Friday, November 13, 2015
Organizations are increasingly embracing Innovation Labs to leverage new ideas in a practical, actionable way and as a means for moving government forward.

The White House recently released its final iteration of the Strategy for American Innovation – a set of policies and initiatives aiming to drive innovation and economic growth.  Among the suggested initiatives, Innovation Labs are slated to receive additional funding in the 2016 budget.  While Innovation Labs have the potential to create significant improvements for government, they have also received criticism for not meeting their goals. Fortunately, as more agencies are encouraged to create their own Innovation Labs, much is to be learned from those already in operation.

It is worth asking though, why should agencies even invest in an Innovation Lab? As Public and Social Innovation Researcher, Sophie Reynolds, writes, “Governments worldwide are facing increasingly complex challenges – with ageing populations, tightened budgetary constraints, and increasing expectations from citizens – to name but a few. The complexity of these challenges are often at odds with the siloed, departmentalised approaches of traditional policymaking.” Innovation Labs present the opportunity to bring together stakeholders from across the organization, community, and industry in an environment that makes it possible to effectively solve those complex challenges.

Many Innovation Labs have already seen positive results.  According to Bloomberg Philanthropies, an Innovation Team in New Orleans reduced the murder rate by 19%, while a team in Memphis filled 53% of empty storefronts. On a Federal level, OPM’s Innovation Lab is working to rebuild the USAJobs website to improve the user experience, and the VA Center for Innovation has partnered with TechShop to help Veterans achieve their professional goals.

However, it’s not a matter of simply establishing an Innovation Lab and then reaping the benefits; agencies must carefully consider the structure and execution. The following are critical components to a successful Innovation Lab:

  • Inclusion: Innovation teams should be diverse in all aspects – members should cross disciplines and include employees at different levels of the organization. The team should be a blend of both disruptive innovators and the people who have the relationships and means to move things forward. Teams also can benefit from partnering with private companies and involving citizens and end-users in the process.
  • Resources: Successful Innovation Labs support their teams through providing appropriate funding, training, toolkits, test environments, and data and information. However, the most important resources won’t be money or tools, but people and their time. Access to experts, mentors, and leaders are critical. For example, HHS assigns at least two mentors to their HHS Ignite Accelerator teams and brings in outside talent to work on short-term, innovative projects as part of their HHS Innovator-In-Residence Program. All this said, it’s not necessary, nor advantageous, to have a massive program, budget, or staff from the get-go, start small and build from there.
  • Incentives: It’s important to recognize that innovation takes time away from everyday activities, and according to the 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, only 37% of employees feel creativity and innovation are rewarded by their agency. This is why incentives, such as monetary rewards, recognition amongst peers, the opportunity to work on grand challenges, team competitions, and even simply the ear of the agency director are necessary to drive innovation.
  • Stability: Innovation Labs need to be insulated as much as possible from the insecurities of the budgeting process, such as Continuing Resolutions and shutdowns, and leadership changes, which can have disruptive and irreversible effects on innovation.  As political appointees may change, it becomes even more pressing to ensure there is buy-in and commitment from the agency .
  • Means for follow-through and measurement: Building credibility is necessary to the long-term success of an Innovation Lab. Developing innovative solutions is only the first step, being able to execute those solutions is the real challenge – and a phase where many innovations fail. Executive sponsorship, as well as advocates from mid-level management, are needed to effectively integrate solutions into the existing organization and drive execution. In addition, metrics need to be established to determine the success of each initiative. Though it may concern some that metrics will stifle innovation, “if conducted and structured sensibly, sensitively, and thoughtfully, evaluation can help improve and sustain individual innovation offices, while providing models and lessons for the field as a whole,” write Rachel Burstein and Alissa Black in A Guide for Making Innovation Offices Work.

Innovation Labs offer a means for government to take on the complex challenges of running their organizations and serving citizens by integrating diverse stakeholders into the process. As implied by the White House’s comprehensive Innovation Strategy though, it is important to remember that an Innovation Lab is one piece of a broader innovation strategy and is certainly not the only means to creating innovation nor is it innovation within itself. Whatever innovative initiatives an organization takes on, focusing on the proper structure and execution will be critical to its success.

Do you or your organization have experience with an Innovation Lab or have an interest in creating one? Please share your thoughts.

Thank you to HHS IDEA Lab Senior Advisor, Elizabeth Kittrie, and Communications Director, Malini Sekhar, and Andrew Buss, Director of Innovation Management for the City of Philadelphia for sharing their experiences with Innovation Labs.