The Evolution Of Social Labs


The first mention of “labs” as an idea to be applied to complex social challenges for me came from a paper written by Otto Scharmer. My introduction to Otto and this work came from my colleagues at Generon Consulting, where I started work in early 2003. The language used at the time was of “learning labs,” with “innovation lab” or “leadership lab” being used interchangeably.

The evolution of labs as outlined here is based on my engagement in attempting to evolve this practice. The details of how I started this journey can be found in my book, The Social Labs Revolution, which was published in 2014, almost a decade after I started this work.

First Generation Labs 2004-

This outline became the blueprint for first generation labs, of which the Sustainable Food Lab was the first. My primary role in that first lab was as an observer and part of the team documenting the process. My characterisation of the Sustainable Food Lab in its first two years (which is when I was involved) was that it was an almost purely process-orientated effort. Participants were recruited to go through a process, that process was modelled on the U-Process, now known as Theory U. The strategic dimensions of the Sustainable Food Lab came from a small group, consisting of Joseph Jaworski, Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Hal Hamilton and Tom Rautenberg (since sadly deceased). My colleague Adam Kahane was primarily responsible for the delivery of the lab itself. The Food Lab which is still going strong today, evolved its own path as an independent organisation. The second first generation lab that I worked on was the Bhavishya Alliance. As one of the core team delivering this lab, it raised many questions about the efficacy of our practice. These learnings can be found in a learning history “The Birth of the Bhavishya Alliance,” as well as in my book.

Second Generation Labs 2007 –

Starting Reos Partners in 2007 kicked off a new generation of Labs. One primary methodological question at the time that needed resolving was what we called “the problem of the right hand side.” This was the challenge of the “right hand side” of the U-process which was focused on action. During the Bhavishya Alliance it became clear that we risked falling back into traditional “Business As Usual” modalities through how we approached project management (I.e. using standard Waterfall style project management.) As Tom asked in a memo at the time, “where is the task-based competency model?” We didn’t have one.

In 2006 I spent a day in our Boston offices with Matt Gelbwaks, Matt introduced me to the world of scrum and agile. See the original slide below that I produced from my day with Matt. Over this second generation of evolution, we attempted to “port” agile from its origins in software development to the world of complex social challenges.

During this phase we helped standard up the Finance Innovation Lab, which is also still going strong. Similar to the Sustainable Food Lab, the Finance Lab has evolved into an independent organisation following its own trajectory. Our largest experiment with porting agile came through an effort around “metropolitan agriculture,” labelled the “Innoversity.” See the output document from the first MetroAg Summit. Arguably this ambitious effort failed but we learnt a lot about the practicalities of agile in the real world.

At the tail end of this phase, I wrote and published The Social Labs Revolution. My intention with the book was to theorize the work I had been involved in over a decade. In particular I wanted to root labs in the world of the “social” as opposed to the technical. This led me to coin the phase “social labs,” as a very deliberate and distinct form of practice. 

Third Generation Labs 2016-

In later 2016 with the founding of Roller Strategies, we entered into third generation lab terrain. Third generation labs involved taking a more modular approach to labs, where we started operating in 6 month “lab cycles” and the scrum agile approach was deeply internalized. In many ways it was only at this point, with third generation labs, did we make a switch from linear planning processes to a genuinely cyclical and iterative paradigm. We launched Grove 3547 during this period. We also came up with the idea of a “rapid action lab,” which is a single cycle of a lab that can be used as a tactical, rapid response to a wider challenge. We ran Safer Through Unity as a rapid action lab and then in 2018 we ran the Early Years Lab as a rapid action lab.

Fourth Generation Labs 2019 –

Our conclusion from running third generation lab was that achieving strategic depth, that is, addressing challenges systemically and at scale required running multiple cycles in parallel. See an early feasibility study from Chicago for an example. The challenges to running something at this scale are that it requires sufficient capital, the talent to run multiple parallel cycles needs to exist and a shared reporting protocol is required across multiple teams running multiple cycles. These are the challenges we are working on today.

We are aspiring to launch two fourth generation labs in 2019 and 2020.