If you are looking for a guide to success covering every contingency, put this article down and switch over to science fiction. But, if you want concrete suggestions based on critical success factors, keep reading.
Managers succeed through their people. The most critical area for success is people. You cannot do everything alone—you cannot even track all of the work done by your direct reports. Then there are the collaborators, other teams, and stakeholders outside of your control. To get the results you need on time, you have to manage these tasks and relationships to achieve optimal outcomes. By now, you are shaking your head and saying, "How am I supposed to do that and keep everything else going?" The secret is that you cannot—by yourself. You have to depend on others doing their best to achieve organizational goals.
Find the right people for the job
When you are doing all of those "mundane, time-wasting" tasks connected with human resource management, that is how you go from being a fragmented group of individuals to having a cohesive team. When you fill a job, there are no unimportant jobs or unimportant people. When you go through job candidates' resumes, if they are not matching up with what you want and need in that position, reject them. Tell your HR person precisely what you need and want for the job, how the candidate resumes did not match up, and keep doing that. Ultimately, the HR person will get the message and get you on-target candidates.1
When you interview candidates, treat them like this is the most critical job in the organization. For you, it is because you depend on them to help you reach your goals. When onboarding employees, nothing is more important than training. You are training them how to do the work that makes or breaks you and the organization. By now, you should see a trend. It doesn't matter whether you are doing performance management, compensation reviews, or deciding who to promote, retain, or discipline. All of these functions are critical to overall team cohesion and functioning. You only achieve your goals through your team's efforts.
Developing a business plan
Failing to plan is unforgivable. People concerns take care of the "who" part of the puzzle. Next is the "how" piece, which deals with planning. Your organization exists to satisfy a set of goals. People issues are a higher priority than planning for a straightforward reason. Good people can succeed with a terrible plan. Been there, done that, don't recommend it. You cannot execute the best plan in the world if the people are not "up to it." In that case, success is just a word in the dictionary. The best case scenario is good people and a good plan.
When you pull together your business plan, the questions that you should answer before any others are: (1) "What do I want to achieve in the short-run?", (2) "What is my long-term goal?", and, since this is about laboratory management, (3) "What research questions do I want to answer?" Everything else done in your operation should advance how you want to achieve those goals.
The primary decision related to this is your choice of business strategy. Are you going to focus on cost leadership or differentiation? Cost leaders are so efficient and effective that competitors cannot replicate the cost advantage thus gained. Typically, the workforce is a significant part of achieving cost leadership. If you are differentiated, you do something significantly better than your competitors. You are so much better in that regard that clients pay a premium price for your goods or services. Once again, the workforce is a large part of achieving a differentiation-based advantage.2
Your business plan is the "road map" to how you will get everything done that you said you would do. It would be more accurate to say that it is the "road map" of what you intend to do. Many people had plans for the year 2020, but a few "unforeseen things" came up that changed the game plan in the third quarter. The COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent example of the need for constant "environmental scanning," or business intelligence gathering, so that you can get a "heads up" of the need for change sooner rather than later in the game.
Your plan and goals drive the estimates of your sales, costs, expenses, assets, and liabilities. You can analyze where actual events were above or below plan and their effects on your operating and financial results. This level of detail lets you "get down into the weeds" and look at the big picture. Without it, you cannot spot where the symptoms or problems are occurring. Detail can always be combined and aggregated into higher levels of analysis. However, the reverse is not possible. You want to determine whether you are closer to your goals, or what blocked your progress. Once you have those answers, combined with business intelligence gathering, you are in a position to adapt and evolve as needed.
Adapt, evolve, and overcome. It would be easy to say, "See Darwin," but a little more elaboration is needed. Similar to biological systems, organizations have to deal with environmental changes. Some of these changes are inside the organization, and others are outside of the organization. Unlike biological systems, organizational decision makers choose whether to change the organization and increase their survival chances. To make this happen, they have to be able and willing to perceive the environmental changes.
One way to do this is through analyzing the organization's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT analysis). Strengths and weaknesses are inside the organization and can be in any area. Opportunities and threats are outside of the organization and can come from any part of the environment.3 Managers should perform SWOT analysis at least quarterly. It would be better to do it as part of the review of monthly results, and not just as part of the annual planning cycle. Strengths have a way of eroding over time and becoming weaknesses. The competition makes opportunities into threats when they exploit the ones that you pass up.
Organizations with leadership that ignore SWOT analysis results can "become extinct" (e.g. fail in the market if the weaknesses or threats are severe enough). The organization has to survive long enough to succeed at adapting to conditions. Should it be necessary for the organization to transform itself so much that it is an evolutionary change, survival with sufficient resources is critical.
To conclude, to increase the odds of success, managers and leaders should prioritize: (1) Having the best people possible on staff and treating them accordingly. Nothing happens without people. (2) Base your business plan on your goals. If you are unsure about how something fits into the business plan, ask yourself how it relates to short-term and long-term goals. (3) Have your short-term and long-term goals clearly articulated. Please share them with all employees as guidance for decision making. (4) Realize that you will have to change and adapt to survive. It is not a question of if, it is a question of when. Don't get caught by surprise. Surprises are only good for birthday parties, and then, only up to a certain age.
- Robert Townsend, Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007).
- Michael E. Porter, Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance (New York: Free Press, 1998).
- Porter, Competitive Advantage.