I recently sat down with 15 executives of a large German corporation. You should have seen them roll their eyes when the L word came up: “lab” — a.k.a. innovation lab or creative lab or data lab. There are all kinds of words for it.
And they have one thing in common: These labs are set up by companies that see themselves as sorely lacking in innovation. If new ideas were sprouts, these companies would be Antarctica.
Innovation from the garage
It’s a trend I’ve been noticing for about three years: Vast ice deserts of organizations set up up small, agile, tropical units, preferably in Berlin, Barcelona or the Valley, name them Something Something Lab, and hope to be blessed with a wealth of ideas to fertilize of the ice desert back home.
In part, this trend feeds on the truism that companies like HP, Google, Apple & Co. were also founded in garages, in tiny units, cut off from civilization. Genius by minimization, so to speak. Freaky, unconventional, different, off the wall, and therefore super innovative. Let’s do the same thing!
I’ll venture a bold hypothesis: The secret of Apple, HP, Google & Co.’s success was not the garage.
— Lars Vollmer (@LarsVollmer) 21. Dezember 2016
The problem? It doesn’t work. Because it’s based on nothing more than a cargo cult.
Cargo cult, you ask? In the second half of World War II, after the Americans had shaken Pearl Harbor out of their clothes and, mad as hell, occupied the Melanesian islands at the doorstep of fierce Japan, the Melanesians looked on, skeptically, but full of wonder, as the Americans first built a runway, then a tower next to it — and the gods began to send food, clothing, and other valuable goods to the island by airplane. Cargo!
The same thing happened on a number of islands, and word got around among the Melanesians: Runway and tower for the gods = cargo for the humans!
So what did those innovative islanders do? They adopted the cargo cult from the Americans. After the victorious US military had withdrawn, the locals built runways and towers on remote islands. They even carved headphones out of wood and donned them as if they were air traffic controllers in the tower. And then they waited for the gods to honor their rituals and send cargo. It’s what anthropologists call “sympathetic magic.”
Now, I’m not claiming that executives at sclerotic corporations are locking a few tattooed employees into garages and have them carve wooden replicas of Steve Wozniak’s first Apple computer.
But — sorry to say — it is a little bit like that.
If it doesn’t help, at least it’ll be harmful
Granted — these innovation labs have windows and are slightly larger than garages, and not all innovation labsters sport tattoos. But the idea behind the labs — that the innovation culture of a small, whacky unit will somehow spread to the big, sclerotic corporation — is nothing but belief in sympathetic magic.
Sure, setting up a lab can ultimately lead to clever products and good business ideas. That’s possible, as it is with any new unit. But that’s not because it’s a lab; it’s because of people with good ideas, and because the small size of the unit allows them to simply have these ideas, develop them, and test on the market — without procedural rules, without ritualistic meetings, without reporting requirements. The notion that the lab’s innovation culture could somehow be transferred to the big organization is completely illusory, because people are not carriers of culture — they don’t bring culture with them like a pack of beer when they return to their old workplace. So it doesn’t do any good.
And not only that — it’s actually harmful. Because it’s nothing if not an admission of incompetence and failure. By establishing a lab in Berlin (or Barcelona, or the Valley), big companies implicitly admit that they are incapable of innovation at home. What’s worse, getting a lab ends up making them even less innovative. Because this implicit message to all employees imprints a lasting lesson on the organization: We don’t innovate here, nor do we need to. We don’t have to worry about innovation anymore — that’s what the lab in Berlin is for.
Naturally, those innovators arouse envy and resentment. The lab people can do whatever the hell they feel like and get plenty of funding to do so, while the dummies at the plant have to hustle around the clock to meet specifications and targets — and suddenly there’s no budget for interesting projects anymore.
In other words: If you want to thoroughly undermine the culture of innovation in your organization, set up an innovation lab.
No way around reorganizing
What could be the solution? For you as a leader, there’s no way around it: You’re going to have to change your organization. If your company doesn’t innovate, you have no choice but to reorganize the system through which your company generates value so that it can be innovative. You can’t turn a tractor into a racecar by putting a spoiler on it.
No, you’ll have to roll up your sleeves and restructure your organization. I can’t tell you from a distance what exactly needs to change in your case because I don’t know how you’ve been hampering innovation until now. You’ll have to figure that out yourself. But you should assume that you already have the right people working at your company — you don’t need different employees. And what your people are lacking is not creativity, but safe space to express ideas and the freedom to develop ideas through social processes in an open-ended way. No need to add anything to your organization — if anything, you’ll have to drop stuff.
My point is: It can be done. Even a company with thousands of employees can be made to stop squashing innovation. And you don’t have to carve headphones out of wood to do so.
photo: © Depositphotos.com 122834800/mastersky