Labs II: The 2nd iteration and the Evolution of Spaghetti

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The past six months have been an incredible journey for us. Since hosting our first innovation and learning lab with Birmingham City Council, Service Birmingham and Digital Birmingham back in April, we have been thinking in depth about, and exploring how we can create spaces that are more inclusive and involve more people in designing the things that affect them. This exploration has led us to work with the British Science Association, Cabinet Office Dept for UKTI (Export Jam), Impact Hub Birmingham, Aston University and event a Nobel Prize Winner and we continue to host the global jam for the city.

We are Spaghetti.  We inspire change by introducing people new tools that lead to new ways of thinking. We create the spaces where we can manage and weave together different and seemingly disparate strands of knowledge to build new innovations. We design live, safe-fail experiments to enable people to experience how they might play their role in shaping the world around them. We build capacity as innovators rather than focusing only on the innovations.

One of the platforms we use to do this are our Labs.  Lab II kicks off today and will be the second iteration of our ongoing conversation with Birmingham city council about how we can use these methods to create better public services. Once again, this lab will see individuals from different parts of the organisation come together for the next 5 days and use design processes and tools to create new solutions to a challenge set by the people directorate. Stay tuned to this blog and be the first to get daily insights into how the conversation progresses and what the outcome is.

Day 4 – Live, die, repeat…

Day 4 of Birmingham’s first Spaghetti Lab and it is prototype day. Cutting and Sticking Today

I know that it is prototype day because there is more Lego, playdough, coloured pipe-cleaners and cutting/sticking equipment around than I am used to in the office.

We finished yesterday with empathy maps populated and bags of insight from our young job seekers and SMEs.  So today we got down to some serious (and not so serious) prototype building.

Then – before we know it – Chris and Dan ushered us off to get feedback on our prototypes.  If I’m honest, I think we are going out too soon.  I want to spend another 30 minutes (or an hour or two) getting the prototype to look better.  But, that is not how it works.

Before getting into things we spend a few minutes watching the first Flash Build.  A team arrive in a sunglasses shop to build an app, there in the shop, in one week.  Worth a watch:, they didn’t spend any time messing about with their prototype, they just built it, tried it and learnt from it.  The real meaning of time-boxing, and the real value.

Is it in hereSo back to Broad Street job centre for more insights:

With our half-arsed prototype we talked Somia through what we had done and immediately she gave us a great insight for benefit that she would want as a job seeker.  Something that we could have taken ages to think up (if we had thought of it at all).  The power of Build, Measure and Learn proved.

The staff at the Job centre also gave us their time, we showed Dave our good-enough-for-the-job prototype, he talked to us about how this solution could work alongside the other systems that are in use; yet more useful insights.

Next it was back to the Impact Hub, a little lunch, while sharing out feedback and then some serious prototyping.

Creation underway

To be honest, I mainly did the lunch while Nick, Laura and Simon did the art work.  (Consistent feedback was that no-one could read my writing in the initial prototype; I see my role in life as something of a supervisor.)

Prototype 2 done we were back out on the streets looking for more feedback.

This time I felt like we were honing the idea.  At Millennium Point, Isha gave us some real confirmation on the concept plus she underlined the importance of making progress on this problem.  Searching for a job is not fun and doing this I have met lots of people really searching but just not finding work in Birmingham.

An interesting conversation with Ben and Hiram highlighted the importance of filling in some details: what are the skills that should be tagged and tracked in the system?  Hmmm

Last part of the day was pitching, thankfully to a friendly panel.  Suddenly our simple idea seemed very difficult to summarise, I begin the pitch but realise that I am was babbling and waving my hands – where did I put that prototype?  I handed over to the next member of the team – phew the spotlight is off me – argh, but now I just want to interrupt my team mates flow.

We get reasonable feedback – but more practice is needed.

Some pointers from the Spaghetti guys follow:

Great advice and inspiration; but a daunting day tomorrow: its big pitch day.

Reflecting today, I realised that at the start of this week I was saying “It’s not about the outcome, I just want to show that the process is worthwhile”, but now I actually CARE.  I give a [#] about those people I’ve met who are looking for work and can’t find it.  I want this product to be built so they can benefit from it. 

I don’t know if it is some strange Impact Hub magic or complex Spaghetti Lab science but in 4 days I feel more connected to this great city of Birmingham than I have for a very long time.


Day 3 – Insight & Ideation



We arrived at the Impact Hub at 09:00 to tackle what challenges faced on day three in the Spaghetti Lab. The day started off a little grey, with some kind of transparent liquid falling from the sky (in Britain, who would have thought it!). Laura, Simon, Nick, and Tim started off the day recapping the yesterday’s efforts, and everyone still seemed invested and buzzing from the prototype that was drafted from the previous day.

With the walls in the lab covered in an array of colour, it was no mean feat for Chris and Dan to find room on the walls for the main focus of today which was……..“Empathy Maps”. Not sure what an Empathy Map is, please read on:

CDv2ToDW8AAU3fZ.jpg large“An Empathy Map is one tool to help you synthesize your observations and draw out unexpected insights. UNPACK: Create a four quadrant layout on paper or a whiteboard Populate the map by taking note of the following four traits of your user as you review your notes, audio, and video from your fieldwork: Think & Feel, Say & Do, See, and Hear

This would give us a chance to split into two teams, Laura and Tim headed out the DWP / Job Centre building on Broad Street to meet with Young People and get their point of view on the Work Experience that is currently provided by the DWP / Job Centre. Simon and Nick would venture out and schmooze with SME’s within Birmingham to get their perspective on Work Experience in the workplace.

Simon and Nick met with two SME’s: Vicky @ The Boiler House, and Jan @ Blue Tel Solutions. Both had quite a lot to say on the topic of work experience for Young People, and both were quite receptive to the idea of Young People being given the opportunity within their respective businesses. One of the main drawbacks to the idea of providing work experience to Young People within Birmingham, is the lack of framework for SME’s to provide an “Objective” to individual(s) should they be placed on work experience at an SME. Due to the corporate responsibility of big businesses to provide work experience, it seems to have been diluted down to nothing more than a tick-box exercise which can be a determent to a Young Persons aspirations should their first experience of work be a bad one.

CDwaUwZWgAAJpdH.jpg largeOver at the DWP building, Laura and Tim were liaising with Young People at the Job Centre, and the Job Centre staff themselves. It was quickly evident that the Job Centre has a lot of targets to hit when it comes to providing work experience. Due to these targets, the Young People are feeling quite despondent with the system which is ultimately trying to help them. On the flip side of this, the Job Centre staff share similar grievances, as they are focused more on targets than building a rapport with the individual they are trying assist.

[Added 08/05]  I would like to add here that although there are targets for work experience these have been set for good reasons, see the study Early impacts of work experience.  The data, and the stories of those we spoke to, indicate that participating in work experience can increase confidence and build reference-able experience.  Both of which are very useful when applying for work.  

More importantly, even though those people who were looking for work more than once reported that they felt like they were “on the conveyor-belt” or “just filling a quota”, every single one of the Job Centre, council and DWP staff we spoke to were empathetic and even passionate about helping job seekers. 


We all arrived back at The Lab (now joined by Stuart) to organise our Empathy Maps,and present back to everyone the points of view of the Young People and SME’s. As we started to dig a little deeper into the idea of what services our product would offer, with the use of: Jobs, Gain Creators, and Pain Relievers – it also became clear that the more we elaborate on our ideas, and drill down to a more granular level, the more we are understanding the use of each exercise, and its placement within the process of what we’re trying to achieve.

Whilst ideas were being thrown around, we had an unexpected guest arrive, the one, the only Mr Mark Rogers (CEO of Birmingham City Council). Mark was very interested in what we had been doing, and seemed very intrigued in what is going to be the end product by the end of the week – even going as far as possibly implementing our product should it be something tangible for all parties to invest in. Once Mark had left, we finished off getting down to the more explicit detail of our ideas.CDw_8odWoAAZZYL.jpg large

We closed out the day with some reflection and feedback which seem to take everyone out of their comfort zone, however by the time the dust had settled, we were all ready for a big group hug.

Day 4 is Prototyping which sounds like it will be challenging but very rewarding at the same time.

Checking out


Day 2 – Lean Startup and Insights

Lean thinking started our day, specifically taking our ‘problem’ and turning it (quickly) into something to show people our thinking – creating our minimal viable product (MVP). Our mindsets for the day were set in learning as we go…

Our task was to refine the problem with a succinct question. With the help of Jules from the council’s employment and skills department, we agreed our project description:

How might we engage SMEs in Birmingham to deliver valuable experiences for young people (16 to 20 year olds) who are able to engage.

We spent a little time defining what we mean by valuable experiences and identifying current solutions tackling the same question. Jules’ insights were once again greally welcomed! Groundwork done, Tim and Laura hit the streets to understand the ‘pains and gains’ of young people in gaining work experience and jobs.

Michael (right) shares his experiences
Michael (right) shares his experiences

The insights were invaluable, particularly 21-year-old Michael who spent two years looking for work and undertaking work experience before finding a job. Michael said his work experience in retail, warehousing and telecommunications provided him with transferable skills which he now uses in his customer-facing role.

Meanwhile back at base, Stuart and Simon (a welcome addition to the team), undertook a desktop research exercise to identify existing technology and trends.

Our 'lean canvas'
Our ‘lean canvas’

Using all our collected insight we began ideation and clustered our thoughts into our ‘lean canvas’, comprising our customer segments, problem, solution, unique value proposition and key activity. This gave us the basis for our concept and first prototype – a focused sharing platform for ‘experiences’, for both young people to find work and skills opportunities, and for small businesses to offer opportunities whilst being useful for them. At the centre is recognising that experiences could be anything from a conversation between a young person and a local business owner, to a young person helping out with a specific task need of the business.

By the end of the day we had our prototype (hurrah!) and headed back to Chris at Ideal Birmingham (a skateboard shop in The Custard Factory) to present our ideas. His feedback was positive – our first local business is on board! A few barriers were identified which we’ll discuss as a team tomorrow.

Finally we were thrust in front of a feedback panel to pitch our idea in 3 minutes – no pressure! Really useful to get their feedback and further avenues of exploration. Looking forward to taking our prototype through iterations of testing in the days ahead.






Spaghetti Labs Day 1 Birmingham City Council


Monday – the start of a week long jam based out of the Impact Hub Birmingham with the none too small task of trying to tackle the problems faced by Birmingham City Council (BCC) in a vastly different way by collaborating and co-creating.


There were 4 of us primed to enter the unknown – Tim, Laura and Nick from Service Birmingham and Stuart from Digital Birmingham the sole representative from BCC, although extra help is on it’s way tomorrow in the form of Simon.

The morning was very much the getting to know you session – making sure everyone was comfortable with the other members of the team to create open and honest dialogue in a comfortable environment. I suspect as the week moves on this will be much needed when the pressure is on. It also helps to foster a team spirit between 2 areas that can be seen by the outside world as less than collaborative partners. This is a perfect example of how we should be working together to deliver effective solutions for the citizens of Birmingham.


Introductions went as far as identifying moments that defined who you are as a person and the biggest influences on your life – in itself it was a wonderful therapy session – even with strangers! Laura must think it is always like this as it is her first day in a new job, what a quirky introduction.

The journey plan over the week was placed on a wall where we could critique, raise fears and ask questions. Every aspect of the day was fostering critical thinking and ensuring no-one jumps to conclusions. It looks like the work ramps up rapidly around Wednesday and Thursday where the real solution design and iteration is created and tested. This early part of the week is really teasing out the problem and looking at what is manageable in a week.


Post-lunch the theory kicked in – this for me was of massive value. Essentially we are trying to take start-up methodologies and look how we can embed them into traditional corporate culture. Firstly we looked at Dexler/Sibbet’s ideas of creating and sustaining a team. This was followed by putting projects into context – choosing the right methodology for the job, the principles of Wysocki were presented here and very much reminded me of Donald Runsfeld’s known unknowns and unknown unknowns, etc.

The real stand out for me was the “ambidextrous business model” looking at how you  can approach innovation and build it up in a large enterprise whilst maintaining the existing way of doing things to ensure business continuity. The idea of a corporate startup approach is the work of Dr Tendayi Viki, which is about moving from the existing model to an emerging  model.

I think that there is still some work to be done to shift people culturally and crucially contractually away from an existing model to a start up model. Risk is the key and the economic model to  support this is what will  really sell this co-creation way of working to senior people. The existing models do not foster rapid and flexible innovation, these new methods need to financially manage risk and have a legal framework to support this for the contractual side of things.


With the theory bubbling away we were then visited by Jules from the BCC employment and skills department and Roger from the DWP. The problem we have been asked to pick apart is no small task – getting 31,000 Small, Medium Enterprises to engage and provide work experience for 30,000 job seekers. This is a phenomenal ask, in addition it can be sliced and diced in many ways to provide us with tangible and manageable outcomes after just 1 week. After giving Jules and Roger a grilling we had a post-it note grouping session to try and pull the problem together and provide us with the basis of the overarching problem and give us food for thought on what we can tackle realistically. Perhaps the hardest thing here is not to start designing solutions – the natural instinct is to start working, however greater understanding is what is really required at this point. Plus we need to take stock of the fact that a LOT of people are looking at this, what can we add to existing work in the area.

The potential objectives, the barriers, the key actors were all identified. The interesting part is when looking at a problem this far up is where to start, it is very much interlinked systems – tackling one problem means considering other problems that influence – it is very non-linear.


To relax the mind we undertook some more team-building, energiser session (I shall leave that part as a surprise for future participants) and an analysis of us as a team – in effect it is setting the ground rules so that we can be honest with each other in a way that is all about moving the team forward in trying to tackle the objective.

So it was a busy first day – but nicely paced, I think after this it will ramp up. Already I can see real benefit to this approach – the chances are that we will develop a workable “product” at the end of the week, not necessarily a physical project but certainly the beginnings of an approach. More importantly though we will have a methodology to really influence how BCC works – and now is the right time to take this forward with the work for the future operating model beginning in earnest where innovation will be the key to moving Birmingham forward in response to the challenges it faces.