The Lab Approach
Actually, we mean laboratory, but we couldn’t resist these good looking dogs.
We came across a 2/25/2013 Business Insider article by Max Nisen that caught our eye (link below) about the most mysterious corporate laboratories in the country. Beyond the technical and design innovations hinted at, we were most intrigued by some insights it gave us into how more successful businesses operate, and how these ideas might translate into the nonprofit sector.
The companies featured put enough of a premium on innovation and the edge that they think this will give them that they have created divisions, these laboratories, with valuable resources allocated to them to think ahead—to the future, to the sustainability of the company.
While not all corporate business practices are useful for nonprofits, in this case we feel that the mindframe of allocating resources to laboratory work focused on developing a competitive edge which contributes to long-term sustainability is a lesson that should be incorporated more often into nonprofit operations.
Current practice in the nonprofit world is focused so much on thinking fairly short-term, about raising enough money for the current fiscal year especially within smaller and mid-sized organizations, consequently leading to relatively short-term pragmatic thinking about programs.
We suggest some alternative thought approaches.
Courtesy of BonhamsFord’s
At Ford, a small group of crack engineers, product planners, and marketers all housed under one roof, apart from the rest of the company, are tasked with creating the company’s highest performance vehicles for an extremely discerning clientele. They work on tight deadlines, and innovate in ways that end up affecting less specialized vehicles. The company’s Silicon Valley Lab aims for a start-up type environment, with whiteboard walls and an open floor plan, and aims to bring big data and an innovative user experience into Ford’s vehicles.
Nonprofits might consider putting together diverse teams with the best representatives of various departments such as programming, finance, communications and fundraising to work on key projects collaboratively. Having the different perspectives on an ongoing basis, while messy at times, can help shape projects into something much more dynamic and exciting than one that is planned and executed from the top down.
The Nordstrom Innovation Lab is meant to be a lean startup inside a Fortune 500 company. It exemplifies the lean start-up philosophy because it tries to rapidly create products in real time. In one case, the small team went to the company’s flagship store in Seattle and in just a week created an iPad app to help customers pick out sunglasses. They use whatever technology makes sense at the time to rapidly execute disruptive ideas. They aim to build a product every week or two, expect 80% to fail, and for the 20% that succeed to have a huge impact.
What if nonprofits built in expectations of 80% failure in order to reap spectacular results on 20% successes with a small program within the larger programmatic framework that maybe deals with the most difficult issues and challenges of the organization? Carving out that freedom to explore could be a tremendous gamechanger when your team hits that 20%. Meanwhile, if that 20% is elusive, you’re still carrying on with business as usual, so nothing lost really.
HP Labs, the company’s advanced technology arm, exemplifies the new, frugal, globally-based approach to innovation. Director Prith Banerjee has a lab in India to “innovate for the next billion customers,” because people in Palo Alto may forget that the whole world isn’t developed. Instead of focusing entirely on basic research, his core 500 researchers spend a third of their time looking five, ten, or fifteen years into the future, a third of their time improving existing products on a six- to eighteen-month timeline, and a third of their time working in between.
If a nonprofit were to take more of an approach of spending even 10% of its time looking 10 years into the future, 15% of its time looking in the near future, and the rest of the time on business as usual, we expect that the work, results and culture as well as the perception of the organization would change dramatically. The organization would be actively transforming into a more compelling, sustainable concern, and therefore attract more funding.
We can hear the chorus of people crying out that they don’t have current funding for this. Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. The world, and the nonprofit sector with it is changing. Funders and donors are looking for forward thinking organizations, practices and programs that will excite them about the future and give them hope. We believe that if you can develop a coherent vision of an innovative future, you can make a compelling case for the need to maybe fund a lab, a new way of operating, rather than just programmatic products. Some food for thought…
In future blogs, we’ll address the importance of vision, along with mission and goals, for an organization, and how that plays out in the programs, fundraising and operations.