December 3, 2014

Unlocking Hidden Creativity through Innovation Labs

The Rockefeller Foundation teamed up with Stanford ChangeLabs to work with a diverse group of more than 100 Peruvians to develop ideas for preserving and strengthening the country's declining coastal fishing economy.

By: John B. Thomas

A Peruvian fisherman I met not long ago figures his best days are behind him. After 40 years plying the coastal waters for ever-diminishing harvests, he despairs for the future of his way of life. "When all of the fish are gone, then what will we do?" he asks, giving voice to anxiety broadly felt by the country's fishing communities.

"I don't know," I told him. "But that's what I'm here to find out."

The Rockefeller Foundation and its partners have spent the last year trying to puzzle this through. We brought to this task a new approach called an innovation lab. It incorporates some principles familiar to us—such as bringing in diverse perspectives and looking to analogs from other sectors—along with a few new ones—such as focusing on behavioral motivations in decision-making and achieving disproportionate impact from limited resources.

To assist us with our work, Rockefeller turned to Stanford ChangeLabs, a leader in guiding participants through the innovation lab process. ChangeLabs led a series of three, three-day workshops involving over 100 stakeholders and creative thinkers. The process felt more creative, energizing, and important that any change-oriented gatherings I had previously experienced. The ChangeLabs team was able to give our thinking structure and a shot of adrenaline, moving us more efficiently toward practical solutions.

If I could reverse-engineer an innovation lab, I would say it does the following three things very well:

  • Make it meaningful and ambitious. We set an incredibly bold and ambitious objective: "to generate innovative solutions that could ensure a thriving future for coastal marine ecosystems and the vulnerable people who depend on them." Rather than paralyze us, this objective imbued our activities with an energizing purpose.
  • Treat people as inherently creative. Behavioral research shows that choosing how we spend our time—self-direction, or what Daniel Pink, author of the bestseller Drive, calls autonomy—is a natural human trait. Yet there are many reasons individuals can't or won't exercise that ability, whether due to institutional hierarchy, insecurity, competition, or fear. Our innovation lab wiped that away by separating the process for new idea development from the process of evaluating them, allowing people to imagine new ideas without fear of judgment. Once that creative door was opened, our time together was infused with a "yes, and" mentality instead of "no, because."
  • Teach people easy tools to exercise their creative skills. Brainstorming, storyboarding, systems mapping, rapid prototyping—these are fancy words for skills that can be easily and quickly taught. The Kelley brothers in their book Creative Confidence show that creativity is a "muscle" to be exercised. Indeed, practicing creativity allowed our participants to get better at it, and each of us went back to our institutions ready and able to apply our new skills.


While initially skeptical of the process, the experience opened my eyes to the enormous opportunity to unlock creativity and generate solutions to complex problems. Some examples:

  • One participant, a hard-nosed businessman, came to the lab looking for business opportunities and free R&D for his seafood company. But he ended up proposing to pilot new technology platforms to improve the transparency and efficiency of his supply chain—not just to make more money, but also to create more value for struggling fishermen.
  • A banker joined out of curiosity about the lab process but couldn't see the relationship between fisheries and her work in mobile banking. She ended up being one of the most active participants, developing ideas for new financial services products her bank could pilot to vulnerable fishing communities.

In addition, many exciting questions and ideas emerged from the ChangeLabs sessions, such as how we might better match the skills of fishermen and the seasonality of fishing with other available employment options? Or, what if you could flip perceptions of fishermen as high-risk customers for financial services and use their diversity as an advantage to de-risk a whole portfolio of financial products—insurance, access to credit, and savings? These are just two of the hundreds of ideas that came out of the lab, both of which our team is trying to pilot. Our hope is that many of the participants returned to their institutions inspired to test out some of the multitude of ideas generated in these labs.

Of course, the jury is still out on whether these or other ideas will make a disproportionate and positive impact on the lives of Peru's coastal fishermen. The value in this process isn't just in the ideas, however. It's in the people who become energized to make those ideas a reality. Systems change requires, at a minimum, a group of people who have the skills and motivation to act differently in the future—and to influence others to do the same.

As I think back to the fisherman I met at the beginning of this process, I realize I don't yet have anything to offer him. Many of the ideas we generated need to be tested in the real world. But I can say to him that if we want a different future, where the seas are abundant and his way of life is not just possible, but thriving, he and I need to work together—along with many, many others—to unlock our inherent creativity. I would still tell him, "I don't know." But now I would add, "Let's imagine something together."

John B. Thomas is a senior program associate at the Rockefeller Foundation, where he advances the organization's strategy and implementation of natural resource initiatives, specifically in fisheries, water, and agriculture.

This blog is part of a November-December 2014 series on innovation labs, a joint project between Bridgespan and The Rockefeller Foundation. Please join us during the coming four weeks as we publish a broad range of insights from innovation lab practitioners, funders, and participants.

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