Launching an Innovation Lab
Build a 21st Century Culure and Workforce
"Primarily it's creating the time and the space to be able to do it. That's minimal resources, but it's giving people the time and space to look at a problem differently, think about what potential solutions are, do a bit of research and then test and try out the new ideas to see if they work. Initial successes are also very helpful as success builds on itself."
- Jim Macrae, "Operationalizing Innovation"
Purpose and Outcomes
Purpose: Innovation labs create space for agency staff and key external stakeholders to imagine, test, and scale new ways to address their most difficult challenges.
The labs are designed to encourage more rapid exploration, embracing periodic failure as an integral part of any learning process. If something doesn't work right the first time, you need to try again and do it differently the next time.
Innovation labs have surfaced across the federal government in recent years. They bring together savvy problem solvers to increase innovation capacity within their agency.
Benefits of federal innovation labs include:
- Creating solutions to solve specific challenges Labs focus teams on solving high-priority problems and developing usable and scalable solutions. Agency staff often work with employees across government and citizens alike to take part in co-creating innovations.
- Engaging citizens, non-profits, and businesses to find new ideas Labs open up their agencies to new ideas sourced from anywhere. By pairing open innovation approaches like crowdsourcing or challenges with robust engagement strategies, labs become a conduit for new ideas and new solutions to be brought in from the outside.
- Transforming government processes, skills, and culture Labs transform an agency by acting as a centralized hub for innovation. Labs build their agency's internal capacity to adopt and deploy new approaches by providing how-to blueprints, coaching, and training.
- Achieving wider policy and systems change Labs also look beyond specific projects and challenges to help shift the policy context in their agency. Lab staff can help encourage systemic change.
Several agencies have developed their internal innovation capacity through innovation lab models including:
- HHS IDEA Lab at the Health and Human Services (HHS)
- Lab @ OPM at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)
- S. Global Development Lab at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
- VA Center for Innovation at the Veterans Administration (VA)
Before creating an innovation lab, carefully evaluate whether existing offices or programs can help realize their mission more effectively. The agency's mission ultimately affects every aspect and decision from human resources and budget to partnerships and communications. Decide whether an agency's mission and its structure will support an innovation lab.
Actions and Considerations
Consider the following questions when establishing and structuring their own innovation labs.
How strong is your agency's commitment to establish and support an innovation lab?
The agency must provide a minimum commitment of support to meet the lab's goals. In addition to financial resources, agency leaders should also consider technological and human capital needs, among many others. Simply assigning more responsibilities to a current team member may not be enough to accomplish the lab's goals. Labs may be staffed by dedicated teams or by part-time volunteers from across the agency. Innovative hiring mechanisms such as hiring part-time employees, contractors, fellows, or interns can be used to supplement traditional hiring or full-time employees.
Your lab should develop partnerships with the following offices within your agency as early as possible in order to ensure effective support:
- Office of the General Counsel (OGC)
- Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO)
- Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO)
- Office of Communications and Outreach (OCO)
- Office of Management
- Office of the Secretary/Administrator
How can you engage the public to support your lab's mission?
Engage potential partners and their resources across government and the public/private partnerships to support your lab. Other agency labs and the government Communities of Practice (CoPs) can provide valuable resources and partnerships. Private and philanthropic organizations or the research community can enhance existing resources and capacities for your lab using public-private partnerships and aligned commitments.
How will your agency's leadership support your lab?
Determine whether your agency's leaders have the political desire to risk establishing a lab. Assessing the political support is not a simple checklist of interagency agreement to launch a lab. Your lab is more likely to succeed over the long term if agency leaders support it. If they don't, your lab will fail.
How do innovators submit ideas to your lab?
Identify how your lab will get, generate, solve, and implement ideas from innovators. Labs may opt for an open-door policy when it comes to receiving ideas and involving employees in implementation; others may prefer to receive an application or proposal. Labs may also engage external stakeholders using prizes and/or challenges. In some cases, project proposals come from agency leadership; others depend on a bottom-up approach.
Where should the lab be located?
When creating your agency's innovation lab, consider the physical location as well as the agency's organization. The lab's location can create or diminish a collaborative culture. Consider the organizational hierarchy to gain the most benefit and support from agency leadership.
How should we market the lab within the agency?
Once your lab is established, consider how best to convey its presence and initiatives so it becomes an integral part of the agency.
- Develop marketing and communication strategies for internal and external messaging campaigns, find lab-specific training opportunities for employees, and create advising councils that publicize the lab's successes.
- Build employee interest in the lab through training opportunities, all-staff meetings, open houses, and new employee orientation.
- Gather metrics and share your success stories to build your lab's credibility and ensure its continued growth.
Establishing innovation labs across the government will be critical to foster a culture of innovation. The White House National Economic Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy published A Strategy for American Innovation in October 2015. The policy asks agencies to develop a network of innovations labs capable of empowering and equipping agency employees and members of the public to implement their innovative ideas to more effectively serve the U.S. public.
On March 9, 2016, the White House Office of Budget and Management sent the Acquisition Innovation Labs & Pilot for Digital Acquisition Innovation Lab memorandum to Chief Acquisitions Officers, Senior Procurement Executives, and Chief Information Officers announcing the new initiative to accelerate establishing acquisition innovation labs across federal agencies.
- America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2010
- Established authorities for all federal agencies to offer incentive prizes and run challenge competitions "to stimulate innovation that has the potential to advance the mission of the respective agency."
- American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2016
- Expands the use of challenges and gives the authority for any federal government agency to work cooperatively with and pool funds from multiple government agencies and profit or nonprofit private sector entity, state, tribal, local, or foreign government agencies and higher education institutions.
- Presidential Innovation Fellows Program Act of 2016
- Adam Grant, "How to Build a Culture of Originality?," Harvard Business Review, March 2016.
- Darcie Piechowski, "Beyond the Lab: Government Innovation in Unlikely Places," IBM Center for The Business of Government, August 1, 2016.
- Lawrence Molnar, David Lewis, and Elsie Harper-Anderson, "Incubating Success: Incubation Best Practices That Lead to Successful New Ventures," University of Michigan Economic Growth Institute, 2011.
- Lidia Gryszkiewicz, Tuukka Toivonen, and Ioanna Lykourentzou, "Innovation Labs: 10 Defining Features," Stanford Social Innovation Review, November 3, 2016.
- Rachel Burstein and Alissa Black, "A Guide for Making Innovation Offices Work," IBM Center for The Business of Government, 2014.
- Ruth Puttick, "Innovation Teams and Labs: A Practice Guide," NESTA Innovation Skills Team, December 11, 2014.
- UNICEF Innovations Lab Network, "UNICEF Innovation Labs: Do-It-Yourself Guide," November 6, 2012.