People: the backbone of every innovation lab

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We are building demonstrators of how these technologies have a practical application in a diverse array of business processes in weekly sprints.

In three short years, the Capgemini Netherlands CoZone (collaboration zone), part of our global Applied Innovation Exchange (AIE) platform, has grown exponentially from just 12 to 120 seats. This provides facilities for small teams to develop the concept demonstrators that explore the potential business applications of new technologies. At the CoZone, we probe the boundaries of technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, and AR/VR to show our clients how to apply them effectively. But to do this in the best way possible, we needed the right working environment. We wanted the CoZone to have the cool, modern vibe of a startup – but, obviously, with archetypical Dutch frugality when it came to the budget.

These days, everyone associates innovation labs with Googlesque furniture, bright colors, beanbags, and ping-pong tables. With a limited budget, however, it seemed impossible to transform 750 m2 of regular corporate office space into something special. And once we compared objectives with facility management, we were reminded of pesky constraints such as fire resistance, acoustics, ventilation, cleaning, and even the risk of pests in second-hand furniture.  We realized that we needed a different approach. So, we thought about moving off site. We considered everything – from an abandoned factory to a parking garage. We wanted a space that was unregulated; a space in which graffiti would be considered cool rather than vandalism.

However, moving off site would indicate a clear separation from the regular business, whereas one of the objectives of innovation is to help regular business evolve. Innovation should not be elitist. It should be transparent and accessible to everyone. People should be able to roam freely, looking for inspiration and new ideas in an environment that ensures them that their future is under construction. Innovation is not something that should ever be tucked away and hidden in a dark corner.

Eventually, we decided on a spot that had the perfect mix of form, frugality, and function. Right in our Netherlands office, right next to the cafeteria. No doors, no gateway, transparent and accessible to anyone who is interested or merely curious. Accepting (or leveraging) the constraints of a regular office building and putting any budget toward the stuff that matters most.

So that got me thinking. Startups look like startups not because they have impeccable taste or style. They look like startups because they spend their budget in a particular direction. Any startup that spends their capital on furniture will soon lose their VC support. Startups look like startups because they behave in a specific way. Money is spent on things that make a difference – and a bright coat of paint or flashy carpets do not make the kind of difference that matters. Emerging startups that look that way do so because they can, not because of a deeper design. Beanbags are not comfortable to work in anyway. Yet this is exactly how many large organizations set up their innovation areas. Over the years, I’ve visited and received countless innovation leads, and seen many organizations wonder why their innovation labs don’t take off, even though they invested heavily in decorations. In almost every case, the budget was spent on things rather than people.

Yet it’s people who make the difference, and form follows function. When people are inspired, and given a purposeful mission, they let you know what they need from their environment – not necessarily in words, but rather in actions and behavior. They need desks that allow them to sit in small groups shoulder to shoulder with their laptop screens shoved together. They need, big screens that let them share their results and challenges. They need whiteboards to facilitate discussions and designs. They need open, sound-friendly areas for the daily standup and large showcase and demonstration areas with projection walls, or wall-sized screens that also facilitate the odd gaming night. And yeah, they need coffee that is not necessarily an insult to their taste buds.

Before you hire an interior architect, who will effectively dictate how your people work, I suggest you spend some of your budget on a barbecue for the team and just listen to what they have to say. Get started, experiment, and find out what works and what doesn’t. Spend your budget on things that matter and not on decorations. A shiny, colorful space may awe your visitors, but once the novelty wears off, you will still not have mobilized your people. And it’s the people that matter.

Today, almost three years after opening, our innovation work area, or Collaboration Zone as we call it, is a buzzing beehive. At any given time, about 80 people in about 14 teams are working towards a deeper understanding of leading-edge technologies. We are building demonstrators of how these technologies have a practical application in a diverse array of business processes in weekly sprints. The topics are based on an Epic definition that was set by a challenge owner or product owner, who has a clear vision of a practical purpose. Over 800 colleagues have contributed to over 90 concept demonstrators, showing over 500 visitors how applied innovation can change everything. And we are only just beginning : )

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