get there. How to start? How to support them? How to empower them? How to develop real innovation skills? And more importantly, how to design new innovative policies and services that work?

The role of innovation labs in government is to help power actual innovations that ultimately makes a difference to citizens and business. Let me share with you some of the characteristics of an effective innovation lab in government:

It is anchored in the top of the organisation, but involves all levels in the innovation process

It provides a vastly different skill set than you typically find in government, including design, ethnography, sociology and other ‘alternative’ competencies

It involves the organisation’s stakeholders and, foremost, its end users (citizens, businesses, ngos) in the process of innovation

It helps give new insight about root causes of complex, wicked policy problems, including a fine-grained, qualitative understanding of behaviour and change

It helps public officials see why innovation, sometimes leading to radical and disruptive change, is necessary and desirable

It is open, not closed; it is a neutral platform for collaboration across sectors and organisational boundaries

It identifies strategic challenges and opportunities, and helps gather coalitions to tackle them

It enables smarter and more effective ways of working

It codifies methods, tools and processes that can be shared and used across the organisation

It is a hub for the organisation’s innovation networks; connecting them internally and externally

It is a training facility for building innovation skills and capacity.

In brief, an innovation lab is a social technology that helps an organisation more effectively achieve the outcomes it wants.

Around the world, there are a handful of public sector innovation labs already, both physical and virtual, and more are being created. Some are bodies sitting at the edge of government like Helsinki Design Lab, which runs temporary “design studios”, or The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, an independent and very succesful organisation. Others are fully integral to, and funded, by government, such as the Dutch Tax Ministry’s Shipyard Future Centre, an entire building of amazing creative spaces, and MindLab in Denmark, a citizen-centred collaboration platform for three major ministries.

If you are looking for more knowledge about innovation in government, and innovation labs, you could check out my recent book, Leading public sector innovation: Co-creating for a better society. And if you are looking for a new job as CEO of an innovation lab (and if you are not afraid to relocate), click here.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Number 1 seems like a particularly challenging endeavor. Many government employees who have achieved a level of innovation in their agencies or cities often say that they “started small.” They went for one small victory and built from there. Having multiple projects running at any given time seems like something that leadership would resist – but you might have a shot at standing up experimental “tiger” teams to tackle one problem at a time. Plus, in a time of tight budgets when resources are strapped and folks are overwhelmed, adding more to already full plates might not fly. ..thoughts?

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Andy – All good points especially in today’s government agencies. A couple of possible solutions:

1) Have a “Backburner File:” When someone has an idea for a project, have him or her prepare a one-pager describing the idea, benefits, and resources needed. Put these ideas in a central, collaborative space so that they will be reviewed periodically and can be acted on if the time is right.

2) Adopt an agile project framework: Using something like Scrum or Adaptive Project Framework allows for controlling costs and resources but gives the project team freedom to pursue multiple paths to a solution.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Christian: Thank you very much for your response and for those great examples of innovation labs.

I think we are closer in thought than my posting may have seemed to you. I fully agree with your list of challenges as I know it is not easy to begin an innovation lab or community of practice in an organization. I have started a few communities of practice and I applaud your ability to keep one running for a decade. That is a major accomplishment.

I fully support innovation labs if they follow the principles you describe. But, what I was warning against, are the innovation labs where a handpicked group of people go off in a corner to work on a solution without input from the rest of the organization and stakeholders. I am sure you are aware of the Xerox PARC experience which is the poster child for the failure of the isolated innovation lab.

Thank you for the questions and your book. I am currently working on some of the challenges you pose and I will be glad to post later about how I met the challenges in establishing collaborative webs.

Christian Bason

@Bill: Thanks for your thoughtful and kind response; yes we probably are quite close, as I don’t disagree that collaborative webs could be an immensely helpful factor in driving innovation within and across government agencies; and you don’t seem to disagree that the type of innovation lab I describe could be sensible. The key distinguishing factor between a lab like Xerox PARC and a place such as MindLab is that while the former is an environment for getting good ideas, the latter is an environment to help others get them.

That being said, there is no doubt that innovation labs must be extremely aware of the risk of turning inwards on themselves and ignoring the rest of the organisation. They must stay tuned to the needs, challenges and interests of the wider organisational community, and if necessary reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant and add value. Currently at MindLab we are going into our 3rd strategic iteration, from 2013 onwards, in order to do exactly that.

I would be most interested in following your work on growing collaborative webs, and will looking forward to your posts.