Success factors for delivering “Labs” value

So what is it exactly to truly be a “Labs” entity, functionally and strategically? It frankly seems to be a bit of an overused buzzword last few years, appending “Labs” to a company brand to somehow convey a marketable quality of something techie and… vaguely innovative ;-)

Well, after some reflection upon my own experience this year working with Citrix Labs on specific projects, touring MIT Media Lab recently, and learning more about other top-level corporate labs like Disney, Mercedes, Google, etc. I’d like to share my thoughts on what I believe makes for a vital, creative “Labs” environment with strong business impact. 

Here are some aspirational qualities common to the more successfully oriented Labs environs:

** Has a willingness to try, experiment, risk anything, fail at everything, bound by a strong “Can-Do” optimism of exploration. Instead of traditional naysaying of a product engineering group, the instinctive reaction to novel ideas is “Sure, why not?” and see where it goes…

** Deeply embodies a “hacker ethos” of rapidly creating quick & dirty prototypes to demonstrate raw functionality, as a starting point for further investigation of UX & business potential.

** Is constantly hounded by the question: What’s the most efficient way to prototype the intended functionality and get it in people’s hands for evaluation? (As Eames advocated: “the most with the least”) This requires lots of shortcuts–Searching for open source libraries, frameworks, scripts, etc. 

** Has tons of tech brilliance and polymathic curiosity for anything and everything, from “genetic algorithms” to “solar race cars” to “nanobots” and beyond, including the mundane “everyday engineering” of how things work. Such a team should be like a diverse mix of sharpened, perfected instruments on a surgical table, skilled at a variety of tools, methods, and approaches.

** Continually learning and growing by virtue of constant experimentation on their own, surprising others with new tricks, not just “what’s due next week” but always hungry to explore and foolish enough to try “dumb hacks” that fail (echoing Steve Jobs’ advice). 

** And, certainly not least: This is the team that PULLS the rest of the company forward into the unknown, assuming risk with enthusiasm for what’s possible. Not an anchor that weighs down, but a rocket that shoots upwards. (think of a “moonshot” directive)

** Finally, has strong ties to business model canvasing of the invention, with market-oriented experimentation as well, with customer development activities (Lean, etc.). Else the bold invention sits idly by! Gotta adopt a “3-in-a-Box” approach with verifiable commercial potential. 

IMHO when several of such qualities start to fade and disappear, that’s when a corporate “Labs” team is no longer the vanguard but devolves into a bane of mediocrity, rather than a benchmark for future prosperity. Ooh, a bit harsh to say, I know ;-) However, as you look deeper, this is all not just about “Labs” per se, but the broader innovation function within a company. For any company to achieve innovative results, the aforementioned qualities, propagated deeply amongst the employees, will increase the probabilities of success, hence earning the label of “innovation”.

At the end of the day, a major part of a “Labs” (or more accurately, innovation) capability and thus mindset is how to support that notion of big risk adoption, united with the creative, expressive nature of a strategic Design function. In the intersections lies the power and opportunity. Such an endeavor requires earnest partnership, bounded by a strong yet flexible process and shared complementary values, in order to deliver viable creative innovations for targeted markets.

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