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How to Drive Innovation in the Lab

How to Drive Innovation in the Lab

Unleashing creativity with the right people, effective work process, and good tools

Innovation is a critical component of most labs. Organizations require continuous improvement of products, lab processes, and depth of scientific knowledge and understanding. Unfortunately, innovation is hard—it requires the invention of a new concept, the need for that concept by key stakeholders, and the ability to manufacture or deliver that concept to the place where it matters. Innovation also requires communication across a team because it needs a broad set of skills—more than any individual can master.

Despite the difficulties, there are clear actions lab managers can take to improve their lab’s ability to innovate. In this article, we’ll investigate three areas that are important to lab innovation—enabling creativity of the people, developing effective work processes for innovation, and providing some basic tools to speed up innovation.

“There are many different goals of innovation, and to be successful, a lab needs to aspire to create different things—such as a disruptive new product—a faster and more effective testing method, or a greener synthesis route.”

One of the key decisions for a lab manager is, “What type of innovation is required from this lab?” According to Jim Euchner, editor in chief, Research-Technology Management, innovation is critical to both products and processes. There are many different goals of innovation, and to be successful a lab needs to aspire to create different things—such as a disruptive new product—a faster and more effective testing method, or a greener synthesis route. 

Aligning innovation with the mission of the lab is vital to success. Within its mission, every lab has the potential to deliver innovation to the organization. 

Enabling staff creativity

In the book, Good to Great, Jim Collins emphasizes the need to get the right people on the bus, and get them in the right seats. To be innovative, the lab needs creative people in roles enabling innovation. According to Sartorius Lab Products and Services Division colleagues Helen Kim, head of the Innovation Project Management Office, and Kimberly Wicklund, head of Product Management, BioAnalytics, “Traits that signal an innovative mindset include curiosity, eccentricity, vision, and creative problem-solving skills.”

Lab managers should actively seek out these traits when hiring new staff and building teams of innovative thinkers. It’s also important to have individuals with a diverse set of perspectives and ways of thinking, who together can develop creative solutions. 

The process of brainstorming and developing creative solutions requires a lot of communication and, often, constructive debate. Lab managers should be aware of how their staff interact with each other, and actively promote a culture of teamwork. “We need people who listen to others, want to learn, are open to criticism and new data, and don’t take the process personally,” adds Ingrid Meier, head of Applied Research & Technology, Decorative Coatings Americas for Evonik Corporation.

Building a team of creative, open-minded thinkers is the first step to driving innovation in the lab. But if you have the right individuals in the wrong environment, their ideas won’t be heard. Lab managers can foster an innovative work environment by making it clear to staff that transparent, open discussions are always encouraged.

“Leaders need to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable contributing their ideas and discussing them, and where everyone shares their expertise with the team. It is important that all members of the team are fully aligned with the goals of the organization and that they all believe that they will succeed (or fail) together as a team,” says Meier.

Effective work process for innovation

A key part of innovation is that it connects invention of something new with a need in the organization or the market. “You can’t innovate in a vacuum. You need to understand what the market needs,” says Meier. 

Kim and Wicklund build on this concept: “Scientists must have the ability to step into the shoes of the customer or researcher to understand their challenges and pain points—viewing the challenges our customers face from their perspective, not ours.”

To enable innovation, lab managers need to help staff get out of their comfort zones. It will be crucial to talk to potential customers and key stakeholders, and try to understand their difficulties and pain points. In addition, staff may need help to think about problems and challenges from different perspectives, often called out of the box thinking. Kim and Wicklund provide the following guidance: “A common adage when it comes to thinking outside the box is to not put employees in a box to begin with. Give everyone time to speak their minds and share their insights in an open and safe environment. Encourage new ways to think about challenges and find ways to help stimulate creative thinking.”

“Traits that signal an innovative mindset include curiosity, eccentricity, vision, and creative problem-solving skills.”

One way to promote creative thinking among staff is to invest time in them. Demonstrate that you care about their contributions, and ensure you attentively listen to new ideas that they pitch. Be willing to let your team try something new, give them the space for effective trial and error, and outline actionable items to determine if the idea is a success. Offering constructive feedback regardless of the outcome is also a necessary step.

While supporting new experiments and imaginative ideas is crucial to innovation, it is important to remember that, “You have to be honest,” says Meier. “There is no ‘bad data’—just objective facts—and one needs to understand why the data obtained is what it is. Data is there to be understood and used.” 

To improve the lab innovation process, lab managers can include training for staff to help align the lab experiments with the input from colleagues from other parts of the organization, and with customers. Kim and Wicklund achieve this through “Design Thinking courses that are a human-centered approach to innovation, focused on customers’ needs, rapid prototyping, and generating creative ideas.”

To truly drive new ideas that can be market-ready, Meier suggests that “Gated development processes help innovation. They force a project team to do its homework, which includes doing market research very early on. This reminds us that innovation involves people, ideas, and expertise beyond the lab.”

Tools to accelerate innovation

Lab managers can invest in a wide variety of tools to accelerate and foster innovation. Of course, scientists need the appropriate scientific equipment, instruments, and supplies to do innovative science. Beyond the typical lab kit, there are specific tools that can improve the quality and speed of lab innovation.

Some of these tools involve using advanced software and modeling to reduce the number of lab experiments required of staff. Some of these tools take advantage of modern artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies that can augment human labor in the lab with highly sophisticated computer programs. “The current renaissance in AI is due to a number of factors that have come together in the past few years—huge amounts of data, significant advances in machine learning algorithms, and highly scalable computing resources,” says Euchner. 

Other tools improve how the lab team gathers and utilizes information required for effective innovation. Meier indicates that, “Having enterprise data can bring many different forms of information to the decision-making process.” Enterprise data may be beyond the scope for small independent labs, but can be a difference maker for labs that are part of large, global organizations. One of the benefits of enterprise data is to bring together data from many different parts of the company, such as sales, marketing, and manufacturing, all of which are important to innovation. Kim and Wicklund add to this idea: “We maintain an extensive program of cross-pollination with corporate research and business development functions, and promote ongoing collaboration with industry key opinion leaders and partners.”

In addition to fully using diverse internal information, effectively gathering customer insight is a very important step in innovation. A voice of the customer tool is useful to develop an understanding of the problem a customer or stakeholder is facing, as well as understanding how they would like to use the new product or process. Meier indicates that a tool that guides structured brainstorms with customers can be crucial to understand their pain points and needs.

Fostering innovation in a lab is a complex yet necessary process for organizations who want to continue to evolve and remain at the cutting edge. Innovation requires creative-minded people, a positive work environment, and the right tools. Lab managers have a key responsibility to help drive successful innovative solutions in the lab.