In an earlier post, we had spoken about innovation labs/ teams – initiatives which, while being separate from the parent organization and its products, work on creating new offerings that yield higher strategic value. While we looked at the purpose of such teams and the kind of people they need, we realized that there is another key element, which could make or break such initiatives. It is the culture, which needs to be significantly different from that of the parent organization. It is a sub-culture or even a counter-culture.

Let’s look at the pillars of this culture:

  1. A location that’s somewhat away. Ford’s Greenfield Mobility Lab was based out of Palo Alto, California, while the headquarters of the company was in Michigan. Which means, such labs need distance from the parent company to create their own identity. And, they need to be at locations where the most contemporary, skilled designers and researchers are.
  1. Balance solo time and team time. While collaborative teams have a tendency to hang out together, creative people need time on their own to produce the best results. Quoting author Lillian Ayla, “Creatives are only as good as the team they are surrounded by. If a talented designer has to spend 80% of their time teaching others or constantly explaining every decision in a rational way to stakeholders — they might not be such a talented creative in a few years. Their craft deteriorates.” Studies actually show that when creatives spend time by themselves working on a project, then meet groups for a review or value add, and return to working alone, they can generate better ideas. And even 37% more ideas.
  1. Team lingo that is unique. You’ll notice that such labs defy normal organizational structures. Instead of words like ‘policy’ and ‘process’, Ford’s Greenfield Labs uses words like ‘guidelines’ or ‘drumbeats’. And no one ‘reports to’ anyone. Such shifts set the tone for how people behave with each other. Says Kevin Allen, author of The Hidden Agenda, “The words you share travel like lightning and when they arrive at your people’s doorstep…they act on them. What leaders say, however offhanded, is seen as a directive — interpreted and acted upon.”
  1. Rituals for celebration. Labs involve research and prototyping. In other words, slow progress. The programs/ projects have multiple start-stops, owners, and changes in direction. One way to avoid feeling stagnant or bogged down is to celebrate the small wins frequently. Greenfield Labs has a weekly ritual they call “putting socks on a chicken.” Inspired by a team member’s remark that some problems are harder than putting socks on a chicken, each week, the lab assembles to present one notable problem solver with a pair of funny socks as recognition.

While you may have these attributes in your company culture at large, how about letting a product development team create its own culture? Then you’ll know if the labs are for you.

Leave a Reply