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Business Management

An illustration of one scientist looking at a curved arrow with a magnifying glass, while another sits cross-legged and works on a laptop.
To develop an effective approach to implement any significant change, the lab manager needs to recognize, name, and define the future state represented by the change.
Lab Manager

A Guide to Successful Change Management

A five-step process to effectively implement change in the laboratory

It is natural for people to resist change. Most people see the risks of change much more clearly than they see potential benefits. Lab staff like stability—they are more comfortable in a predictable, stable, and well understood working environment. It is the lab manager’s responsibility to drive the right changes, overcome the organizational inertia to change, and help people navigate the discomfort that change brings to gain the benefits.

Once a beneficial change is identified for the lab, action is required to enable the lab to go through a change management process to access the benefits. The lab manager will need to be proactive, remove barriers, and lead the lab through the change. Despite the difficulties associated with change, it is often better to proactively change when the opportunities arise than be forced to change through some crisis.

Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. teaches an effective change management process to technical leaders in the company. Their change management process consists of five steps: define the opportunity; share the vision of the future; build support and commitment; implement, monitor, and course correct; and sustain the change. This change process was developed to work in a wide variety of situations, and translates to the lab environment very well.

Define the opportunity

To develop an effective approach to implement any significant change, the lab manager needs to recognize, name, and define the future state represented by the change. Recognizing the change comes from experience, and a knowledge of what can and must be done to improve the lab. Naming the change enables concise and coherent communication about the change. Creating a vision of the future state embraces why the change is needed, what exactly will change, and how the change will be implemented. Each of these components are required to communicate the change to others and to build an effective business case to gain any necessary approvals prior to embarking on the change journey.

Initially, sharing the opportunity with internal lab leaders and key stakeholders provides the chance to improve the plan. Lab managers can benefit greatly by working with their internal leadership team to think through the decisions and alternatives around the change opportunity. This provides a more robust plan to share with the rest of the lab.

Share the vision of the future

Once the change opportunity is clearly defined, it is time to communicate this vision with the rest of the lab, key stakeholders, and line management. This vision for the future needs to include why the change is important, how any risks will be mitigated, and what benefits the change will bring, both for the organization and for the individual staff members. 

Start by sharing the vision of the future state and engage in conversation with people about it. This communication needs to be genuine and authentic to produce useful feedback. It is important to connect with your audience by using some storytelling and by connecting the change to the lab’s culture. This is the time to listen, learn, and improve the vision through constructive feedback. If the improvement ideas make significant alterations to the vision of the future, iterate with the new feedback and develop a different, improved change plan, and repeat the sharing process.

Build support and commitment

People are naturally resistant to change. Within the lab during a change process, maybe 25 percent of staff will accept the premise of the change and be early adopters. Typically, 50 percent will be on the fence and wait to see what happens next, and 25 percent will reject and resist the change. Instead of arguing with the resistors, the most successful approach focuses on the 50 percent who are on the fence. If the lab manager can convince them to support the change, they will bring the resistors along.

“Lab managers can benefit greatly by working with their internal leadership team to think through the decisions and alternatives around the change opportunity.”

To build support, develop a strategy to address the key barriers, and implement any accelerators to the change. In addition, develop an action plan that contains milestones, owners, and due dates. This will help with the change project management and demonstrate to people that there is a plan to deliver the change.

Building the action plan and communicating the plan broadly can help reduce the chances this change fails. The key reasons why a change program may fail include: lacks a compelling vision, lacks a sound business case, lacks management support, poor communication, defeated by a few resistors, or is too rigid and doesn’t adapt to feedback and improvements. Careful planning and communication can reduce the chances of these failure modes defeating your important change initiatives.

Implement, monitor, and course correct

Once the change is approved and ready to begin, implement the action plan. It is important for the lab manager to focus on the objectives of the change, communicate clearly, celebrate successful milestones, and surface and address resistance to the change. Once the action plan is underway, the lab manager can bring additional flexibility to the change process by keeping an open mind, practicing ongoing learning, and being willing to adapt the plan based on what is learned during the process. It is important to change the plan if the objectives are not being met.

Developing some metrics for the change will provide objective data to monitor and map the progress of its implementation. Effective metrics are often related to the expected benefits of the change. For example, if a change is expected to produce greater productivity or efficiency, then measuring things like numbers of samples analyzed, time spent conducting that experiment, or equipment utilization can help the lab manager know if the change is delivering the desired benefits.

Sustain the change

Unfortunately, the lab manager’s effort and attention to the change is not complete once it has been implemented. The lab manager also needs to take appropriate actions to ensure the change is sustained in the lab. Changes are more likely to be sustainable if they are embedded in the structure, work processes, and policies of the lab. Doing so will help embed the change into the daily execution of the lab and reinforce the change in the approach and habits of the lab staff. Another thing to remember is to provide both training and encouragement for staff to reinforce the new change. Lab staff need to be confident they can execute the new change, or they are more likely to backslide into more familiar approaches. If possible, lab managers can also remove the tools used by the old process and provide only the tools to complete the work consistent with the new change. For example, if a lab converts to a new electronic notebook system, removing all of the paper notebooks from the lab will help prevent backsliding to the old process.

Another essential component of the lab manager’s role to ensure a change is sustainable is to address the people aspects of the change. This will require adequate communication and confirming that the tools and resources needed by the staff to comply with the change are provided. Staff will also need management support as they navigate the change and learn the new process. Some grace for the mistakes made through the learning process will support the lab staff’s efforts to complete the change.

While change can be difficult, managers can develop a positive lab culture that has the tools to navigate change more quickly and smoothly. Two of the key attributes to develop in staff to aid this culture are flexibility and resilience. This environment enables staff to be proactive and change things for the better, knowing they have support (from management and each other), that investments in tools and training can be obtained, and emotional and psychological safety are present to support the people during the discomfort of the change. The benefits of developing a culture more comfortable with change is the ability to take advantage of new opportunities and avoid stagnation for the lab.