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Creating a Collaborative Laboratory

Reaping the benefits of a truly collaborative environment

by Richard Durand
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Collaboration and cooperation may often be viewed as the same thing, but they are quite distinct. Collaboration is not something that leaders can expect to happen naturally in a work environment. Rather, managers need to interact strongly with staff in order to create a collaborative environment. They must recognize that they are more likely to see cooperation among their staff—which is a good thing—but it does not offer the same benefits as collaboration.

Potential benefits of the collaborative model include: 

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  1. Transferable and tacit, experiential knowledge among the staff
  2. Alignment of staff to work in a parallel rather than in a singular fashion
  3. Shared leadership among lab managers and their staffs

A leader can definitely encourage and stimulate the process, but he or she needs to understand the distinctions between collaboration and cooperation as well as how certain team members’ perspectives may affect the desired goal, which is strong engagement among all the players.

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David Hume, an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, captured a view of how mutual benefit does not ensure commitment to purpose and how managing human tendencies is the key to getting collaborative benefits.

“Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ’Tis profitable for us both, that I should labor with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains upon your account; and should I labor with you upon my own account, in expectation of a return, I know I should be disappointed, and that I should in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labor alone; you treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.”

Cooperation is beneficial but requires only minimal action between two parties. Even with valued benefits for both parties, there are still decisions that need to be made to realize mutual gains. Cooperation is related to active help by one person of another. It does not require that there be equal value in the actions taken to help. Active engagement is what we are concerned with in building a collaborative lab environment. [It is interesting to note that treason is recognized in some definitions as collaboration with the enemy through cooperation, however negative that collaboration might be.]

In a laboratory, there may be a hierarchal bias that influences the simple act of assigning tasks. For example, when a lab technician provides assistance by executing a number of tasks for a scientist, this is cooperation that is expected and in line with the respective roles of those staff members. This does not, however, preclude an element of collaborative behavior from both parties. Diligence in providing quality assistance associated with a specific task and the recognition of abnormal patterns provide the entry point for engagement and discussion, even with disparate knowledge or experience.

Related Article: International Collaborations Produce More Influential Science

In cases when two staff members can both contribute to the final outcome on more equal footing, there still may be a cooperative rather than a collaborative effort taking place. For example, idea sharing is really a selective process, as it requires a certain comfort level in order to share thoughts without worrying about getting recognition for every contribution. Even if there is less concern about credit, there is also the possibility that some of the staff members’ personalities might prevent individuals from engaging freely. Working together will truly be collaborative only when there are shared goals, common purpose, and confidence that there will be proper recognition. Even with a project leader, a collaborative environment requires a conscious effort on the part of the lab manager to interact on all levels, not just in the role of leader.

Thus, collaboration is really about people, their motivations, and specific interactive behaviors. Individuals may have certain skills and talents that provide the possibility for great collaboration, but those skills and talents alone cannot guarantee a successful collaboration. Only full investment in the concept by all parties from the start will make true collaboration possible. Among some of the individual perspectives that can thwart collaboration are:

  1. Losing individual control of your activities as a collaborator
  2. Engaging from only the comfort levels of your background and expertise
  3. “What’s in it for me?” thinking, and the concern about recognition
  4. Not truly investing in the activity but just going through the motions
  5. Sharing leadership with the project and with managers
  6. Failing to focus on purpose rather than on process
  7. Having local and regional cultures be at odds

It has been suggested that during their formal education, future leaders are not taught to develop the “play well with others” skills that may be as highly valued and necessary for the future job landscape as are strong individual technical skills.1 If we are to successfully create collaborative synergies within the workplace, it would be beneficial for educational systems to focus on this area. It may be that our non-collaborative predisposition was developed unconsciously early in life, and thus it may require active awareness of our individual tendencies to ease the potential stress brought about by changing mind-sets.

From a project team perspective, I have experienced how individual behaviors can hurt or enhance project outcomes. An unwillingness to give up specific preferences for doing things in a way that is comfortable for an individual can derail collaboration. Deferring to managers will also prevent true collaboration because the project ownership is not shared in the best way. Staying within a role-oriented model for teamwork also breeds loss of synergy. Even in a team of two people, the same individual behaviors assert themselves as in a formal single-focus, team-based activity. Thus, if done properly for analytical teams, the same understanding of what can happen among potential collaborators needs to be applied.

Related Webinar:  The Art of Collaboration and Teamwork in the Lab

Why is it difficult to ensure collaborative behavior? Cooperation is the minimum expected action that staff members must take to ensure they aren’t red flagged in a negative way. Actively encouraging collaboration requires that the lab manager make it clear that cooperation is related to getting the job done but will not be the indicator of outstanding performance come review time. Decisions by the lab leader concerning which projects and how team members will respond when placed in a collaborative effort need to be carefully considered in order to strengthen team interactions as well as to gain technical benefits.

From the perspective of the lab manager, there are some things to keep in mind as you try to create a collaborative working environment. Again, recognize that a full investment by all parties from the start will establish the opportunity for collaboration, but questions to be mindful of include: • Is a hierarchal organization model dominating local/regional/global practices? Can your lab work under a distinct model separate from other parts of the organization? Here you can emphasize the unique elements that you want in place.

  • Is the activity suitable for collaboration? Your staff needs to recognize this as well. They probably do but never considered it at the level that you are asking.
  • Are there too many activities of different sorts? Do the intended efforts get diluted? The answer is probably yes in the lean workplace environments of today. If done properly, collaboration can help reduce the burden.
  • Do physical location and workspace configuration impact interactions? These are often talked about as critical to enhancing interactions, but the main message to the staff is that these factors are not excuses for not achieving the intended goal. Thus, they need to make the necessary effort to overcome any type of barrier.

Not all factors that will influence collaboration are within control of the lab manager. Thus, the specific points that need to be conveyed to your staff are:

Make expectations clear. Share with your team how you see the world with respect to this topic and what you are striving for. The message is that cooperation is good but collaboration is the team goal.

Emphasize the value of this collaborative environment for the short and the long term. Specifically include how it can accelerate the development of new members of the team.

Coach and nurture the process. Provide frequent feedback as needed.

Maintain accountability. Make it clear that opting out of moving toward the desired goal is unacceptable.

At the end of the day, I see that efforts of this sort can be the springboard for broader changes that will lead to the development of a sustainable, high-performing team. It is important to realize that this is not about a value judgment of individuals on your staff but rather a defined effort to recognize and see the value of a mind-set change in day-to-day operations that ultimately translates to a win-win for both leaders and staff. 

The challenge for lab managers will be to maintain and articulate a clear vision to their staff while they adjust individually to the nuances of this operational model. It is not something outside your typical day of managing your team. The baseball analogy as noted by legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel is probably appropriate—“Gettin’ good players is easy. Gettin’ ’em to play together is the hard part.”


1. Claire Cain Miller, “Why What You Learned in Preschool Is Crucial at Work,” The New York Times, 10/16/15.