Lab 351: innovation-in-a-box approach allows anyone in the company to develop their ideas and entrepreneurial skills

The Globe and Mail encourages all employees in the company to pitch as many innovative ideas as they can even if they are at the back of napkin stage.

Selected individuals then get 2 days of accelerated innovation training and $1000 to validate some of their ideas, without knowing which idea got them got them into the lab. From there, the Lab looks to build teams on top of those findings, freeing up small groups from their daily work and funding them for up to 90 days so that they can show the company what needs to be done.

The Globe and Mail in Canada has been in print for 172 years. As the biggest newspaper in the country, it attracts a six-day readership total of over 3.5 million, making it the best-read newspaper across Canada.

Lab351 is part of Globe Labs, the Globe and Mail’s innovation hub where data science, UX, prototyping, user testing and ideation happen. Lab351 is not staffed by a dedicated team. Instead, Gordon Edall (Director Globe Labs) tries to encourage all employees to pitch their ideas. There’s an individual track and a track for small teams to tap into the resources they need to develop their ideas and turn them into projects that make a difference. Launched in June 2015, the lab was inspired by the Communitech lab at the University of Waterloo.

The Globe and Mail recently moved into a new building where the lab has a dedicated space. Although the initial idea was to extend the lab to external innovation in the form of start-up acceleration, they have decided to stick with internal innovation for the moment:

“We haven’t eliminated it as an idea that is worth considering on a regular basis and I have conversations about what that would still look like,” says Gordon Edall, “but external innovation would have been a much bigger investment and it would have been a much more risky endeavour.”

Excitement across the company

Globe labs however has evolved its approach to internal innovation. Before, there was a team-only approach and the size of the teams was too small to really make a difference in terms of corporate culture and the bar to get into one of the teams was very high. As one of the goals is to help change the culture in the organisation, they supplemented this team-based approach with a training programme to encourage individuals within the company to generate ideas.

An advisory committee selects the initial ideas to find the people for the intensive individual training. Using lessons and methodologies from the open-source Adobe Kickbox innovation program, selected individuals get a box with a set of innovation guidelines along with some hands-on training and a pre-paid credit card loaded with $1000 to be spent as they see fit to validate their idea:

“You don’t ever have to generate any invoices. You don’t ever have to justify what you spend that money on. The money is there for you and is given to you in good faith so that you can show us what you think needs done”, explains Gordon Edall. “If we give you a very small amount of money and teach you how to use it, to show us how to do something interesting and new, we believe you will do that, on your own.”

The excitement this generates in people is infectious and spreads to others in the company, says Edall. As individuals no longer disappear for 90 days the way they did when Lab351 was first created, they can share this excitement with their colleagues while it is still fresh in their mind.

Capped risk

For ideas and ventures that require more time and money but still represent an experimental idea, The Globe and Mail continues to run a competitive team-based program. Winning teams get 90 days, with team members freed from the distractions of their day jobs, to build a prototype or create a business opportunity.

Funding for each team is provided up to a $100,000 threshold and the time restrictions are very real – each team understands that Lab351 is an exercise in constraint based innovation and this allows the lab to cap the risk around the innovation process.

At the end of the 90-day period, the teams know they will face another test: “Once those 90 days are up, you need your ‘start-up’ to be bought by an existing line of business here or find additional funding outside the lab,” says Edall.

Recognising a good idea

Anybody in the company, across any department, can pitch an idea. Ideas to date have ranged from new data science capabilities to VR and other editorial projects. An important part of the process is to learn how to recognise a good idea:

“One of the things people really struggle with in the lab is that we don’t tell them which idea got them selected. When you’re pitching to the lab, anyone can pitch and you can pitch as many ideas as you want. We evaluate all of the ideas anonymously and we just pick ideas and we pick ideas until we have enough people for the class. When you get into the training though we refuse to tell you what the idea was that got you selected because the training is really about being able to tell the difference between a good idea and a bad idea.”

However, the biggest dividend so far is not business process improvement or smarter storytelling, but a shift in the mind-set of staff: “It’s about having better conversations about whether or not we should do things,” says Edall. Another attractive characteristic of the Adobe Kickbox method is that it gives participants a shared vocabulary to actually talk about innovation in a more consistent way:

“Introducing people to concepts like rapid prototyping and low fidelity testing – what we find is that when we put a few people through the training, the conversations that they have between themselves about an idea or a project are generally much better than they were before.”

Looking further ahead

“We’re still trying to figure out how far out our horizon can be. Right now we’re still working on creating things tied to nearer term horizons and I hope over time we’re making more bets that cross different and wider time dimensions. I want us to be we’re looking at more things that are 3 to 5 years out and fewer things that are sort of quick wins.”

A good example of the types of projects Gordon Edall is aiming for are Sophi and Delphi.

The Globe and Mail has recently replaced its entire analytical infrastructure with a set of home-built tools called Sophi. It’s a decision support and business intelligence tool the newsroom uses both for tactical purposes, like managing the website in real time, and strategic purposes, like re-allocating resources to address unmet needs that the advanced analytics reveal.

Delphi meanwhile is a predictive analytical stack they have built on top of Sophi that, among other things, predicts the value of a story before it is published. Doing this kind of analysis prior to publication can help editors make better decisions about where to place a story or make decisions about future stories:

“We’ve shown it to a few people in the industry now and the feedback has been pretty dramatically great. People have really loved what we’re able to do and the degree to which we’re solving real problems in the newsroom in real time on a tactical basis and on a historical basis solving some pretty difficult issues around where to focus your effort as a newsroom.”

A mid-term project of the kind the Lab351 aspires to do more of is creating generic versions of Sophi and Delphi and opening it up to other companies, both inside the media industry or in other markets.


Gordon Edall, Director Globe Labs, The Globe and Mail
Twitter: @gordonedall



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