The Problem with Innovation Labs

Victory has many parents, but defeat is an orphan.  John F. Kennedy

The Future is Personalized is a post-mortem written by three of the former employees of Denver Public School’s much-celebrated innovation lab that was recently shuttered as a cost-cutting measure after the district negotiated a new teachers’ contract (May of 2019).  The lab was founded in 2014 with the mission to “stimulate and support innovation across Denver, to transform learning and public education systems”, but appears to have quietly gone away without achieving its mission.    

I have some interest in developing effective innovations, so I was eager to dig in and learn two things: (1) How can innovation labs have the greatest impact and (2) which projects that Imagarium supported showed the greatest promise.  Unfortunately, the report didn’t provide insights about conditions for success and didn’t discuss evidence for which projects showed the most promise.  Instead, the report cast blame for its failure on a lack of courageous leadership.  In short, this report is a missed opportunity for us to learn. 

As I read the report, I was reminded of a conversation I had had with Mark Randall, former VP at Adobe, where he said, “as soon as you give someone the title of Chief Innovation Officer you send the message that innovation is someone else’s problem.  This sentiment was echoed in a recent Medium article where the author argued that innovation labs prevent innovation because having a lab implies that innovation is someone’s job and the people in the lab are too distant from day to day experience of the customers to be effective.

Instead, maybe we should find ways to empower every teacher to be an innovator by providing them processes (training), support (coaching/training), and investment (time/money) to figure out how to solve the difficult problems that they and lots of other teachers are facing every day.  When we adopt an approach to innovation (e.g. Lean StartUp, Innovation Box) we provide teachers a clear process to follow as they develop their idea.  Support mean that we make available professional development and coaching (or technical assistance) on how the process works.  Finally, we must invest in teacher ideas by giving them time and money to pursue their ideas.