Innovation Labs Fail - 5 Ways to Prevent Failure (Lessons from DPS's Imaginarium)

A recent post-mortem from the former leaders of the one of the largest and best-known public school innovation labs (Denver Public Schools Imaginarium) looked like a great opportunity to learn a little more about what causes innovation labs to fail.  I was eager to read the report because I want to understand what they could have done differently to have had a greater impact. In the end, the authors of the report placed blame for their failure to generate value at the feet of DPS leadership accusing top leaders of lacking the “courage” to make the lab successful. From the outside, that feels like an inflammatory assertion and it made me realize that maybe this report is not the best source for gaining an understanding of why it failed.  So, in this article, I identify five things they probably should have done differently if they wanted to have an impact on the culture of innovation and improve outcomes for students.

First, they needed to invest in Innovation Accountability. In a recent Harvard Business Review article Simone Bhan Ahuja argued that one of the reasons that upwards of 90% of corporate innovation labs fail is because they lack the metrics necessary to track success.  As she noted, “The truth is that innovation labs that don’t have or can’t manage metrics are essentially set-up to fail.”  Investing in Innovation Accountability requires that new KPIs are developed that account for the early stages of innovation and offer leading indicators showing that early-stage investments will result in outcomes for students later.  In the Imaginarium report the authors complain about being held accountable for student achievement, which is going to lag behind any change efforts. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Imaginarium didn’t make a case for alternative metrics.  The Imaginarium should have launched their own Innovation Accountability Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).  It was up to them to create the metrics for early, middle, and late stage development of innovative ideas.  Once they developed a set of metrics, they should have promoted the metrics widely and used these measures to improve the quality of their efforts.   

Second, they needed to Stay Problem-Focused. When launching an innovation program districts or schools need to make sure the program stays focused on problems and doesn’t promote preferred solutions.  The Imaginarium seemed more focused on solutions (e.g. personalized learning and student agency), which meant that these ideas were pursued as an ends, not a potential and testable means to solve a problem (e.g. student achievement, equity gap).   

Third, they needed to pursue tighter Strategic Alignment. When an innovation program or lab is launched it should work to stay aligned with the overall strategy of the school or district.  A school or district with a well-designed strategic plan has identified key problems that need to be solved to achieve its vision.  Typically, the strategic plan lays out how the district or school intends to go about overcoming these challenges.  An innovation program or lab should be designed to more rapidly test solutions to these challenges.  Not everything an innovation lab or program does needs to take the lead from the strategic priorities of the district or school but straying far from the overall strategic priorities of the organization makes the lab less relevant over time.  An innovation lab should be flexible enough to invest resources in solving emerging problems before the school or district resets its strategic priorities, but, again, any innovation lab that invests most of their resources in ideas and problems that are not core to the school or district’s priorities does risk being shuttered. 

Fourth, they needed to be more effective at Empowering the people closest to the problem. The inherent problem with innovation labs or innovation departments or job titles with “innovation” in them (e.g. Chief Innovation Officer) is that these creations send the message that innovation is someone else’s problem.  A successful innovation strategy in a public-school setting must engage and empower teachers and principals as the primary engines of innovation. To do this, the educators must be given something tangible that shows they have permission to innovate – such as release time.  As far as innovation programs in public school districts go, the Imaginarium was a Goliath.  As of 2017 it had a staff of 20 and a budget this year of almost $6 million a year!   If you worked in DPS at that time, you would be getting a clear message that “innovation” is the domain of the professionals over at the Imaginarium.  Developing a culture of innovation should be a desired outcome and when we silo innovation, we reduce the probability of developing this culture. It is not exactly clear what the Imaginarium’s strategy was for incubating innovation, but it does not seem like it was to empower the people closest to the problem to come up with solutions. The Imaginarium was interested in expanding the reach of personalized learning and student agency, not putting the power to design and test solutions in the hands of the teachers and principals in the schools.    

Fifth, make lots of Small Bets. Innovation costs money, but it doesn’t have to be a lot.  Innovation programs should invest in lots of small bets and a system of management that tracks how the ideas perform.  When an idea shows promise, then continue the investment.  This approach, a type of metered funding, works because ideas get small amounts of seed capital without showing any evidence of promise, but to continue to gain more support they most collect some evidence that it might work locally.  If you scroll through the Twitter feed from the Imaginarium you will see that they were engaged with lots of teachers and projects.  Perhaps, the Imaginarium was making lots of small bets, but it is hard to tell because there public reporting either does not exist or is really hard to find.  The Imaginarium itself was a big bet.  A $6M a year bet that by putting a lot of money in innovation theater that innovative ideas would spread and cause a change in outcomes for students.  Maybe if they had created a low-cost prototype of the Imaginarium early in the process they would have learned that this approach (a high cost “innovation” lab) was not going to work. 

In the end, the Imaginarium ends up looking like Innovation Theater (innovation work that is done for the sake of showing the people that “innovation” is happening) and it is hard to say what it accomplished.