Dave Snowden

Social innovation labs, initial thoughts

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For one reason or another I’ve ended up talking about various social innovation labs in multiple locations over the last couple of weeks and I’ve got a call on the subject tomorrow. Labs have become a little bit of a fashion item of recent years. The early experiments provided much needed novelty and were initiated and led by pioneers and mavericks willing to go against the flow for something they were passionate about. But then as success was reported (I am using that word with care) imitators emerged and have a growing number of examples of that modern disease, the industrialisation of an artisan capability through commoditisation into a set of simplistic recipes. The very word lab is redolent of mastery and subject, hence by choice of an alchemist image for this post. At its best a social lab is a mechanism to allow novelty to emerge, to engage people in creating their own interventions to meet needs. At its worse the subjects becomes objects in a process designed more for the ego needs of the facilitation team and the satisfaction of explicit targets set by an Authority.

As I suggest this is a common pattern over many a field. Something novel and original fights to break through established practice, but then becomes codified into a new establishment with frightening speed. Now my saying this with a slightly tongue in cheek polemic didn’t get the negative reaction I expected so I suspect the time is right to introduce some new tools and techniques that restore the earlier originality and intent. The ideas I developed in conversations are not yet complete, but here is a short list to be going on with:

  1. Theuse of a broader ethnographic approach prior to a lab, and by ethnography I don’t mean some interviews and brief observations.  SenseMaker® is an obvious approach here but simply getting people in the communities to maintain journals prior to the session will be useful.   
  2. The initial ethnographic approach needs to focus as much on unarticulated needs as those which can be readily identified and explained.   I will expand on that in tomorrow’s post as it is a key concept in anthropology-complexity and applies in several application areas not just this. 
  3. Distribution of the lab into multiple small engagements where people and the ethnographic observations come together to co-design ideas for solutions and further investigations, with no, or minimal facilitation also works to prevent premature convergence; a danger of running a single event.
  4. Focusing on rapidly repurposing existing capability to meet both articulated and unarticulated needs is more likely to create early wins that tackling big issues or problems.  Sidecasting, not backcasting; working in the here and now, not the idealised future, is more likely to produce resilience and solution discovery that persists beyond the event itself.
  5. Using MassSense to present (and represent) ideas to multiple people both in and without the lab itself to isolate dominant but more importantly minority views. The idea here is to prevent the pattern entrainment that is very common in workshop environments, the rush to consensus which can be dangerous if you are trying to innovate.

Now I have more notes, but that is enough to be going on with. More over the next few weeks, and specifically tomorrow, the importance of unarticulated needs.