How not to launch an innovation lab

In which Jill considers a buncha guys and some big ideas.

"Often leaders hand innovation over to a top-secret skunkworks crew involving a few key contributors (usually those who are already well known in the organization), rather than making the innovation process transparent to the full population of employees. Perhaps most damaging is the implication that others who are not initially invited into this closed club are forever unwelcome. And thus an employee with a good idea will often keep it to herself, growing tired of the status quo and dreaming of the day when she can set out and make her good idea a reality, on her own."

— The New IT: How Technology Leaders Are Enabling Business Strategy in the Digital Age (McGraw-Hill, 2015), page 155.

When I had my consulting firm we often used what came to be known as the “buncha guys” answer. When a client would ask us how we would address a need or tackle a particular problem, my partner or I would often answer, “We’ve gotta buncha guys who specialize in that.” This answer, while absolutely honest, was usually accepted without question. We were always prepared to follow the “who” up with the “how,” but typically no one asked. It was as if all the client needed was to get a collection of technical specialists together to sling some code and it would all work out.

But a group of smart people focused on a common goal isn’t enough. Without establishing standards and entrenching new processes, throwing people—however bright—at a problem means the solution won’t be repeatable or scalable. Often differences of opinion and natural tensions of a small work group can result in inertia, if not out-and-out bickering. Too often, the effort breaks down.

This is the biggest risk when launching an innovation lab. Executives intent on fostering innovation will create a lab based on who they know versus what they need. “Let’s just get a buncha guys in a room,” someone says. A few senior programmers, a data scientist, and a couple analysts are moved upstairs and never heard from again.

The most effective innovation labs are staffed by a dynamic team of individuals rewarded for fresh thinking, encouraged to formalize test-and-learn processes, and emboldened to “fail fast.” Lab members filter in and out of the lab, delivering on their ideas and then returning to their regular jobs until their next idea has legs. This way there are always distinct perspective in the mix, and everybody gets to play. In the book I talk about how companies like Nordstrom, Cisco, JPL, and Google have made their innovation centers work.

Over time our “buncha guys” expression gradually became synonymous for bright people, both men and women, who could contribute a fresh perspective outside of the company’s cultural norms. “Do you have some guys who can review our budget/brainstorm on our analytics strategy/lead our SCRUM?” clients would ask. Our buncha guys expression had become a meme.

Don’t let that happen to your innovation lab. Design it. Set up processes for ideas and the delivery of those ideas, determine “gates” for determining viability, and create reward systems that are inclusive. Deliberate design will ensure that innovation is meaningful and sustainable, not just so much group-think in a vacuum.


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Editor’s note: Jill’s fourth book, The New IT: How Technology Leaders are Enabling Business Strategy in the Digital Age, was recently published by McGraw-Hill.