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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.

  • eccemarco

    Interesting post, Dave.
    I remember your series of blog posts on side-casting and your taxonomy of approaches to future visioning. The other thing that you mention at the beginning is also very interesting and I’d like to read more about it. Are you referring to a form of co-opting, when you mention that it gets codified within an establishment? Because my concern, when bringing dialogue-based approaches into institutional world, is how to openly address the power dynamics if people who give mandate want to “look” open to participatory approaches but instead co-opt the process and won’t actually open up to sharing some of their positions of power / privilege and wish to determine results beforehand.

    • Dave Snowden

      Yes, it is co-opted, copied without attention to context and industrialised and made into an ideology. We saw the same thing with Appreciative Inquiry, Design Thinking etc. etc.

      • eccemarco

        I see. Well, on the “industrialisation” of training / giving workshops, and I am talking from the perspective of the facilitators here, there seems to be a fundamental flaw in the business models of the consultants: my interest, as long as the biz models don’t change, is to spread this theory / concept / idea as much as possible to many people who want to learn it. Interesting paradox.

        • Dave Snowden

          Concur – it is in part because post BPR consultancy moved from an apprentice model to an industrialised one

  • Chris Corrigan

    Nice. This is pretty much how we have been doing labs over the past couple of years but without using sensemaker. But their nature good labs need to be as novel as the novelty being sought by the participants. We find our designs changing all the time. Monitoring of probes and prototypes and connection of proponents during the experimentation and learning phase helps people make sense of what they are learning and introduce obliquity into their own insights. Our participants have found it incredibly useful to understand the distinction between a probe and a prototype and a pilot project, something which is missing from a lot of lab literature.

    • Dave Snowden

      So now we just have to get you engaged in distributed rather than mediated ethnographic investigation :-(

      • Chris Corrigan

        Not sure I’m mediating the ethnography. Are you saying it’s not possible to dondistributed ethnography without sensemaker?

        • Dave Snowden

          My general view is a lab of necessity mediates due to the facilitation and the interaction of participants. Distributed or self-ethnography outside of that context is certainly possible without SenseMaker® although that adds abstraction and scale. I’ve experimented with swapping facilitators within an event and removing facilitators from engagement with content – for example by having the conversation take place in a language the facilitator does not understand. That can reduce one type of pattern entrainment, but group interaction remains. Some of the anthropological criticism of participative action research would also apply. That said I’ve long being interested to see what would happen if your workshop processes started with a SenseMaker® capture.

          • Chris Corrigan

            No quibble from me with the gist of the comments. And yes to the last point. My challenge has always been to make it accessible enough (for the clients not the participants) to begin with. But always on the lookout for opportunities.

          • Dave Snowden

            Well we could package something for you to remove the client issue if you want

          • Chris Corrigan

            Curiouser and curiouser. I’ll be in touch.

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