In 2010, GreenHouse principals launched the first-ever philanthropic think tank. In only five years, Insight Labs engaged more than 750 big thinkers from business, government, philanthropy, academia and the arts to solve problems on behalf of 45 public, private and social-sector institutions – tackling challenges as diverse as international diplomacy, healthcare, public education, social impact investing and cultural development.
There are a handful of essential questions that every organization – certainly, every organization taking on social challenges – must answer regularly and honestly: Are we solving the right problem? Have we outlived our usefulness? Is it possible we’re pursuing the wrong core strategy?
But that’s much, much easier said than done. For one, the key actors in any successful organization have bought in to its strategy, necessarily giving up the objectivity required for rigorous self-examination. For two, tackling questions is dangerously disruptive, introducing discomfort and insecurity among staff, volunteers and boards of directors.
This is why GreenHouse principals launched Insight Labs as the first-ever philanthropic think tank. Between 2010 and 2014, we we enlisted more than 750 big thinkers from business, government, philanthropy, academia and the arts to tackle the foundational challenges facing 45 public, private and social-sector institutions.
The Labs became best known for our novel approach: invite a dozen or so subject matter experts to tackle a challenge in which they did not have expertise; keep the invite list secret from even the participants until the project was launched; and do most of the work in a three-hour flurry. It was most aptly described as “the love child of a think tank and flash mob for good.”
Our first effort was on behalf of what is now Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, whose nearly billion-dollar capital campaign had stalled in the wake of the 2008 recession. Together, we deconstructed the ground-breaking engagement strategy of Barack Obama’s first run for president, and mapped it to the potential, expanded role of children’s hospitals in society.
Over the next 60 months, we convened brain-trusts at the request of groups as diverse as NASA, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. State Department, the TED Conferences, Boeing and Starbucks. Our approach was explored in books and magazines, including Forbes and Fast Company.
Strengthening democratic governance around the world requires shaking up the social norms of international diplomacy. That was our conclusion from work with the U.S. State Department, which enlisted us to develop a new model for international organizations.
For example, democracy governance is messy. But diplomats, the polished representatives of their various countries, are polite, measured and disinclined to reveal the underbelly of how their countries’ democratic institutions actually work.
Another example: the most mature democracies, like the United States, are always cast as the teachers and the younger democracies – no matter how effective – are always cast as the students. That must change, we concluded in our report: “All participants must be given the opportunity to act as teachers and as learners. Sometimes the United States should report to Estonia.”
The project was part of our portfolio of work critically assessing norms of international relations, which includes our work with the U.S. State Department on the concept of venture democracy and with New America on supporting long-term, large-scale impact investing.
Institutional leadership requires the assertion – not simply the development – of a vision. GreenHouse principals worked with top officials at NASA’s Langley Research Center, the space agency’s longtime home of R&D, to develop a framework for asserting the agency’s vision to Congress, the private sector and the public.
There is no shortage of vision at NASA. But the agency had become overly reliant on passive strategies, such as waiting for a U.S. president to set the space exploration agenda just like John F. Kennedy did in 1962.
But the social norms around “the vision thing” have changed. Adam Frankel, a presidential speechwriter we tapped for the project, explained:
“When JFK challenged us to go to the Moon, he was essentially challenging NASA,” Frankel said. “Now that would be different. It would be the president calling on NASA and all of the American people who are interested in this work. The ‘we’ would be different. That’s the opportunity.”
Nearly everybody gets brainstorming wrong. That’s the central idea of an interview in Forbes with Jeff Leitner, about halfway through our five-year run of leading Insight Labs.
“Don’t brainstorm. I know that’s deeply counter-intuitive, but brainstorming in a group is a waste of the group’s inherent value. We believe strongly that an idea we create collectively – you say something, I add something, you challenge, I improve, etc. – is infinitely more valuable than an idea that one of us generates alone, even if the collective idea isn’t quite right.
“Brainstorming, as it’s generally proselytized, is a solitary activity practiced together. You don’t need collaborators for that.”
We launched Insight Labs in 2010, and in only five years, engaged more than 750 big thinkers from business, government, philanthropy, academia and the arts to solve problems on behalf of 45 public, private and social-sector institutions.
The social norms of a museum don’t align particularly well with the rebellious spirit of contemporary art. But we found the right social norms – in all places – at the corporate campus of a financial services company.
The West Collection – one of the nation’s most important collections of work by emerging artists – is housed at SEI, in the Philadelphia suburbs. The campus’s employees, who originally had no particular fondness for contemporary art, now cherish the art in ways few museum visitors ever have.
That is due in large part to revolutionary curatorial practices, such as letting employees choose pieces from the Collection for their workspaces and even allowing employees to “steal” pieces from their colleagues.
We worked alongside the collection’s curators for two years to isolate lessons that could be shared with the rest of the art world. Among our findings: “We need a happy medium between the ‘wild’ of the artist’s studio and the ‘zoo’ of a traditional museum. In this ‘nature preserve’ for art, viewers’ reactions would inform the experience, but the integrity of collections could still be preserved.”
Over the past generation, changing social norms have made the white-collar workplace a much more flexible environment. From the introduction of new technologies to the embrace of enlightened HR practices, many corporations realize they will do better if they empower employees to find work-life balance.
But lots of employees don’t work in offices, and many of them face grim realities as they try to balance the responsibilities of work and home. In work with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, we explored this new frontier of workplace flexibility. To find answers, we examined the social norms of jobs where flexibility would seem to be impossible – think forest rangers and psychiatric social workers.
We found that even in these places, some people were making it work – not just for themselves, but secretly for their peers. We dubbed them “stealth managers,” then suggested some ways Sloan might be able to mine their wisdom and bring work-life balance to everybody.
“We realized that the geniuses of flexible workplaces aren’t CEOs, management consultants, or even professors who have spent years studying the issue,” our report read. “Instead, they’re more likely to be front-line managers or shift supervisors.”
At first glance, it appears as if the social norms of the military and the arts are incompatible. That perception is so pervasive, in fact, that it threatens art therapy programs at military hospitals.
That was the challenge we were asked to address at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where an art therapy program was showing very good early results. We worked with medical staff, military leadership and arts professionals to look for some way to reconcile values of the two fields.
Surprisingly, it turned out we didn’t need to. By digging into the military budget and the realities of the military experience, we discovered that the arts are already a critical element of what the Pentagon does. At the time, the budget for military bands alone was bigger than the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency that supports arts institutions and arts programs in all 50 states.
The key was simply the arts speaking the military’s language. “Walter Reed’s leaders could evaluate all of their arts programs using the same metrics the Pentagon uses to assess its own efforts to reintegrate soldiers into civilian life,” our report read. “This data could not only bolster the role of art at Walter Reed, but serve as the basis for new military arts programs.”
We were enlisted in this effort by Mike Orlove, director at the National Endowment for the Arts. It is one of several projects of our projects related to the social norms of health care, including our work with Harvard on mobile health, our work with a start up on the role of patients, and our publication on the social determinants of health and professional education.
Industries are almost impossible to disrupt from the inside. Winners in the current system have way too much to lose, so it’s hard for them to imagine a vastly different environment or to abandon the strategies that made them successful in the first place. But radical disruption is inevitable – even in the relatively staid, predictable business of practicing law.
That was our challenge in Law 2023, a year-long project in which we worked with a national team of top attorneys and legal-industry vendors to imagine the impact of sweeping economic, sociological and technological changes on their field. We guided the group as they reckoned with corporate and academic trend-watchers as well as authors, reporters, and designers who embrace disruption.
What emerged were seven rules we believe the winning law firms will follow in the next decade. For example, the winners will develop offerings that transcend jurisdiction.
“As the pace of globalization quickens, the nature of jurisdiction will change,” our report reads. “It’s not just that corporations and other institutions will need to navigate dozens or hundreds of sets of rules and regulations — they’ll also have a significantly greater need to choose among them. These clients will expect their counsel to keep up.”
“The opportunity: Firms will employ technologies to help them rapidly understand how a transaction might play out across all possible jurisdictions. Then, crucially, they’ll use their human ingenuity to craft offerings that transcend jurisdiction, maximizing clients’ freedom to act across the globe in real time. Top legal minds will help regulatory bodies and intergovernmental organizations figure out how to make sure everyone plays fair in this new arena.”
After releasing the report, we continued the work with two of our collaborators, who are launching the industry’s first real legal R&D effort.