Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Coloring Outside the Lines

To succeed in today's marketplace, lab managers need to be creative and innovative. Though many lab professionals don't see themselves as creative, in fact they ARE each and every time they question the norm.

by Jeff Tobe
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Gone are the days when a lab manager—generally a former researcher— can just do scientifically correct work and get paid for it, no matter what. Today that manager must be aware of the business side of things and accept the fact that some research efforts may not go forward because of lack of funds. He or she must also focus more on efficiency while minimizing overhead and customer costs. In addition to getting projects completed on time with fewer resources, managers have the additional pressure of creating new products or processes that will help the company’s bottom line.

Now more than ever, the greatest challenge facing the contemporary lab manager is not merely achieving a scientifically relevant result but also achieving one that is within budget, on schedule, and—most important—profitable.

Faced with these new challenges, today’s lab managers can either stay where they are and tread water or else rethink their approaches to find new and more creative ways to run their labs.

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Begin coloring outside the lines

To succeed in today’s marketplace, lab managers need to be creative and innovative. Though many lab professionals don’t see themselves as creative, in fact they ARE—each and every time they question the ‘norm’.

Recently, I sat down to play a Chutes-and-Ladders-type game with my seven-year-old niece.

It was a lot of fun to see her little mind at work, but she had one annoying habit: she was continually bending the rules, reshaping roles, changing the boundaries, and reversing strategies. Everything I took for granted, she challenged. Cheating? I don’t think so.

When we decide to compete within currently existing guidelines, we implicitly agree to play the game the way it has always been played, to abide by the formal and informal rules and roles as well as the prescribed methods and procedures. Although competing can be fun and exciting, it is not very creative and definitely limits the imagination. It is because of this experience that I have concluded that COMPETITION ENCOURAGES CONFORMITY.

Kids are always changing the rules and the way games are played. Research shows that kids spend more time creating and recreating games than actually playing them. So, why not ignore the competition and begin recreating the way the “lab management game” is played?

Whether you’re trying to achieve greater productivity with fewer resources, gain market share from a competing lab, or improve efficiencies and delivery systems, innovative solutions will not be found if you simply keep up with or improve upon the way things have always been done. When you agree to play by the old rules—to color inside the lines—innovation can’t happen.

I believe that there is no such thing as new ideas, only new ways of presenting old ideas. Once you make the decision to not look in your rearview mirror (to the past for established guidelines) but rather through your windshield to see what is coming down the road, you’ll discover that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to be successful. Approach new challenges with the mind-set that you are going to find new ways to do what you are already doing. This may mean becoming more streamlined in your activities, becoming more focused on the deliverables of the business, rethinking how you communicate with your staff, and/or paying closer attention to the business than the science.

When you engage in competition as a head-to-head battle, there are no real winners and you often lose any advantage you had in the marketplace. While facing your competitors head-on may deliver some small market advantages and the occasional “one up,” competing will never deliver the breakthroughs you need to really move ahead of the pack. If you spend your time focusing on the way things have always been done in your lab, you are not prioritizing your energies correctly.

Start by asking yourself, “How can I present my product/ service or my lab’s expertise differently than it has been presented in the past?”

By changing the rules of the game, you get outside of your comfort zone and begin to look at your lab from a new perspective. You are not going to be comfortable any longer and you can either accept the challenge or get left behind.

Wayne Gretzky, one of the greatest hockey players of all time, was once asked by a reporter how he always managed to be where the puck was. After much thought, Gretzky replied, “I’m not always where the puck is. I am always where the puck is going to be!”

As a lab manager, do you want to be where your lab is today or where you would like it to be tomorrow?

Below are some practical tips to help you develop the skills and habits you need to “color outside the lines:”

  • Spark innovative thinking in yourself and others.
    We tap into our creative being only when we start to question the norm. Internally and externally we simply need to ask the question “What if ?” By asking this open-ended question we invite input and eventually get buy-in to our ideas.
  • Redefine the challenges you face every day.
    The most effective lab managers are able to look at any challenge from a different perspective. It requires the conviction that there is more than one right answer to any challenge. Mostly, we become complacent in our careers. We continue doing the things that are comfortable, and we do other things just because “that’s the way we have always done them.” When it becomes a conscious effort to redefine what we do every day by trying to find the “second right answer,” we awake to the possibilities both in our personal and professional lives.
  • Find motives for being more creative in your professional and personal life.
    When lab professionals were asked, “Why be more creative?” most were afraid to answer; those who did mentioned “productivity” or “efficiency.” Only one person whispered—at the risk of being laughed at—“fun.” Wouldn’t you agree that people want to work for, and work with, people who seem to enjoy what they do for a living? Having fun is the number one reason to be more creative. It’s contagious! Secondly, we need to add more value to what we are asking our people to do in a do-more-withless world. Being creative increases the value of the work in our peoples’ minds versus the perceived cost of doing what you are asking them to do.
  • Develop techniques to effectively manage the change that comes with innovation.
    We must get beyond managing change and look to how to thrive in it. We need to be change agents if we are to survive in today’s laboratory. Many managers will say that their teams hate change. This really isn’t true. You work in an ever-changing world. The outside world is changing all the time. People do not dislike change; they dislike the speed at which they are being asked to change.
  • Tap into your creativity to challenge your existing boundaries.
    Everyone is creative! That is the first thing you must accept if you are to tap into your innate creativity. When were we most creative? When we were kids. And that creativity is still there inside every one of us. Begin by changing the self-fulfilling prophecy of “I’m NOT creative.”
  • See the world through your internal and external clients’ filters.
    We need to see the world through THEIR eyes. The key to creative thinking is perspective. Be willing to look at the challenge from THEIR perspective. This is a difficult thing. It might mean you need to give up your preconceived notions; you might need to be flexible enough to change direction; and you might need to admit that there is another way to tackle the same challenge.
  • Give yourself an “alternative solution kick” when you think you have the right answer.
    This goes back to believing that for every challenge our internal or external client brings us, there is always— ALWAYS—a second right answer. Historically, every creative idea—every innovative company—started because somebody dared to look for that alternative solution.

There is no better time than now to revamp your traditional belief system when it comes to managing your lab. I encourage you to stop looking in your rear view mirror to see how things were done in the past. Instead, look through your windshield to see what is coming down the road ahead and find creative ways to innovate, manage change, and create value for your lab.