Making Innovation Labs Work

Complex challenges overpower traditional agency silos.

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? Public and social innovation researcher Sophie Reynolds writes: “Governments worldwide are facing increasingly complex challenges – with aging 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, departmentalized 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 labs have already seen positive results. According to Bloomberg Philanthropies, an innovation team in New Orleans reduced the murder rate by 19 percent, while a team in Memphis, Tennessee, filled 53 percent of empty storefronts. On the federal level, the Office of Personnel Management’s Innovation Lab is working to rebuild the USAJobs website to improve the user experience, and the Veteran’s Affairs Department’s 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 by 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, the Health and Human Services Department 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. According to the2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, only 37 percent of employees feel creativity and innovation are rewarded by their agency. This is why incentives – such as monetary rewards, recognition among peers, the opportunity to work on grand challenges, team competitions and even having 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 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 in which 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,” Rachel Burstein and Alissa Black write 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. The lab is certainly not the only means to creating innovation, nor is it innovation in and of itself. Whatever innovative initiatives an organization takes on, focusing on the proper structure and execution will be critical to success.

Darcie Piechowski is the social media and innovation fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

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