We keep hearing from companies, organizations and even cities of their wish to establish an “Innovation Lab”. But this has become such a catch-all term for so many different activities, that it is often difficult to even start thinking about the task, harder still to design a reasonable plan of action and rare to the point of being exotic to see one that actually delivers on the typically high expectations of its founders. Several useless versions of innovation labs that you may encounter:

  1. A place in which engineers and developers do what they always did, now with a fancy name and increased budget;
  2. A repurposed room in which nothing particularly innovative happens, except for the excuses why not, and maybe the furniture;
  3. A multidisciplinary team of talented associates who are given a chunk of time and the freedom to brainstorm, resulting in a three-phase process: nervous enthusiasm at the outset, followed by frustrating and frustrated attempts to justify the endeavor and, finally, a desperate effort to avoid shame by eking out some semblance of a result that can plausibly be hyped and presented as a successful outcome.

BUT an Innovation Lab is not necessarily a dead end. Here are 4 key topics worth considering as you go about the task:

  1. Objectives. Make sure you are clear as to why your organization wants an IL. What, exactly, would be considered a success? New products? Startups? Or influencing the organization’s culture? Beware the “all the above” answer to this question.
  2. People. Who will run the lab? A dedicated person/team? Or those who participate in its activities? And as to the participants: will they leave their current jobs to join the lab? If so – for a certain period (8 weeks? A year?), or as their new job?
  3. Enablers. Which resources or tools will be provided to the IL team? Throwing people together, giving them free reign of their time and motivating them are important ingredients, but very far from sufficient to achieve results. Asking them to Brainstorm only makes things worse. The effect of colorful poofs is yet to be researched. Which effective tools, then, are you going to supply them with?
  4. Support. An innovation Lab is often the baby project of a President or CEO who has seen the light. Other members of the leadership team will at times lend only grudging support. The crucial question is: how much patience does the organization’s leaders have as they wait to see concrete results? If they don’t, they won’t.

Additional factors will also determine the success of an Innovation Lab: financing, selection criteria for participants, interface with business units and more. The two main take-aways I recommend from this post are: 1) It is very easy to get an IL wrong; but 2) designed and implemented correctly, an IL can greatly contribute to your organization’s innovation efforts.