Developing Successful Laboratory Teams

The next generation of adaptive team designs and development will be critical drivers of success for every lab

By Daniel Wolf , Brooke Felger

While laboratories operate within a broad range of work settings, the next generation of adaptive team designs and development will be critical drivers of success for every lab. The role of teams has evolved a great deal. Advances in communication technology allow individuals to collaborate faster, easier, and on a much bigger scale. As the scope of lab work and technology has advanced, teams have come to include more participants external to the organization. Lab teams can operate interdependently, beyond normal hierarchies, and with varying powers for planning and decision-making. Teams, by design, have become the key structural and cultural drivers of growth, performance, and change, and teams in different forms, charters, and strengths have become the agents of development and commercial strategy.

The evolution of teams as part of the lab’s organization model is natural. Teams address the work to be done, and the everyday work of labs today is more dynamic than ever, adapting to new challenges and needs. Lab teams match processes and technology; they connect services to customer and stakeholder goals. They drive comparative advantage, advancing on the relative power, energy, and trust of their members and leaders. Lab teams help advance the broader mission, and they control the impact of the lab.

The common mindset of teams

There are many kinds of lab work and many different settings in which lab work and processes are generated. People and devices work together with processes and data to explore, test, analyze, measure, solve, and teach. Across these diverse settings, the common mindset is focused on results in a few key areas: quality, productivity, service, and cost/value.

For some of us, this sounds like basic common sense. However, when lab teams really focus on these dimensions, they create a separate cultural element that goes beyond the obvious: The team becomes purposedriven and engaged in the organization’s overarching goals and vision—the strategic agenda instead of the mere elements of standard lab processes. Charlie Spearing of CPM Extrusion views test lab teams as part of the company’s “trust” with customers and the partners with whom the company collaborates to shape and win the business. These stronger lab teams see themselves as working elements in the organization’s strategic direction, integration, and execution stream. Teams work as agents to make strategy happen.

The importance of team design

Labs are technical entities for the most part. The work done by teams is defined in technical terms, with technical criteria and measures. But there is more going on, a lot more. Labs are evolving as multifaceted analytic resources. They harness creativity. They mix and match resources for tasks and processes. They work on solutions of every sort. And laboratory staffs relate to each other and their many stakeholders in ways that advance the cause of discovery, integration, and compliance, based on the charter and mission of the organization. All of this points to the many challenges of building/ designing lab teams with the kinds of talent blocks that are well-suited to the work to be done, the interests of stakeholders, and the goals of the lab enterprise. These talent blocks include:

  • Technical competence: Subject matter knowledge and expertise
  • Analytic competence: Data construction and data model integration
  • Creative competence: The curation and management of new ideas
  • Resource competence: The appropriation of time, capital, tools
  • Solution competence: Consideration of options, solving problems
  • Relational competence: Bringing out the best in people—together

Strategic teams are built with a mix of these talent blocks, with a serious effort to match, develop, and sustain talent that works well together, learns well together, and serves well together. Teams interact in many ways, and they “discover by accident” in ways that engage people in solutions. Teams also encourage the kinds of creative and analytic tensions that frame breakthrough ideas.

How stronger teams adapt

Lab teams operate with diverse technical responsibilities and work processes. These reflect project and program schedules, functional roles, technical scope, models and connections, organizational plans, market forces, and other factors. Lab teams are subject to organic change, strategic and operating change, and a range of external forces of change. Lab work changes, and lab environments change. Team members are adaptive, responsive people who are open to influence, working with a set of principles, a sense of resolve, and a clear view of accountability.

Related Article: Igniting Your Team to New Levels of Performance

Stronger lab teams adapt in part because they’re better prepared for and more resolved to deal with change. This kind of readiness and resolve is learned from experience, goal awareness, emotional maturity, and the kind of learning and development that is encouraged by positive lab management and leadership.

An interesting idea in lab team development is found in the talent matrix that connects operational and managerial talent. Many, if not most lab personnel begin and advance in their early careers in roles that feed on their technical, analytic, and solution competence—their so-called operational talent blocks. Stronger lab teams endeavor to match those operational blocks with a blend of creative, resource, and relational competence— the general managerial blocks. By connecting people through everyday support, development, and coaching, members of lab teams gain in confidence, as well as in their depth and reach of talent. They get better, smarter, stronger, and faster—together.

 article image

There is often a lot of free and open interaction in a lab setting, which can evolve into a great host environment for effective talent development.

Accountability and the success of the lab team

For obvious reasons, accountability has always been a key issue for labs and lab teams. Accountability for quality, productivity, service, and cost/value is a broad, practical imperative. Stronger labs tend to be more attentive to accountability, and no place is more sensitive to teams and accountability than the clinical analysis and diagnostic labs of hospitals and health systems.

Accountability in labs is most assured when team members view their work together in the context of their strategic agenda. Accountability is reflected in culture, in purpose, and in team structure. Further, there must be accountability of members to one another, as members of the team. Accountability goes hand in hand with trust among individuals, trusted relationships within the team, and trust across the organization. Stakeholders count on lab teams for much that goes into forward planning, decision-making, risk management, problem-solving, and value-creation. Confidence and trust among stakeholders in the work of lab teams starts with accountability.

Teams and the new/next going forward

More digital systems, advances in science, more collaboration, and more complex work are all part of the frontier of lab work in general. Two important challenges stand out for lab teams as the nature of the lab world evolves. These challenges are summed up in the very essence of change and transformation—in how lab knowledge and projects are managed.

  • Knowledge Management, or KM, reflects the combined practices of:
Knowledge Acqusition
Knowledge Arrangement
Knowledge Application
  • Project Management, or PM, advances with the combined integration of:
Project Architecture
Project Communication
Project Accountability

National Dentex Lab executive Larry Weiss considers their clinical and operating teams as the caretakers of the company’s expertise and the essential bodies of institutional experience that provide strategic and economic advantage. Teams are the active operators of the everyday knowledge and project management assets of the organization. That is a big deal across the board for dynamic lab service organizations.

Both knowledge management and project management are essential lab functions that are reflected in the cultivation of strong teams, which:

  • collaborate well
  • have perspective
  • have a sense of the “maze” they work within every day
  • have the ability to zoom in and out with regard to their operating roles and the broader technical, customer, and economic world
  • are bonded by devotion, compassion, and concern for individuals

We depend on lab teams to move the benefits of discovery, testing, analytics, compliance, and learning into the open. More capable lab teams are the engines for making that happen, serving the cause, and taking care of today—while getting things ready for tomorrow.

Whether in scientific, operating, or technical settings, from crash-testing products to analyzing polymers in production scale, the laboratory and its constellation is, more than ever, dependent on the ability of teams of people to work together effectively. Team elements can either make or break enterprise growth, performance, and change. Collaboration builds across departments and institutions. It connects markets, and allows work to get done in ways that cannot happen in separate endeavors. Strategic laboratory teams must be designed with the work to be done in mind, strengthened through deliberate practice and leadership, and deployed to represent a culture of accountability in everyday thought and behavior… beyond the normal hierarchy.

It’s time to view teams as strategic assets, and to treat them as such. Most teams are casually constructed, and while they may look functional from the outside, leadership is often left without answers at the end of the day—wondering why the needles aren’t being moved in the right direction. Look at your lab teams, and challenge your people to look at them with a new readiness and perspective. Staying competitive in a changing marketplace depends on teams.

Published In

Building a Culture of Sustainability Magazine Issue Cover
Building a Culture of Sustainability

Published: April 8, 2019

Cover Story

We have updated our Privacy Policy to make it clearer how we use your personal data.
Please read our Cookie Policy to learn how we use cookies to provide you with a better experience.