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Learning by Doing: Designing New Change Labs

Adam Kahane
June, 2011


The Change Lab is a systemic, participative, creative approach to making progress on  complex social challenges that matter. In a Lab, a team of leaders from across a given social system come together to talk, act, and learn, with the goal of effecting change in their system. The participants in a Lab work from a whole-system rather than a siloed perspective; they work together with rather than apart from other stakeholders; and they make their way forward by trying out change strategies in practice rather than only on paper.

In Reos Partners, we employ the Change Lab in much of the work we do on different complex challenges in various social systems. We have learned to work with this powerful, unconventional method through much trial and error over the past two decades. Our current question is, how can we help other change practitioners learn to employ the Lab in their own work?

Over the last few years, we have experimented with several ways to build capacity in the Change Lab approach. These ways have included introductory seminars, short courses, and on-the-job training as part of Reos-led Lab teams. Over the past six months, we have been trying out a new method of building capacity and also kick-starting new Labs. This approach involves using the Change Lab process to design Change Labs, so we call it the “Lab Lab.”

A Lab Lab is a two-day workshop in which a minimum of four different small teams each work on designing their own Labs. Each team brings together leaders from at least three organisations with a stake in a given complex social challenge; they work together to come up with a plan for using a Lab to address that challenge. So far we have piloted the Lab Lab in Vancouver, Canada, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Driebergen, The Netherlands, with teams working on social inclusion, disability policy, neighbourhood renewal, urban transport, and climate change. These teams have reported that the Lab Lab enabled them to quickly discover and get going on promising and fresh ways to work on issues that in most cases they had been struggling with for years. “In these two days,” one Vancouver participant said, “we have made progress that would otherwise have taken us eighteen months.”

The innovation of the Lab Lab is that it enables teams of potential Lab initiators not only to get going on their Lab quickly, but to do so by using the Lab approach. The environment of the Lab Lab is that of a bustling, informal, creative studio. During the two days, each team iterates among the five core U-Process moves of the Change Lab: co-convening, co-sensing, co-presencing, co-creating, and co-evolving. In particular, they engage in rapid-cycle prototyping of the design of their Lab; they build, share, test, rebuild, and thereby improve physical models of their Lab’s context, actors, process, and infrastructure.

In a Lab Lab, each team works on the design of its own Lab at its own studio table. But the presence of the other teams at neighbouring tables provides easy opportunities for mutual support, feedback, and inspiration. The Lab Lab therefore offers us a glimpse not only of a highly effective way to build Change Lab capacity in action, but also to build a community of practice in this promising new approach to effecting social change.

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