The Alberta CoLab Story: Redesigning the policy development process in government

Alex Ryan at Medium: “Alberta CoLab is an evolving experiment built on three counter-intuitive ideas:

1. Culture shifts faster through collaborative project work than through a culture change initiative.

2. The way to accelerate policy development is to engage more perspectives and more complexity.

3. The best place to put a cross-ministry design team is in a line ministry.

I want to explain what CoLab is and why it has evolved the way it has. We don’t view CoLab as a best practice to be replicated, since our model is tailored to the specific culture and context of Alberta. Perhaps you are also trying to catalyze innovation inside a large bureaucratic organization. I hope you can learn something from our journey so far,….

….Both the successes and frustrations of Alberta CoLab are consequences of the way that we have mediated some key tensions and tradeoffs involved with setting up a public sector innovation lab. Practitioners in other labs will likely recognize these tensions and tradeoffs, although your successes and frustrations will be different depending on how your business model reconciles them.

  1. Where should the lab be? Public innovation labs can exist inside, outside, or on the edge of government. Dubai The Model Centre and Alberta CoLab operate inside government. Inside labs have the best access to senior decision makers and the authority to convene whole of government collaborations, but may find it harder to engage openly with citizens and stakeholders. Unicef Innovation Labs and NouLab exist outside of government. Outside labs have more freedom in who they convene, the kind of container they can create, and timelines to impact, but find it harder to connect with and affect policy change. MindLab and MaRS Solutions Lab are examples of labs on the edge of government. This positioning can offer the best of both worlds. However, edge labs are vulnerable to fluctuations in their relationship with government. Surviving and thriving on the edge means continually walking a tightrope between autonomy and integration. Labs can change their positioning. Alberta CoLab began as an external consulting project. The Behavioural Insights Team is a social purpose company that was spun-off from a lab inside the U.K. government. The location of the lab is unlikely to change often, so it is an important strategic choice.
  2. How deep should the lab go? Here the tension is between taking on small, tactical improvement projects that deliver tangible results, or tackling the big, strategic systems changes that will take years to manifest. Public sector innovation labs are a reaction to the almost total failure of traditional approaches to move the needle on systems change.Therefore, most labs have aspirations to the strategic and the systemic. Yet most labs are also operating in a dominant culture that demands quick wins and measures success by linear progress against a simple logic model theory of change. We believe that operating at either extreme of this spectrum is equally misguided. We use a portfolio approach and a barbell strategy to mediate this tension. Having a portfolio of projects allows us to invest energy in systems change and generate immediate value. It allows us to balance our projects across three horizons of innovation: sustaining innovations; disruptive innovations; and transformative innovations. A barbell strategy means avoiding the middle of the bell curve. We maintain a small number of long-term, flagship initiatives, combined with a rapid turnover of quick-win projects. This allows us to remind the organization of our immediate value without sacrificing long-term commitment to systems change.
  3. What relationship should the lab have with government? Even an inside lab must create some distance between itself and the broader government culture if it is to provide a safe space for innovation. There is a tension between being separate and being integrated. Developing novel ideas that get implemented requires the lab to be both separate and integrated at the same time. You need to decouple from regular policy cycles to enable divergence and creativity, yet provide input into key decisions at the right time. Sometimes these decision points are known in advance, but more often this means sensing and responding to a dynamic decision landscape. Underneath any effective lab is a powerful social network, which needs to cut across government silos and stratas and draw in external perspectives. I think of a lab as having a kind of respiratory rhythm. It starts by bringing fresh ideas into the organization, like a deep breath that provides the oxygen for new thinking. But new ideas are rarely welcome in old organizations. When the lab communicates outwards, these new ideas should be translated into familiar language and concepts, and then given a subtle twist. Often labs believe they have to differentiate their innovations — to emphasize novelty — to justify their existence as an innovation lab. But the more the output of the lab resembles the institutional culture, the more it appears obvious and familiar, the more likely it will be accepted and integrated into the mainstream.
  4. What relationship should the lab have with clients? Alberta CoLab is a kind of in-house consultancy that provides services to clients across all ministries. There is a tension in the nature of the relationship, which can span from consulting problem-solver to co-design facilitator to teacher. The main problem with a consulting model is it often builds dependency rather than capacity. The challenge with an educational relationship is that clients struggle to apply theory that is disconnected from practice. We often use facilitation as a ‘cover’ for our practice, because it allows us to design a process that enables both reflective practice and situated learning. By teaching systemic design and strategic foresight approaches through taking on live projects, we build capacity while doing the work our clients need to do anyway. This helps to break down barriers between theory and practice, learning and doing. Another tension is between doing what the client says she wants and what she needs but does not articulate. Unlike a customer, who is always right, the designer has a duty of care to their client. This involves pushing back when the client demands are unreasonable, reframing the challenge when the problem received is a symptom of a deeper issue, and clearly communicating the risks and potential side effects of policy options. As Denys Lasdun has said about designers: “Our job is to give the client, on time and on cost, not what he wants, but what he never dreamed he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time.”

Lessons Learned

These are our top lessons learned from our journey to date that may have broader applicability.

  1. Recruit outsiders and insiders. Bringing in outside experts elevates the lab’s status. Outsiders are essential to question and challenge organizational patterns that insiders take as given. Insiders bring an understanding of organizational culture. They know how to move files through the bureaucracy and they know where the landmines are.
  2. Show don’t tell. As lab practitioners, we tend to be process geeks with a strong belief in the superiority of our own methods. There is a temptation to cast oneself in the role of the missionary bringing the good word to the unwashed masses. Not only is this arrogant, it’s counter-productive. It’s much more effective to show your clients how your approach adds value by starting with a small collaborative project. If your approach really is as good as you believe it is, the results will speak for themselves. Once people are envious of the results you have achieved, they will be curious and open to learning how you did it, and they will demand more of it.
  3. Be a catalyst, not a bottleneck. Jess McMullin gave us this advice when we founded CoLab. It’s why we developed a six day training course to train over 80 systemic designers across the government. It’s why we run communities of practice on systemic design and strategic foresight. And it’s why we publish about our experiences and share the toolkits we develop. If the innovation lab is an ivory tower, it will not change the way government works. Think instead of the lab as the headquarters of a democratic grassroots movement.
  4. Select projects based on the potential for reframing. There are many criteria we apply when we decide whether to take on a new project. Is it a strategic priority? Is there commitment to implement? Are the client expectations realistic? Can our contribution have a positive impact? These are useful but apply to almost any service offering. The unique value a social innovation lab offers is discontinuous improvement. The source of discontinuous improvement is reframing — seeing a familiar challenge with new eyes, from a different perspective that opens up new potential for positive change. If a project ticks all the boxes, except that the client is certain they already know what the problem is, then that already limits the kind of solutions they will consider. Unless they are open to reframing, they will likely be frustrated by a lab approach, and would be better served by traditional facilitation or good project management.
  5. Prototyping is just the end of the beginning. After one year, we went around and interviewed the first 40 clients of Alberta CoLab. We wanted to know what they had achieved since our co-design sessions. Unfortunately, for most of them, the answer was “not much.” They were very happy with the quality of the ideas and prototypes generated while working with CoLab and were hopeful that the ideas would eventually see the light of day. But they also noted that once participants left the lab and went back to their desks, they found it difficult to sustain the momentum and excitement of the lab, and easy to snap back to business as usual. We had to pivot our strategy to take on fewer projects, but take on a greater stewardship role through to implementation.
  6. Find a rhythm. It’s not useful to create a traditional project plan with phases and milestones for a non-linear and open-ended discovery process like a lab. Yet without some kind of structure, it’s easy to lose momentum or become lost. The best projects I have participated in create a rhythm: an alternating movement between open collaboration and focused delivery. The lab opens up every few months to engage widely on what needs to be done and why. A core team then works between collaborative workshops on how to make it happen. Each cycle allows the group to frame key challenges, make progress, and receive feedback, which builds momentum and commitment.
  7. Be a good gardener. Most of the participants of our workshops arrive with a full plate. They are already 100% committed in their day jobs. Even when they are enthusiastic to ideate, they will be reluctant to take on any additional work. If we want our organizations to innovate, first we have to create the space for new work. We need to prune those projects that we have kept on life support — not yet declared dead but not priorities. This often means making difficult decisions. The flip side of pruning is to actively search for positive deviance and help it to grow. When you find something that’s already working, you just need to turn up the good…..(More)”