“Innovation is seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” This saying by Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi, who discovered the core component of Vitamin C in 1937, still holds true today. The need for innovation is no less now. The only difference – competition is high, as is the pace of innovation. So how do we keep thinking in new ways?

Tom Kelley, in his book ‘The Art of Innovation’, suggests we can do this by setting up innovation labs or teams that just focus on creating, prototyping, and testing, while the current products and services of an organization exist in their full glory. To build this lab or team, think through the following questions:

  1. Why does this lab exist? The purpose of such labs is to diversify the work of an organization. But how well is that diversification understood, articulated, and aligned with the larger purpose of the company? The clearer it is, the better.

For example, in 2016, the Chairman of Ford Smart Mobility, Jim Hackett, set out to define the purpose of the mobility ecosystem for Ford. So, he established Greenfield Labs, a human-centered lab whose only purpose was to “bring humanity to mobility.” This clarity led to a portfolio of work that focused on people with disabilities who don’t drive cars, and what they needed to navigate freely. America’s oldest car company set out to improve things for those who don’t drive. For an organization that had mass-produced vehicles for over 100 years, this shift was hard. Which meant, Greenfield Labs spent significant time in understanding customer needs first, and then building.

  1. What are some edgy projects this lab can undertake? By definition, the work these labs do will push the envelope of the organization in many ways. Either they will create and test products that compete directly with existing products. Or venture into new markets. No matter the approach, the labs will usher in massive change. These product prototypes could form upto 20% of the company’s strategic growth portfolio. If they work, they can be game-changers. The success of Greenfield Labs led to Ford Motor Company articulating a new purpose in 2017: to be the most trusted mobility company, designing smart vehicles for a smart world. 
  1. What kind of teams can lead such projects? It always boils down to the people. You need workers who are often called T-shaped, because they can go both wide across subject areas and deep on craft. Here are some qualities they embody:
  • Expertise. Mastery in areas such as user/design research, software design, industrial design, visual communication, product and organizational design.
  • Mindset. Those who are empathetic, optimistic, open to experimentation, collaborative, and comfortable with ambiguity. Note, that labs have no tolerance for hurtful behavior.
  • Method. Skills like observation, interviewing, prototyping, and storytelling are valuable. They help develop a learning mindset.

Some of this information may not be new to you. But, as you consider the purpose of innovation and the idea of labs, does anything change for your work?

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