Five principles for a successful innovation lab

It’s fashionable to be a contrarian lately and antagonists would have you believe that innovation labs are an outright waste of time. Some are. They don’t have to be.

The 2016 launch of Labs by London Midland

In our experience and the experience of the companies that we’ve worked with to establish innovation labs – it’s often been hard, it’s sometimes felt like an up-hill battle, but it’s never failed. We’ve solved big problems for huge transportation companies, developed critical new revenue streams for entertainment businesses and entirely new business models for utilities companies.

But somewhere, they must be failing because Twitter says so. That’s because there are two types of innovation labs that corporations are building. The good and the bad.

The good we’d define as:

Shared spaces that are bringing corporate stakeholders, employees and customers together with innovation professionals, design thinkers and technology companies in order to develop breakthrough solutions to big problems.

Startups and London Midland Teams mapping customer jobs to be done.

The ones that are ineffective and unhelpful we’d define as:

A cool looking corner of the office where in their spare time, corporate employees with little to no direction or innovation experience experiment with augmented reality, 3D printers and virtual assistants.

This is a demo  - not an innovation lab.

The former is an innovation lab, the latter is innovation theatre and at a time when legacy organisations should really be focused on the former  –  it’s no surprise they’re lambasted for it.

The 5 characteristics of innovation theatre

We’ve spoken with a lot of executives in big companies where their innovation lab just wasn’t delivering the breakthrough anyone was hoping for and depressingly, it’s no surprise when we hear these stories. There are five common themes to those conversations that help to define innovation theatre:

  1. Technology takes precedent over problem solving
  2. Sponsorship is coming from the PR department rather than the C-Suite
  3. Responsibility for innovation is nobody’s and everybody’s
  4. Structure and process are the innovation antithesis
  5. Business R+D is second to shiny objects

Conversely, there are some companies who are getting it really right and it’s not fair to trash innovation labs just because not every company is subscribing to a set of tenets that don’t yet exist.

The five principles behind successful innovation labs

From everything we’ve learned from building and running innovation labs we thought it’d be useful to identify 5 key principles to what makes a successful innovation lab:

1.We will focus relentlessly on solving the problems of our company, customers and employees

Without validated challenge areas to concentrate on and gather around, labs will chase their own tail and new tech rather than fulfilling their raison d’être — to develop breakthrough solutions. List them and combine them into key areas of focus.

2. We will embrace rigour and process so that we can direct resources to the biggest problems 

There is a common misconception that process is the enemy of innovation. In reality, innovation needs a framework . After you’ve decided what problems you want to solve, set out parameters for experimentation and the investment in it.

3. We will test, learn and iterate alongside our colleagues, partners and customers to get to the right solutions

Having a shared space to come together shouldn’t just be for the innovation team within the lab. We can only validate solutions to problems alongside the people who are having those problems.

4. We will hire innovation professionals who have mastered the tools available to them and make the lab their job

Hire people who are well versed in innovation, understand customer development, lean startup and design thinking. The future of the organisation is too important to make the lab everyone’s part-time job.

5. We will have involvement from and be represented at the most senior levels within the organisation

If there is no senior sponsor, abandon the lab. At best it will be a short-term folly and at worst you’ll be frustrated because nothing will ever get to market. Find a sponsor and have them commit to representing it at a leadership level.

If your company thinks it’s building an innovation lab or believes they already have one, it’s worth contrasting the reality of what’s happening in it against these principles. PR will come from innovation theatre, breakthroughs will come from genuine innovation labs.

I’d love to hear about your experiences, drop me a note to or check out our work on London Midland Labs here.