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Another Look at Productive Struggle for Consistency

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

We first discussed “productive struggle” early in 2018. As with so many things “entrepreneurial” the concepts of productive struggle and growth vs. fixed mindset remain current today even after the construction of a new building in 2018 at the Fab Lab and the advent of Covid 19 in 2020. Our own productive struggle continues after we’ve made some progress on our internal operations manual, but still struggle with complete operating instructions for all of our machines. We will continue to make progress as we work to develop our growth mindset.

We first heard the term "productive struggle" at a Fab Lab symposium a few years ago. The term represents the idea that some tasks are not easy to accomplish in a few simple steps. Some tasks force us to venture into unknown territory, learning as we go, making mistakes large and small along the way. People with a growth mindset understand that struggling with mistakes and setbacks are productive in accomplishing these tasks. People with a fixed mindset give up when things become difficult and often are not willing to try anything new for fear of failure.

Experimentation and Learning from Mistakes

The magic of working in a Fab Lab is that the work is nearly all based on experimentation and learning from mistakes, developing a growth mindset as we go. The growth mindset is like a muscle, the more we use it the more it grows and over time we become willing to take on more daunting tasks. If we don't use a growth mindset, our mindset atrophies, reverting to fixed and we can get to the point of not wanting to try anything new.

Operating Fab Lab ICC as a Business

As we strive to operate Fab Lab ICC as a business, we foster an environment in which experimentation and learning from mistakes, i.e. productive struggle, is celebrated as one of the best methods of learning. In a sense, the whole operation of Fab Lab ICC has been an experiment since our opening on October 1, 2014. Nobody has a textbook titled "Fab Lab Operation 101" and it wouldn't be effective anyway since community and academic needs vary and Fab Lab operation is just simply not a one-size-fits-all situation.

A Need for Consistency

Like other businesses, our members and constituents want a certain consistency in the Fab Lab experience. They want a stable schedule, knowing when they can come in to do their work. They want consistent instruction and "how-to" knowledge from whoever happens to be working, whether it's the paid staff members, student work-studies or one of our great volunteers. They want the machines to work properly and the Lab to be well stocked with the supplies they need. They want all this to be organized in a space that's easy to maneuver with the tools they need close by. They want consistency. Therein lies our challenge and our own productive struggle, figuring out how to provide all these things while experiencing accelerated growth in the number of people that use the Lab daily.

Consistency Amid Experimentation 

Even as we continue to provide the environment of experimentation that makes a Fab Lab such a good learning tool, we're embarking on a renewed campaign to add consistency to the operation of the Lab. Manager Tim Haynes has taken on the task of organizing an operations manual, "Here's how we do things here." This will include "How To" documents and videos to help members in learning to use our wider variety of equipment. We'll develop an organization chart, defining who has what roles. There are only three of us full time staff members so our names will be repeated several times through the chart. Such is the nature of a Fab Lab, short of staff to keep membership fees low and affordable to many.

In a world of chaos and uncertainty, people want a level of consistency and quality in the companies and organizations with which they interact. Companies and Fab Labs that survive will be those that strive to provide consistency and quality while celebrating the successes and mistakes along the way, productive struggle.

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at or Twitter @jimcorrellks. Archive columns and podcast at  

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