Get out of the lab – into real life!
Have you ever experienced that? Something new should find its way into the organisation. And so that it can develop properly, a special testing room is set up. A “lab” or laboratory or something with “space” or “tank” at the end – the name doesn’t really matter. The idea is that very special conditions apply in the defined space. “Here we are allowed to make a real tabula rasa and reinvent ourselves on a greenfield site!” That is, of course, a wonderful promise. And a no less noble goal. But is it possible to achieve it at all? Will laboratory environments help us transform our businesses?
What do we want to achieve with a laboratory?
The idea sounds good at first: If we create conditions that provide the right breeding ground for the new project or product, then it can grow and flourish. Laboratories can contribute a lot to this, for example:
- Creating a space separate from the rest of the organisation.
- Enabling something new in its “pure form.
- Exclude those influences which could be detrimental to the project.
- Create conditions that are conducive to the project.
Laboratories offer special conditions that are not yet available in the company in this form and in this interaction. In them, innovation and transformation teams can try out new ideas and experiments without affecting the rest of the organisation. Laboratories thus fix the conditions according to the thesis to be tested on the basis of assumptions made. They exclude factors and variants and focus on certain aspects. This is exactly the crux of the matter: How transferable are results from the “clean room” to the real, according to “VUCA” unpredictable world? And have we even made the right assumptions?
Of course there are success stories where the transfer to the entire company has worked. If the leap from the laboratory into real life is successful, then one can certainly happily sign “Q.E.D.”. But the fact that this is not a controllable and repeatable result is perhaps only admitted in the narrowest circles.
It seems to be rather like that: What is successful under laboratory conditions does not necessarily have to last in the real world. Forecasts must be treated with caution or should be accompanied by a strict demand for the creation of a level playing field. This is where the far greater task lies: it is not the innovation as such that pushes the organisation to its limits, but the adaptation of the framework conditions as the basis for the new thing tested under laboratory conditions that sometimes poses enormous challenges.
Why does the lab fail?
Perhaps we are putting the cart before the horse with this approach. A lot of money, time and energy has already been spent because ideal worlds have been described in such transformation projects and set up in laboratories in order to then let the optimised solution loose on the company. What was running like clockwork just a moment ago unexpectedly turned into a pipe burst. But this phenomenon is actually not so strange to us.
A well-known example of this discrepancy between the laboratory and the real world was the average fuel consumption with which car manufacturers advertised their vehicles. This was determined in an ideal world on standardised routes with idealised driving styles. Was that helpful? No, because we all knew that the information in the brochure was not correct and we had to make our own experiences by driving a few times. For some of us, there was a big surprise. In the meantime, however, this has been followed up: The values are now determined from real usage data and are much closer to the actual consumption data. Here, too, there are still differences, but no longer of the same order of magnitude as the earlier idealisation.
But how can laboratories still help?
Nevertheless, you do not have to close your laboratories immediately. They can make sense and support you in your change projects. But we should proceed differently than before. Then laboratories can continue to perform important functions:
As a practice room
A delimited environment with changed conditions can be especially useful when we want to approach something completely new. Most of us have probably learned to swim in a small pool or on the quiet shore of a lake. There we had the chance to concentrate only on our intention to swim. Big waves, boats, algae etc. – many possible disturbing factors we had excluded. And maybe we even had aids like water wings with us. Only when we felt safe enough did we dare to take the step into other areas such as the middle of the lake, lively bathing spots or the wave beating sea. Whether we really could swim, we only found out there. And, of course, we improved our technique, gained experience and adapted ourselves in order to survive under real conditions.
A laboratory can be very useful for training purposes. There you can experiment with methods, formats, technologies and much more. Just remember that this can only be a preliminary stage for subsequent testing under real conditions. Instead, consider the lab more as an enabling opportunity, because what you learn here you will definitely take with you.
As a test room
Another useful application for laboratories is the performance of tests with real data in a confined space. In this case, the laboratory takes on a pilot function in order to test something new in the real world, but only in a clearly separated piece of it. It’s a bit like ploughing up only part of a meadow to get closer to planting vegetables. On the clearly separated piece we can test whether it is growing or whether we should adjust something again – the variety, the time, the distance, the soil. Or even if we find that it was not the right place.
We can only have such experiences with real data, with experiments in the real world and short iterations to reflect and readjust. With these tests, we obtain reliable findings for the company without having to make adjustments and extend possible risks to the entire organisation. Of course, we should always keep in mind that not everything is the same everywhere, even within an organisation. Nevertheless, our results from the laboratory serve as a solid basis for a company-wide introduction of our project.
What does this mean for future projects?
Have courage! Try yourself in the real world. If you are striving for a change, do not look at it detached from the rest of the events, environment and context. Involve customers, partners and suppliers, venture out and receive real feedback and usable insights in return. You will be impressed by how quickly you can gain experience, create resonance and spread change. Because the boundaries of the laboratory disappear or at least become permeable.
To achieve this, it is essential to create a common understanding and a culture that is willing to experiment, where it is allowed and certainly desired to say goodbye to things. Because they do not work as desired, fit as expected or simply no longer make sense. This is not only OK, it is even very healthy and essential for your future viability.
The reward is the chance that your transformation will succeed better, be more sustainable and meet with greater acceptance. And if you are ever unsure whether you can approach it this way, ask yourself the following: Is it safe enough to try it out? And what happens if we don’t try it?
Christina de Vries
As Consultant & Coach at itacs GmbH, Christina de Vries supports courageous companies on their way to a digitalised working world. Her focus is on cooperation and co-design, networked collaboration and the agilisation of processes and patterns. The sensible use of technologies and tools enables thereby real added value and the unleashing of unused potentials.