Part of a Social Lab Cycle

Lab-In-A-Box: Developing a mature practice model for next-gen social labs


What does a current practice to address complex challenges look like from the inside?


This post is an interview with Cari Caldwell from Roller Strategies, who has been working on an exciting initiative to codify and publish the current social labs practice of Roller Strategies. At the end of this interview, you’ll find downloadable resources which package the v1.0 of this work, released under creative commons license.


So, to learn more about the Roller team’s drive to codify and publish their practice, read on….


Q1: Hi Cari, can you tell us a little about yourself, and your role with Roller?

A: I’m a co-founder of Roller and excited to be working currently as Director of Practice. I’m a facilitator, coach, entrepreneur and hot yoga junkie and I currently live in Colorado with my sons Conor and Luca, and our dog Rowdy.

I have said for a while, that for me Social Labs are the only game in town. What this means to me is that having been involved with many convening, engagement, leadership, organizational change and participatory processes – I find them all important but all insufficient. Few efforts have a strategy for long term serious shifts. Even fewer build the conditions for actual systems change. So I am thrilled to be part of the Roller team and working to bring this practice forward toward a mainstream future along with the whole Social Labs community.


Q2: We’re really excited about the work you’ve been doing, can you tell everyone a little about it?

A: Sure. We have been working on capturing and documenting our most current Social Labs practice. We affectionately call the project “Lab in a Box” (LIAB). We set out to codify our own practice and additionally wanted to make it available to anyone who wants to use it. When it’s finished, it will contain a full set of tools, capabilities, maps, protocols, workshop designs, checklists, sample documents and a field book. As the field of working with complex social challenges is still quite young and developing, we feel strongly about being part of the growing community of practitioners working to help the practice mature and find ever-better ways to produce more real, long-lasting results.

Our work with LIAB is not saying there is ‘one right way’ to respond to complex challenges. At the same time, as with any developing field, standards of practice support the field to mature, provide quality and consistency. The other end of the spectrum is ‘wild west’ where anything goes and can be a lab or a response to a complex challenge. So our work also tries to set out and open a discussion for standards of practice.


Q3: We were delighted to be able to support you to work with the social labs community to shape this. Can you tell us a little more about that experience?

A: As we were getting a first set of tools complete for LIAB, we wanted to sense check them with a small group of practitioners who could give feedback based on their Labs experience. We held two video calls where we had small groups join us and walk through the tools offering their feedback and ideas (huge thanks to Chelsea Robinson, Joshua Cubista, Ashley Dryburgh, Claire Buré, Mike Kang, and Gina Rembe!). We were really pleased to hear many people say they found the tools useful, some wished they’d had them a month ago, and everyone appreciated the work that is going into articulating the practice.

Some key questions and ideas that came from the sessions included:

  • How can we balance the tension between codifying the work and calcifying the work? Meaning how can we, in the way that we share and represent the practice with LIAB, offer it as ‘a’ way to do Social Labs but not have people relate to it as ‘the’ way to do Social Labs?
  • How can we support people to take what we have done and are sharing and not relate to it as rigid map but take it and innovate from it, improve on it and make it their own?
  • How can we show the iterative nature of Social Labs in our maps (check out our next iteration and see if it helps!)
  • How can we make the role descriptions more alive and personal?
  • As LIAB goes on-line how could it become a place where practitioners can add their own approaches so that we can build our community practice shared space?
  • How does it contribute to a knowledge commons for social labs practitioners?
  • We also heard further suggestions for additional roles and capabilities that could be included in LIAB.


Q4: What’s next on the horizon for this work?

A: We are working at the moment to finalize a 1.0 version of all the preconditions tools and delivery cycle tools. The next release will include preconditions tools like an organisational culture assessment, a convening partner assessment, Lab risk assessment, protocols for defining the lab challenge and preconditions, and protocols for selecting and onboarding early lab roles.


Q5: What are the biggest questions you’re holding about social labs practice at the moment?

A: One of the questions I am holding right now, coming out of an organizational development background, is how can we best support convening organizations to be effective at solving complex challenges? Many Labs are convened or sponsored or housed in more traditional organisations for whom prototyping, experimentation culture is not indigenous.

I’m really asking how can we set up the right relationship, conditions and practices so the Lab can thrive and not be hampered by dynamics and old school default ways of working. As I mentioned, in the next LIAB release we will include an Organisational Capability Assessment which takes the core capabilities talked about in the Core Capabilities Model below and provides an inventory for a convening or sponsoring organization to be able to assess its own cultural readiness and capability to support a Lab. Watch this space!