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Creating a Culture of Innovation

Build the environment that can sustain the innovation journey

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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“Innovation is seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought,” is an important observation from Albert Szent-György, the discoverer of vitamin C. Innovation is more than invention, which is the creation of a novel idea. Innovation requires the application of that novel idea to a product or process to make something better, more effective, or faster, and the acceptance of the idea by those who will benefit from the new application. Through this invention, application, and acceptance process, innovation drives progress.

All organizations require innovation. Business management expert Peter Drucker said, “An established company which, in an age demanding innovation, is not able to innovate, is doomed to decline and extinction.” To enable the success of their organizations, lab managers must create an environment where skilled scientists can develop and drive the innovations required for the success of their organizations. A lab environment conducive to innovative science consists of seven key elements: knowledge, motivation, inspiration, questioning, freedom, collaboration, and accountability.

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There are four types of innovation: sustaining, disruptive, incremental, and radical
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Lawrence Ibarria, the co-founder and chief technical officer of Verdant Robotics, said during his presentation at the Lab Manager Innovators Summit, “Innovation is hard. It requires knowledge, depth, and breadth.” Innovation requires both the knowledge to understand the right problem to solve and to recognize new possibilities for solutions. Lab managers can enable more innovation by supporting the ongoing training and development of the scientists in the lab. Building knowledge is important for all staff; even the most experienced scientists still have things to learn. It is also important to develop diverse knowledge among the staff with a combination of experts and generalists.

Ibarria also encourages different approaches to building the knowledge needed to innovate. Talking with potential customers, interviewing people impacted by the problem, and brainstorming solutions all contribute to the knowledge of the team. It is vital to keep learning to be effective innovators.


Because innovation is hard, lab managers must take actions to encourage and support the effort. In the book Drive, Daniel Pink explains that motivation is driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy provides lab scientists with the control over their work and schedule that enables them to be creative and to follow interesting ideas. Mastery is the application of their knowledge. Purpose provides meaningful targets for their experiments and engages them with the benefits of the work. While it is interesting to solve scientific problems, it is far more meaningful to complete work that improves the world in some way. Having a positive purpose that connects the head and the heart helps engage people in the work and leads to greater fulfillment, both personally and professionally.


Once a clear purpose is established for the lab and the scientific work, scientists can seek inspiration for innovation. Inspiration often comes from two different sources—interesting problems and adjacent knowledge. Lab managers can support inspiration in the lab by exposing staff to the wide range of problems associated with the lab’s work, being sufficiently vulnerable to ask questions, and asking for help that engages the whole staff in seeking solutions. Lab managers can also promote diversity in the technical knowledge of staff and support explorations into adjacent spaces. As Tom Freston, former head of Viacom, said, “Innovation is taking two things that already exist, and putting them together in a new way.” Innovations often come at the intersections of different kinds of science, each contributing something important to the new combination. Insight comes as new knowledge is applied to interesting problems.

There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.


To expand on the ideas coming from inspiration requires the openness to question. Lab managers can model generative leadership by helping scientists question the status quo and how previous solutions were applied in this area. Encourage staff to ask “why” and look for improvements. Create an emotionally and psychologically safe work environment where every voice is heard, anyone can ask questions, and questions become part of the fabric of the lab. Innovation requires that new and hard questions are asked and shared. Staff need to know that they are supported to do something differently.


The roots of innovation are probes into the unknown. Lab managers can support the exploration of seemingly unreasonable ideas that challenge what is currently understood. Sometimes people new to a field are unburdened with knowing what doesn’t work, and can try ideas that may seem unreasonable, leading to unexpected outcomes. Scientists also require the freedom to pivot or adapt as they learn. Following an observation in the lab allows an idea that didn’t succeed in one space to be explored in another. For example, Super Glue was an unsuccessful general solvent that became a massive new adhesive product. 3M, and we consumers, all benefitted from the freedom provided to that research.

It is also important to redefine the concept of failure. Brené Brown, research professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host, said, “There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” Being able to persist in the science despite many experiments not delivering the desired outcome is a key trait of innovators. My approach is a little different. One of the joys of being a research scientist is not having failure in my vocabulary. We celebrate successes and learnings. Those experiments that don’t deliver still provide many positive lessons. Being free of the emotional baggage of failure enables new and different experiments to be conducted and protects the motivation of research scientists as they explore the unknown, seeking new innovations.


Because innovation requires breadth and depth of knowledge and new ways of looking at problems, it is best accomplished by a team. Having other people available to think about issues, contribute ideas, ask questions, and improve potential solutions speeds up the innovation process. Innovation also requires skills and knowledge outside the lab, like marketing, sales, product development, and manufacturing. These teams need to include people who work outside the lab. Lab managers can support improved collaboration by insisting on respect and trust. Respect is improved by caring about individuals, listening to everyone, providing compassionate support, and enabling everyone to belong. Trust is won by being authentic, delivering on commitments, being honest, and ensuring that words and actions align. 


Research and innovation are not independent from goals, objectives, and delivery. Waguih Ishak, vice president and chief technologist at Corning Research and Development said, “As an innovation leader, you must ground creative people in accountability for the organization’s objectives, key focus areas, core capabilities, and commitments to stakeholders. Then you give them broad discretion to conduct their work in service of those parameters.” Lab managers need to provide staff with the clear and attainable needs of the organization presented as cascaded goals with specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (SMART) objectives. While the solutions to the key problems can’t be planned in advance, the process to discover, explore, and adapt those insights can. That process accountability provides structure and impetus to the research and development, while not limiting or biasing the approaches to innovation. 

Lab managers have the power and the responsibility to create the lab culture to enable success. Improvements in each of these seven areas will provide the support and interactions required to promote innovative work in the lab.