Why innovation labs fail

Human learning is more important to organizations’ future than is artificial intelligence.
Human learning is more important to organizations’ future than is artificial intelligence.
Image: Matt Sayles/AP Images
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If intelligence is, as the Webster dictionary defines it, “the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations,” machines have surely made magnificent strides over the past few years, at least in narrow and well-defined fields. But what about our organizations? How intelligent are our businesses and our governments—or, for that matter, the teams we work on or lead? After all, organizations are made up of humans, who as individuals possess a broad and flexible intelligence that far outstrips anything yet created artificially. On paper, the possibilities for intelligent businesses seem rather good.

We believe the task of building intelligent organizations—ones that can learn from their environments, successfully adapt to them, and create new futures for themselves— is a much larger and more pressing challenge than our present infatuation with artificial intelligence. The forces of globalization and technology are intensifying the “new or trying situations” that companies of all ages and from all industries face. A new generation of consumer citizens is demanding and expecting more, and it has little tolerance for brands that fail to keep up with the times. Product life-cycles continue to shorten. Digital technologies are introducing new consumer value propositions, new consumption habits, and new business models.

Where do we find businesses built to sustain this environment? Not yet amongst large, old companies, despite many noble efforts to incubate labs, innovation practices, and assorted “transformation” initiatives. Some of these efforts have burned brightly for a time. But none has yet grown into an enduring and pervasive organizational change.

Neither can we find them amongst internet companies which—having struck oil during the most recent dotcom boom—have been growing fatter, happier and more complacent ever since. Nor even can we find learning cultures amongst startups—at least, not consistently. Curiously, the core of the Valley’s business culture, with its overbearing founder-geniuses and young-but-deeply-siloed business structures, can be more barren of learning and creativity than the old industrial rust belts.

We believe that local solutions like innovation labs fail because the underlying problem is both foundational and systemic. Our leadership, our management systems, our HR practices, our finance departments, the way we design our physical working environments, the people we promote and the people we fire—all of these things (and more) mutually reinforce a corporate monoculture that rewards operating efficiency and systematically punishes creativity, experimentation, failure, and therefore learning.

We trace the roots of this culture deeper still into our education systems, which, while they nominally promote childhood learning, in practice do little of the sort. Even the most cursory study of the science of learning cannot fail to conclude that humans learn in groups, that mixed age and mixed ability groups learn fastest, and that the primary vehicle for group learning is something we call “play.” Yet our schools continue to structure themselves around the individual student, segregate our children by age and ability, and actively reduce opportunities for play through longer class hours and more burdensome (and solitary) homework assignments. It is no wonder that we fail to build adult organizations that learn. Our childhoods leave us deeply confused about what learning is, and how it happens.

How do we begin to solve this problem? In practice, organizations that seek to learn, adapt, and create must look across the entire system of work within their company. They must re-examine and alter patterns of individual work (craft), patterns of teamwork (collaboration), patterns of management (empowerment and support), and patterns of executive leadership (purpose and value creation). Learning frameworks such as Agile or Design Thinking can be powerful agents of change. But they cannot survive without change in every part of the organization, and a continuous focus on the interplay between individuals, teams and managers.

We also believe that technology has a profound role to play, and—as part of this column—will be reexamining assumptions that needlessly pit human against machine. We think the more interesting perspective sees people and technology as participants in shared human-machine systems—systems designed improve how organizations learn.

We live in confusing times. Work is broken. Leadership is stuck. New thinking and new practices abound. Which are worth trying, and why? And how do they fit within the workings of the larger organization? We plan to explore these questions, grounding ourselves and our readers in the science of learning along the way. Our hope is to contribute to a new pattern language of work—one that connects emerging best practices across individuals, teams, management and leadership. With this shared language and shared understanding, we can hope to unlock the extraordinary, untapped potential that hides obscured and frustrated in every organization, and in all of us.

This article is the first in a Quartz at Work series that will explore new patterns of work.