Stories from the Lab: Creating the conditions necessary for innovation

Stories from the Lab: Creating the conditions necessary for innovation

By Dr. Darren Levine and Laura Stephan

At the Region of Durham, our organization has a strong commitment to innovation and research across the corporation. Our Innovation and Research Unit leads a range of initiatives that give staff a voice and create pathways for change, corporately. Our Durham Design Lab offers a space where staff are invited to come together in a psychologically safe environment to co-create new possibilities for their work areas. Groups of staff make up “Lab Teams” who work together to move their ideas through the Human Centered Design journey, applying a variety of innovation tools and methods along the way. By keeping small teams together over time, positive working relationships and trust are nurtured between individuals from across the organization. This foundation allows Lab Team members to effectively collaborate – to listen and learn from one another, share and combine their ideas, and contribute their skills and talents irrespective of position, title, or years of service — while moving their idea forward through the structured Human Centred Design process. Labs are carefully planned and facilitated in a way to ensure participants are comfortable sharing both what is working, and what’s not working, while building and learning together.

Jacqueline is a member of the current Lab Team focused on enhancing the staff experience in the organization. She shares the importance of the type of space created in the Durham Design Lab: “This has been a really amazing experience.  Being able to contribute to a possible process or procedure, that will effect positive change, has me very excited.  And knowing that our discussions all take place in a safe and open environment, where we are free to be ourselves without negative recourse, is very important to our success.”

Nataliya, another member of this Lab Team shares her experience working through an idea in the lab: “Durham Design Lab has provided me the opportunity of learning and growing together in a safe space and environment. Like minded individuals gather together, hungry for positive solutions/outcomes to every day issues that are encountered. Through the process of empathy mapping, skilled facilitation, embracing ambiguity, empowering each other, and above all, keeping confidential, I have learnt to challenge my own thought process and have embraced the new skills by placing them in my tool box.”

Our organizations want and need innovation. The question however, is are we creating the right conditions in the organization for innovation? Psychological safety, trust, creative confidence, collaboration, and experimentation are just some of the conditions necessary for innovation. Our innovation labs are one way we have started to nurture these types of conditions.

We can have the best evidence-based tools available, but if we don’t create the right conditions for staff at all points of the organizational hierarchy to feel safe to use those tools, to experiment with their ideas, and to lead change, the tools won’t be used to their full potential. Cultivating a culture of innovation is the cumulative effect of unlocking creativity and leadership within each staff member. Our Innovations Labs are one way we have started to nurture the leadership that sits in every chair.

Does your organization have an innovation lab? We would love to hear your experiences. Connect with us at


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