Collaborative Spaces: Skills Society’s Action Lab promotes creative problem solving

Entrance to the Action Lab, Photo courtesy of Skills Society
Entrance to the Action Lab. Photo courtesy of Skills Society

This is a city where creativity and community go hand in hand. In this series I’m exploring the local businesses and spaces whose collaborative natures make them more than the sum of their parts.

When I walked into the Action Lab, the first thing I noticed were the bright colours. It’s clear that this is a space for learning and growing. The walls are a warm shade of yellow and there are inspirational quotes spaced out around the room. A bookshelf holds inspiring titles like Forces of Good and The Art of Innovation, as well as an eclectic collection of objects including a couple of Star Wars helmets and some Volkswagen bus models.

The new space launches officially on Feb. 1, and was created by Skills Society, the organization that has been supporting the citizenship of people with disabilities since the 1980s. It’s based on the emerging field of change labs and human-centred design processes to navigate complex challenges. The space was partially inspired by the D.School at Stanford and labs like MindLab in Denmark, Policy Lab in the United Kingdom and MaRs in Toronto.

Ben Weinlick, Skills Society’s senior leader of research and social innovation, and the founder of Think Jar Collective, played an integral role in the conception of the space so he walked me through how it works.

The Action Lab is for anyone who wants to problem solve better and impact positive change. It’s a place to come together to collaborate, to empathize, to brainstorm, to engage in serious play and ultimately to co-create potential solutions to complex problems.

As Weinlick explains, “One idea for the feel of the space, was that you walk into the space and it’s almost like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. You go through the wardrobe and then ‘Woosh’ this other world is there and it can help you think and do differently.” It seems fitting that he wants people to feel like they’re entering a new world since they are essentially there to create a new space within their regular lives.

As a concept, the Action Lab has three pillars: a space you can rent for events and meetings, facilitation and workshops for organizations, and deep explorations of complex social issues.

Making space

Not your average conference room, the area can be configured to suit a group’s needs, and provides plenty of unique creative tools to help spark discussion and action.

The space can be configured any way you want. Photo courtesy of Skills Society
The space can be configured any way to meet a group’s needs. Photo courtesy of Skills Society

The lower half of the back wall is covered in beautiful photos of a multitude of subjects. Weinlick explains that these visual explorer cards are to be used as a tool for expressing ideas; that people can select pictures that are relevant to their viewpoint or to the topic at hand. This is a great way to encourage discussion, and is especially useful in including people with a variety of cognitive and reading abilities, meaning everyone can contribute.

Lego Serious Play is a similar tool that is broadly accessible, and that gets people thinking in new ways. Weinlick is a certified Lego Serious Play facilitator and he says, “Something happens when we think with our hands. Something happens when we build ideas, rather than just talk about them. It’s not about the Lego really, it’s about the stories and metaphors to make sense of an issue.”

One of the participants in a day of exploration described their experience for the Skills Society website: “I was struck by the way the Lego exploration helped a diverse group to collaborate and problem solve tricky issues together. It was like a mini model of healthy civic engagement the way it should be.  I want to remember that and do more of that in my work and community.”

The room has a playful energy. Photo courtesy of Skills Society.
The room has a playful energy. Photo courtesy of Skills Society.

Innovating how we problem solve

The second pillar gives groups the opportunity to learn about and practice new problem-solving techniques. As Weinlick puts it, “The old school way of strategy and problem solving that doesn’t really work, was you would get a bunch of experts in a room, consultants in a room around a challenge. You would design in an ivory tower, away from the issue, away from the people that are affected by the issue and end up creating solutions that people don’t need or want.”

The Action Lab doesn’t do that. They convene groups from diverse backgrounds to come in and work together to find the solutions that will really work, rather than the solutions they are told will work by an outsider.

The decision to create the Action Lab was brought on by a few factors. As an organization that has always championed innovation and social responsibility, Skills Society saw an opportunity to create a place where those values could come to life. In Weinlick’s personal experience of conversations between diverse groups in formats like World Cafe, they would often stop at what he calls the “discovery phase” of hashing out an issue and building understanding around it.

Breaking down silos

He recognized that what was often missing from these discussions was action — not just talking but actually creating plans and prototypes for next steps. And one of the biggest strengths of the lab’s approach is its bias towards action. Rather than feeling inspired but unsure about what to do next, the point is to leave with practical steps that participants can begin testing and implementing.

As the first of its kind in Western Canada, the Action Lab fills a highly desired need in our city. Weinlick says he believes that, “people are really thirsty for doing things differently.” He looks at projects like End Poverty Edmonton, and the work of Mayor Don Iveson, the municipal government as a whole, and even the provincial government, and he sees lines blurring between private and social sectors, and divisions between silos breaking down.

The space is built to inspire collaboration, and a good example of how it works comes from an event called Impact Day, where they brought in representatives from business, academia and social organizations, as well as citizens with disabilities, to talk about what makes vibrant communities. This diverse group used the tools in the room to figure out how to include marginalized populations in community.

Planning in process. Photo courtesy of Skills Society.
Planning in process. Photo courtesy of Skills Society.

The way Weinlick describes it, the process seems akin to setting off an adventure together, where the group grows and changes together: “It can change the mindsets of people. Partly the journey is the goal; you walk people through that and by experiencing it you get a deeper sense of what needs to be done around this particular issue. And there needs to be action. In the longer three-month deep dives there is prototyping and testing potential solutions and that is really where the rubber hits the road to impact change.”

Putting it into practice

Weinlick has great advice for anyone looking to set up a collaboration. To him, success is all about managing expectations. You need to know what each individual’s strengths are going in, and what they can contribute. You need to set up some rules of engagement at the beginning to determine what each contributor’s roles will be. You need to determine how long the collaboration will last and what potential factors might derail it. And most importantly, you need to understand why you’re collaborating in the first place. If people don’t understand why, they won’t engage fully.

“I think what we’ve learned is, anything we do, we have to really explain ‘Why’ a lot. That can help people take a leap, trust the process a bit more and help with the work of co-creating impactful solutions,” Weinlick says.

Guided brainstorming and serious play are both tools that are taken very seriously at the Action Lab, especially since, in the wrong hands, they can often cause more harm than good. When it comes to brainstorming, it’s easy to mix different styles of thinking at the wrong time which can lead to hurt feelings and a lack of trust. The Action Lab Agreement, posted on the wall, provides a framework that can be followed to ensure that everyone is heard and that there is room for both big dreaming and critical thinking, at the appropriate times.

Lego serious play in action. Photo courtesy of Skills Society.
Lego Serious Play in action. Photo courtesy of Skills Society.

As for the aspect of play, Weinlick — who did his master’s thesis on the importance of humour and play for problem solving — emphasizes that they aren’t talking about nerf guns and hula hoops, but rather another guided process that helps foster spontaneity and original thinking. As biologist Mark Beckoff says, “Play prepares us for the unexpected.” It teaches us to take ourselves less seriously (while still taking the work seriously) and to be comfortable with uncertainty. Since a critical part of any problem solving practice is building trust, this can be an especially useful tool.

“People, they’re often scared of being judged, right? And the playfulness helps dissolve that fear,” Weinlick says. “Play helps dissolve fear, which builds trust, and when there’s trust there’s openness to new possibilities and better problem solving. People share more ideas, and when you share even just the half-baked ideas, people can build on those.”

Companies and organizations renting the space can feel good about their choice since the money they pay goes toward supporting the work of Skills Society, and also helps to cover the costs for organizations that aren’t able to foot the bill themselves. Skills Society also employs citizens with disabilities as hosts for the space, to welcome groups and help them get settled, thus providing meaningful, well-paying work to those who need it.

The Action Lab’s open house on Feb. 1, 2016, at 6 p.m. is open to the public. Visit the space at 10408 124 St. if you can, and see their website for information on how you can use the space for your own creative problem solving.