Has ‘innovation lab’ lost all meaning?

If your company hasn't hopped on this buzzword, is it really even a company?

What image comes up when you hear “innovation lab”?

A man dressed for a laboratory holds and examines a lightbulb, and a woman with a VR headset over her face holds up her arms.

What image comes up when you hear “innovation lab”?

White coat. Goggles. Cutting-edge stuff.  

But as brand after brand flocks to build the next innovation lab, the title has kind of lost its moxie. 

The latest one? 

Estee Lauder and Microsoft are co-building an innovation lab to infuse AI into your beauty routine (whatever that means).

Some notable innovation labs that have recently emerged:

  • Major League Soccer has a “pioneering” one. (The NBA’s 76ers have one, too.)
  • Mars invested $70m to “[increase] the speed of innovation” on brands like M&M’s and Snickers.
  • Even the state of Georgia is jumping on the bandwagon with its own “controlled sandbox environment.”

Other companies that have launched “innovation labs” include: HP, Alphabet, Starbucks, SAP, Dell, T-Mobile, Visa, Sephora, Lowe’s, Volkswagen, CVS, WarnerMedia, and KPMG. 

Heck, we’re not even including the many “innovation centers,” “innovation hubs,” “innovation studios,” etc. that are out there. 

What is an innovation lab, really? 

Everyone’s doing it, but is everyone doing it right? Probably not. 

In fact, a whopping 90% of so-called innovation labs fail to deliver on their promises, according to one expert.

We get it — businesses want to look like trailblazers, and with the seemingly endless stream of AI advancements, it can feel extra damaging to fall behind. 

But if you’re using the innovation lab as a PR stunt — AKA “innovation theater” — or simply doing it because everyone else is, there’s unlikely to be any real business impact.

The tides are shifting, though: Businesses focused on a different buzzword — profit — are getting well-deserved attention nowadays. 

Of course, not all labs are looking for profitability. Some are just sweet, employee-led efforts to work better… and others are just looking to feed some fish.

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