Skip to main content Skip to main nav

LabWorks 2015 brought together public innovators from across the world for a two-day global gathering in London, and following on from the event Nesta, GovLab, and MindLab hosted a Coaching Retreat weekend for a select group on labs. In this post GovLab’s Alan Kantrow looks back on the learnings and discusses why defining the right problem is critical for success.

Even a quick glance at the teeming roster of participants at the recent LabWorks event confirms the extent of the awareness today that advances in IT and data science have much to offer governments – at all levels and in all geographies – as they wrestle with ever more complex public problems. That is why so many have already established innovation labs to harness these advances and pilot their application. And that is why so many eagerly accepted the invitation to meet in London to share their lab-related experience and to learn from best practice elsewhere.

Representatives of 17 labs stayed for an additional two days after the conference to roll up their sleeves in an intensive coaching programme

That is also why representatives of 17 of these labs stayed for an additional two days after the conference to roll up their sleeves in an intensive coaching programme, led by faculty from Nesta, GovLab, and MindLab. Tightly focused on the discipline of identifying and framing in actionable ways one of their most pressing current problems, this hands-on experiment proved highly successful. Real progress was made in learning and practicing new skills, and in building the personal relationships needed to support an emergent community of practice.

LabWorks 2015 Practitioner Workshop

Towards a theory of change and a theory of action

From these coaching interactions, several lessons emerged that have relevance for the extended LabWorks community. Much of what initially serves as a problem statement on which a lab has chosen to work is not really a problem statement at all, but only a general indication of the issue at hand and the broader context in which it sits.

As such, it is not concretely actionable. It is often not informed by a clear identification of the specific obstacle that needs to be removed or circumvented and/or the specific gap that needs to be filled if positive change is actually to happen. It often lacks, as well, a clear, step-by-step logic  – a theory of change – that credibly explains why and how removing that obstacle or filling that gap will lead to the outcomes intended.

We need to be comfortable with the wiring diagram of cause-and-effect that will lead to the desired result

And it also often lacks an equally clear logic – a theory of action – that explains precisely how these needed changes are to be accomplished. Before we can be confident that a proposed strategy will cause people to do something new, stop doing what they are now doing, or do something differently, we need to be comfortable with the wiring diagram of cause-and-effect that will lead to the desired result.

These requirements, in turn, put heightened emphasis on the ability of labs to map and profile the constituencies affected by their efforts, as well as the decision and operational processes through which their initiatives must get approved and implemented.

Perhaps what excited us most about this two-day coaching experiment was the quick, consistent linkage between focused work on these issues and the reframing of problem statements in ways that helped lab teams feel that they now understood, at a granular level, what they needed to do, in what order, and why.

Nesta reflection

This exciting shift for initiating change through lab teams is a welcome one. Nesta and other organisations working with shared ambitions to help innovation happen fully support the movement, but know only too well how difficult it can be to realise ambitious plans and have a direct and lasting impact on the wider culture. Through building a global lab community, we can help and encourage peer to peer learning and drive insights from both success and failure to inform more concrete and embedded change. Watch this space…

Sonja Dahl
Senior Programme Manager, Innovation Skills – Nesta