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Effective Teamwork Drives Successful Lab Design Projects

Ensure the project team contains all of the needed skills, knowledge, and experience

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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Upgrading the lab space is an exciting opportunity. Most labs have few opportunities to create the kind of space that enhances the technical work, corrects issues the staff are facing, and enables them to thrive. 

To take advantage of all the skills, experience, and knowledge required for a successful new build or renovation project, lab managers should develop three different teams—one internal to the lab, a second that brings other skills from within the greater organization, and a third that brings experience from outside the organization. Getting the right people on these teams, building effective communication within and between teams, and using all the relevant experience are crucial to executing successful lab design projects.

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Collecting good information from the internal lab team

The lab team is usually led by the lab manager and will include a cross section of staff representing different lab activities and experience levels. Teams of four to seven often work well. 

Lab staff have the greatest knowledge about the needs of the lab space. They understand the science that the lab practices to fulfill its mission. They also understand how the current space is and is not contributing to the success of the science. It is helpful for the lab manager to build the team from staff who can clearly communicate the needs of the lab, adequately represent the rest of the staff, and communicate well with the other teams involved in the project. 

There are clear benefits to involving the scientists in the lab design project. They are data-driven and often think logically, and scientists are often good at generating many ideas. However, there are also some challenges in including scientists in lab design projects. They don’t really understand how the facility works, they don’t know the regulations, they only understand a narrow set of design options, and most have no or limited experience with builds or renovations.

Successful projects require the teams to keep effective communication open, actively manage the project budgets, and keep a close eye on the project timelines.

Utilizing other skills from the broader organization

Most labs are part of a broader organization, which has a wealth of knowledge that can contribute to the success of the build or renovation project. Building an organization-wide team that accesses knowledge and experience around safety, quality, purchasing, supply chain, and facilities adds these skill sets to the project. Depending on the organization, this team may act more as consultants who are available to answer specific questions or engage at specific points of the project. Often, having a close working relationship with the internal facilities team brings significant benefits to build and renovation projects. 

This wider team helps the project stay compliant with internal policies, procedures, and expectations. It can also play pivotal roles in helping understand budget limitations, the internal approval process, and who might be the most effective internal influencers with whom to communicate.

Assembling the best external lab design team

Most labs don’t have internal access to skills like those of architects, lab designers, lab planners, facility engineers, and construction professionals. The lab will need to network to help find the best providers for these needs. One effective approach is to identify the first member of the external team who is already well-known to the organization. That individual can help network to find the other skills needed for the project. The benefit of building an external team from people who have already worked together is that they know how the others work, what their strengths are, and how they communicate. 

It is important to assemble the external team early. As soon as a project has a planning budget, it is time to start bringing this expertise to the table. A common mistake is to delay bringing in outside voices until after some key decisions are made. This approach means that some fundamental decisions are already in place before people with greater knowledge are available to participate. This can lock the project into unfortunate choices.

However the external team is developed, it needs to provide the knowledge and understanding that is lacking internally about how to deliver a successful build or renovation project. It is important that they have relevant experience in lab design projects, can work well together as a team, and can do their parts at a reasonable cost.

The needs of the lab for a successful lab design project

Each of the three teams must provide honest assessments based on their expertise, an ability to generate effective choices to address the needs of the project, and engage in clear and prompt communication with everyone associated with the project.

The teams need to cooperate to define the needs of the lab. It is very important for the lab manager to help the lab staff differentiate the needs from the wants as the project progresses. Few labs have sufficient budget to include everything that the lab staff might want. As the needs are clarified, the teams will explore feasible options to deliver them. Some healthy debate is often valuable to clarify needs, choices, and alternatives. 

Once the best set of options and decisions have been assembled, each team continues to participate through the full execution of the project. The lab team will monitor the progress of the project against its targets and milestones. Inevitably, lab design projects encounter unexpected challenges. The ability to be flexible and find alternatives to address the problems is vital to success. Successful projects require the teams to keep effective communication open, actively manage the project budgets, and keep a close eye on the project timelines.

Creating new lab space can be a great experience for the lab and generate significant benefits for the staff and the lab's mission.

Common lab design failure points

Unfortunately, not all lab design projects are fully successful. We can learn from those challenges to identify some common issues that can plague projects. The most common problem is a lack of effective communication. This can occur when bad news is not promptly delivered, proper communication channels are not followed, or messages are unclear. Other key challenges are scope creep and unrealistic project plans. Both tend to negatively impact budgets and timelines. One of the benefits of assembling all three teams is to avoid these issues. Everyone involved in the project needs to be mindful of staying within scope and having healthy conversations about avoiding scope creep. Before a project plan is finalized, each team needs to review and approve it, especially with respect to it being reasonable and beneficial to the lab.

Creating new lab space can be a great experience for the lab and generate significant benefits for the staff and the lab’s mission. It is important that the needed knowledge and expertise are brought to bear on the project. All of this experience can ensure that the best plan is identified and executed to meet the lab’s needs, stay within budget, and be delivered on time.