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Innovation 08 Nov 2018

Innovation labs are all the rage, but are they a fad?

I will never forget the outfit I wore my first day of 8th grade. Acid-wash Jordache jeans with a zipper up the back, red Esprit branded sweatshirt, white keds, Esprit logo tote bag and bangs curled into a claw then weighed down with Aqua Net. I was the epitome of middle school 80s cool.

Flat line illustration of graph born business project startup process from idea to success for website banner and landing page, infographics, logo and icon. Concept for printed materials

Clearly, I was caught up in a fad that I’m thankful has not come back around.

In technology, fads also come and go - remember Google Glass? Technology trends seems to change yearly. But over the last several, there has been one that concept that many companies have adopted - the innovation lab.


Innovation Lab - Fad or Fab?

Innovation labs have been around much longer than the current plethora of them dotting the landscape would have you believe. In fact, according to CBInsights, IBM’s innovation lab, IBM Research, has been around since 1945. So, clearly for some, an innovation lab is a trend with staying power, but for others, the idea falls short.

Viki: Leaders need to take a point of view about where the world is going and how their company is going to use innovation to respond.

In looking at why, many articles point back to the lab’s objective not being clearly defined - and in some cases, supported - from the top-down. According to Tendayi Viki in an article on, opening a lab simply to catch up to what other companies are doing is not a good strategy. He says, “Leaders need to take a point of view about where the world is going and how their company is going to use innovation to respond. Clear strategic objectives around innovation must be made explicit at the company level.”


One size fits all

When it comes to innovation labs, it’s quite the contrary, actually. They are not one size fits all. Beyond the standard fare of moveable whiteboards and office furniture, lots of multi-colored sticky notes and a open beer tap, innovation labs that succeed look different from each other because they have objectives that are tailored for their business and their needs. The common denominator is determining the objective of the lab and agreeing to what a successful outcome looks like. Is it extracting insights about your market or your customers? Is it innovation for innovation’s sake? Or are you looking to produce viable products that will add to your bottom line. Each of these outcomes could be produced from a viable innovation long as top management agrees at the outset that it’s an acceptable return on investment for them.


Do you need one?

Let’s answer the question with a question or two. Have you looked at the realities facing your business in the next 5, 10, 15 or 20 years? Do you know how your industry will change along with consumer needs and preferences? Or do you have a group focused on understanding this and adapting? If not, you might want to consider an innovation lab as business does not stay static, and choosing not to adapt now to future realities will likely present problems in the future. Just make sure you are clear on what you hope to gain from your lab. After all, Google Glass may have (for now) left the consumer market, but Google took the learnings to its Alphabet X lab, and now the product is back as Glass Enterprise Edition.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering, acid-wash jeans are back.