10 Common Mistakes When Setting Up A Social Lab

The Ten Most Common Mistakes In Setting Up A Social Lab

1/ Using the word “Lab” as a brand

This is possibly the most common mistake when setting up social labs. In some cases it’s a deliberate mistake, in that the notion of a “lab” is simply appropriated because as a brand it has some kudos or authority. When done deliberately it’s less a mistake and more a “tactical lie,” where a Business-As-Usual programme, a network or a project are simply labeled as a “lab” because people will believe something new and innovative is happening.

While this is problematic, in that it makes it hard to discern just what “lab practice” is (especially for funders or investors) it is also a sure sign that the idea of labs for addressing complex social challenges is going or has gone mainstream.

2/ Treating labs as if they are a technique

The original sin.

The easiest way of explaining this one is to draw the analogy with cooking. Cooking is a practice. Some of the things that comprise that practice are ingredients, tools, techniques, kitchens, sometimes a recipe book, and obviously different types of cuisines. These things, coupled with people who cook and people who are can be thought of as a “practice.”

To treat labs as a technique is akin to reducing the practice of cooking to baking or frying. Obviously these techniques are part of cooking, but the practice of cooking is much more than a technique.

Treating labs as a technique is another tactical error, where something that has strategic value is reduced to a single tactic.

3/ Not knowing what the challenge is that you want to address

This might sound obvious but clearly formulated challenges are rare. An example of a well-formulated challenge is “how can we reduce unemployment by half for 18-21 year olds in the UK within ten years?” The reason this is a well-formulated challenge is that it addresses both strategic and tactical concerns.

The notion of “unemployment” is a complex construct – it no longer simply means getting a job in a corporation, so the choice is deliberately fuzzy. The fuzzier a challenge the wider the demographic interested in addressing it.

On the other hand, the numbers in the challenge, age, time, geographic scope and halving the rate meet tactical as well as strategic requirements. From this statement we can define the tactical parameters of the challenge – for example, how many young people are we talking about? And we can also appeal to the strategic nature of addressing such a critical challenge.

Ultimately, a well-formulated challenge is both strategic and tactical. What this means is that the “tactical” part can change depending on what stakeholders say, but the “strategic part” – for example helping young people aged 18-21, should not change.

All too often, challenges are the heart of labs are so ill formulated that it’s impossible to tell if you’re dealing with a vast, world cup style challenge or a smaller, localized challenge. And without that clarity, the specifics of the Lab itself are going to be subject to endless argument and negotiation that in turn results in what could be thought of as a false start.

4/ Not having the appropriate level of resources for addressing your challenge

This is what I’ve called The World Cup problem. The analogy is that your intention is to win the World Cup and you believe that it’s possible to achieve this by working on your Lab a day a week or with a budget of $10,000. Now here’s the thing. There is nothing wrong with working on a Lab a day a week with a budget for $10,000. It’s just that the challenge you work on must be amenable to being addressed with this level of resources. Too many people think that Labs are only suitable for massive, grand challenges. In fact it’s perfectly feasible and reasonable to set up a Lab in a school to solve challenges at the level of a school. That doesn’t require a World Cup budget.

Also it is entirely possible, at least in theory, to start with very few resources and win the World Cup. It is just likely to be a very long haul. So the issue here is to recognize what you are likely to need, being realistic and then figuring out a strategy for getting it. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with starting small, just live in reality.

5/ Not having a comparative measure for your Lab

One of the most frequent challenges Labs have is getting the right level of resources in place. The most common reason for this is that Labs are often described in process terms (“we will run a workshop for 100 people”) but not in terms of a Return-On-Investment (ROI). So if someone asks, “how much will your Lab cost?” and you say “A million dollars” and the response is “Wow, that’s expensive” then there is clearly a tacit comparison going on. It’s expensive compared to something.

Most Labs do not bother to provide a comparative measure, for example, showing what current BAU efforts are, what they are costing and what results they are producing. So if BAU efforts are costing billions and not delivering results, then a million dollars might well be cheap. The question then becomes not is it cheap or expensive, but what sort of impact you believe you might be able to have on the challenge. The work then becomes establishing the credibility of your claim that for a million dollars you can make a dent in the challenge.

In other words, do a comparative ROI calculation for your Lab – even if it’s rough and back-of-the-envelope.

6/ Failing to meet the criteria of social diversity

One of the key benefits of a social lab is the “social” part of the lab. This requires genuine participation with the diverse stakeholders impacted by the challenge. There are two common responses to the challenge of engaging diverse stakeholders.

The first is for a homogenous team (for example of designers working for a single organization) to run a consultation process. While consultation processes can be very sophisticated, they in no way can substitute for actually having diverse stakeholders as part of the team doing the work.

The second is to try to what could be thought of as “horizontal diversity” – that is, bringing together different “white collar” professionals. For example a team is constituted from different professionals, such as economists, anthropologists and psychologists. This is actually “multi-disciplinarity” and it is not sufficient for addressing complex social challenges.

Instead, what is needed is to constitute a team that is characterized by both horizontal and vertical diversity. Of-course there is no such thing as a perfect team but investing real energy and resources into cracking this most difficult of problems is the key to addressing complex social challenges.

The credibility of this team is what makes Lab as a while credible. What you want is someone to look at your team and go “Wow, that’s an impressive group” – because they represent both horizontal and vertical diversity.

7/ The Lab is “owned” by one organization

All too often Labs are initiated through the leadership of an individual or a single organization. This is normal. The challenge with this however is that if this situation persists then the degrees of freedom to experiment in the Lab become a function of what the individual believes is good or the culture of the organization owning the Lab.

In other words, while having a single “owner” is often the default starting-position of Labs, it is vital that Labs are negotiated spaces. So inviting other individuals and organizations to co-own the Lab as early as possible is vital. This creates the degrees of freedom in terms of the “space” of the Lab for a culture of innovation.

8/ Inadvertently designing a planning process instead of an experimental process

The point of a social lab is that it is a strategy representing an experimental or prototyping response to a complex challenge. We don’t really know what will work in terms of solutions, so we aspire to try out lots of different possible solutions.

In contrast a linear planning process, unfolding over several months or years, tends to privilege single “big bets” or moonshots. Designing moonshots reflects an inherent belief that our experts know how to solve a problem – and we simple need to “Design-Implement-Evaluate” their solutions. When dealing with complex social challenges this approach, DIE, represents a seriously flawed strategy.

Imagine for a moment a cancer research lab implementing a single strategy for finding a cure for cancer that takes five years. At the end of five years they fail, and then decide to try something else out. This is entirely possible but the likelihood is that the lab is testing several promising routes out simultaneously.

The core processes at the heart of social labs have to be iterative and experimental in nature. In other words, the point of a lab, like a lab in the natural sciences, is for a group of people to make a series of “educated” guesses as to possible solutions.

All too often, people fail to let go of their belief in a pet solution, or their own analysis and simply fall back on planning and implementing their pet solution.

This is not what labs do.

9/ Mashing-up multiple processes

In contrast to the single, linear plan presented as an experimental process is the opposite end of the spectrum, the mash-up. The mash-up involves taking every single process, tool or technique you know and trying to do them all at once.

It’s a little bit like going shopping for a dinner party and going mad. Just as a good meal has a theme, balance and the different dishes complement each other, the design of a lab is the same. Just as in cooking, the sign of an amateur is that they try and throw a lot of fancy ingredients into a dish – which ends up not tasting very good. Master chefs on the other hand can spin magic from the most simple ingredients – and yes, they also have the ability to use many, many different ingredients to create very complex dishes. But as anyone learning to cook knows, it’s best to learn how to walk before you sprint.

In general the rule of thumb is “less is more.”

10/ Treating the Lab as a pilot project

One of the central myths of our times is the myth of scaling. Like most myths that are widely accepted in their time, it goes unquestioned, a story to believe in, rather than an idea to be interrogated.

The myth of scaling tells a simple story. It says this. If you want to have real impact, then you must aspire to be big. In order to get big, you must attempt something called “scaling” or “scaling up.” This means starting small and seeking to deliberately get big. That’s the scaling myth.

A belief in this myth leads to a tsunami of pilot projects that never really go anywhere. Instead of piloting, an activity which mostly benefits the people running the pilots, Labs should be designed for the scale specified for the challenge.

So if your concern is a school, then design prototypes (not pilots) that benefit your stakeholders as soon as possible at that scale. If your scale is global then constrain the per-unit costs of your prototypes for a global solution – that is design a prototype that can be rolled out at scale.

It is also worth making a distinction between scaling and growth. If you’re successful then your initiative will probably grow organically. But starting on the basis of believing that first you’re going to solve a problem as a pilot and then scale it up is a fallacy.

Why not check out these reflections from a social lab in Canada which realised they were falling into the ‘program mindset’?