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What a Difference a Lab Day Makes


Four years ago CauseLabs started setting aside one day every two months for our team to build projects of their own choosing. Little did we know the impact these lab days would have on our company’s internal motivation, our employees’ skillsets, and our ability to work collaboratively in innovative ways. Now, four years in, we’ve broken down our insights into best practices for other companies to follow, to help them achieve similar success. (T.J. Cook – CEO)

Innovation days go by many names, but the key elements are consistent: Bring together a few people, set up a basic process, and tackle acute problems. At its core, a “lab day” is any amount of time devoted to team collaboration on an agreed upon problem or project. Companies from Google to small start ups are finding that committing to lab days can make an immense impact on productivity and engagement in every other area of their business.

Lab days engage our imaginations, address our restlessness, and allow us to tinker. During a lab day the blinders are on to other projects, email, and all other distractions. Teams of one to three people build for a set amount of time, then join with other teams at the end of the day to demo and get rapid feedback for next steps. Any organization with design thinkers and makers can use time like this to solve problems.

OUR PATH TO LAB DAYS

At CauseLabs, a software strategy firm, we began lab days a few years ago after one of our staff members came back from a conference with the idea of doing an internal day of innovation. Nonprofits occasionally call this sort of internal day a “hackathon,” and we were familiar with other companies who used similar processes for innovation.

Google’s “20% time” is perhaps the most popular example of an internal innovation program, but 3M’s “15% rule” instituted in 1948 is the pioneering example. 3M encourages 15% of employee time to be spent on projects driven by their own insights. Similarly, at Google, the “20% time” egalitarian company policy served to promote Google’s innovative culture and produced business successes including Gmail, Google Now, and AdSense—and became so ingrained in the culture that Google ultimately removed the formal process, determining it was no longer necessary. Many other large technology companies such as Facebook foster rapid innovation, and we can draw on their strategies to begin variations tailored to specific companies.

The goals and features of an innovation program can vary and are highly dependent on an organization’s culture and values. Atlassian’s ShipIt Days are an interesting example of how culture influences efforts to set aside time for side project exploration and innovation. A ShipIt Day is 24 hours set aside once per quarter for developers to work on whatever they want, with a skew towards Atlassian’s products. At the end of the day, a trophy is awarded based on votes considering the criteria of usefulness, “shippability,” technical accomplishment, and flair. Results have included FishEye’s side-by-side diffs and Atlassian Invaders, all of which reflect Atlassian’s focus on fun and learning.

Because our team focuses on building tools that impact people, the vision for our program needed to be broader to ensure diverse outcomes. But perhaps more importantly, as we sifted through the variety of innovation programs, and experimented with what worked best for our team, three lab day must-haves emerged as principles.

collaborative

CONSTRAINTS FOR AN EFFECTIVE LAB DAY

The common theme of a lab day—or any innovation effort—is a constrained process to generate and capture new ideas. Constraints of time, money, and resources can be viewed as a barrier to creativity, growth, and development, but for innovation, they are a gift. Constraints helped Jason Fried and his team at 37 Signals create Basecamp. Limited time forced them to focus on what mattered in their product. Limited resources led to simpler solutions. Basecamp’s simplicity, a hallmark feature leading to its dominance among project management products, is the fruit of constraints. Lab days, likewise, breed simple and creative solutions.

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Posted on September 7, 2014, under Trends & News

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