Philippe Silberzahn co-heads the IDEA innovation and design thinking program at the EMLYON business school. When this business start-up specialist warns us about the use of the word lab, his point of view hits the bull’s eye. This column previously posted on his blog, alerts us on the dangers of “labwashing”.
I do not necessarily share the opinion of those who reckon that language models thought and therefore reality, but there is one area for which the issue is important, and this is the area of innovation. I wrote several papers on the difficulties met by people in charge of innovation within their organizations. One of them has to to with the way they describe themselves, and maybe the way they perceive their action…
Should one talk about innovation for example? The problem with innovation is a bit like with strategy: it is used lavishly and is open to totally free interpretation. Any change becomes innovation.
“But there is another word that in my opinion can do more harm than good, it’s the word ‘lab’.”
Labs are trendy. Countless companies are opening their lab, with a variation on the name they are given: iLab, xx-lab if the company name is xx, etc. These openings are carried out with lots of advertisement which in itself should be a factor of caution and suspicion. Even though the opening of a lab is strategic, what is the need for the outside world to know of its smallest details? In general, what is considered as truly strategic within an organization is subject to utmost discretion. In this instance, on the contrary, they open spectacularly, show people around, write articles, communicate.
But the problem with labs is not that they are often communication objects, a kind of catch-all answer allowing companies that are paralyzed by ruptures of their environment to say “you see, we are innovating, we are even doing things with all the trendy words of which we understand nothing”. And there you have it, directly in the annual report.
The problem is the word “lab”. The idea of course is that within these “third-places” new innovation practices are created, hence the experimental side of things and the word lab. But in the common spirit, especially that of the manager, the lab is the bottomless pit in which you invest but of which nothing ever comes out. How many labs get created with an explicit mandate to produce something? How many of them are actively thinking about their links with the rest of the organization for a real impact on its innovation capability? My recent discussions with certain lab creators reveal they are greatly aware of the challenge, but my argument is that they are put at a disadvantage by the very name of their space. The word lab is part of the semantic field of free experimentation, in the same way that, in France, the word “innovation” often refers to a great technological project, TGV or nuclear for instance, not necessarily profitable.
In conclusion, I wonder if an innovator should not completely change the vocabulary used. At least that’s what I recommended to one of them recently: not talk about innovation, but about new activities. Not be in charge of innovation, but in charge of new activities. Not be an innovation cell, but a new activities cell, etc. No longer talk about labs, but about incubators, or something else turned towards economic action, and insist on the tangible production by the lab.
In this area we need to apply Thomas Edison’s strategy who considered that an innovator should always progress masked: bring novelty but know how to wrap it in an older version. Here the old is the managerial vocabulary, because it is geared towards action. In short, we must talk about entrepreneurship (or intrapreneurship) rather than innovation. Without that, without this capacity to come to terms with the managerial reality in words as well as in spirit, what generally happens to innovation entities will happen to labs: after arising strong interest, inevitable disappearance.
Philippe Silberzahn has just published “Take on the challenge of rupture innovation” (November 2015, ed. Pearson)