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The best way to lead a design team to create spaces that nourish creativity and innovative discovery is by nourishing creativity and innovative discovery.
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Leading a Lab Design Team

Nurture the talents of individual team members to build trust and strengthen outcomes

by Robert Skolozdra
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“How we are is what it becomes.” Coined by Barry Svigals, founder and partner emeritus of Svigals + Partners, this mantra expresses the belief that architecture should be uniquely connected to the purpose, place, and people for whom it is created. This applies to lab design as much as it does to any type of environment. 

But how is this connected to leading a lab design team? Think about the phrase: “How we are is what it becomes.” The best way to lead a design team to create spaces that nourish creativity and innovative discovery is by nourishing creativity and innovative discovery. Create a supportive culture, encourage collaboration, and inspire creativity, and the rest will fall into place. 

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Leading collaborative teams

Whether a laboratory’s focus is on life-saving medical research, technological advancements, or other fields of research, how the space is designed is pivotal to its effective operations. That starts with getting to know the client and users, and bringing them into the process from the beginning. 

Once you understand the unique needs of the organization, putting together the best team of experts is crucial. It helps to have specialty consultants you know and with whom you like to work. Team leadership should understand their strengths, how to maximize them, and form a holistic team that complements each other. The most effective collaborative partnerships have a rhythm and shared language that improve communication and effectiveness. 

Once the lab design team is assembled, establishing a foundation of team trust is key. This is best achieved through collaboration, bringing everyone into the conversation from the beginning. Once everyone is together, everything is in the open. This approach enables creative solutions to surface throughout the process and allows clients to participate in finding resolutions. Trust becomes a natural outgrowth of the collaborative process as everyone sits on the same side of the table.

Recognizing and recruiting talent

Some firms may say they look to hire “the best and the brightest,” but “fit” is more important. The best people will embrace your firm’s culture in addition to bringing the talents you need to the table. 

You may also consider hiring people for entry-level positions and working with them to grow with the firm. Hire good and dedicated people, train them with patience, create a collaborative environment, and help each person figure out what they do best and how they want to contribute. This approach will yield the best results for both your firm and your clients.

For your lab design team specifically, a technical background and an ardent interest in science and technology are both helpful. Successful lab architects have a meticulous eye for detail, as well as an ability to steward your client’s brand.  

Resolving complications

Notably, effective project leaders for the design of research settings have an understanding of the technical and engineering components involved, including the standards and codes specific to lab design and construction. But more importantly, they seek the expertise of relevant consultants when issues arise. Egos need to be checked at the door.

Consider a project where zoological research is being conducted, and the team identifies excessive vibration levels in the building that may adversely affect the breeding habits of subject animals. The problem may be related to the building’s structure, or to MEP or HVAC systems. The leader’s job is to consult with all relevant team members in a coordinated effort to identify the problem and devise a range of solutions. Building good relationships with team members early in the process will undergird problem-solving efforts like these. Showing them that they’re respected and valued may inspire a greater willingness to put in extra effort as needed, which in turn leads to better outcomes. 

Every project has its challenges. Construction issues arise, field conditions change, mid-stage drawing and plan adaptations occur, and conflicting points of view emerge. Each team member is responsible for individual contributions to the resulting laboratory design, but team leaders are responsible for everyone’s contributions, including their own. The following guidelines help ensure productive collaboration toward workable solutions and forward momentum: 

  • Be realistic with expectations and deliverables.
  • Mitigate crises by listening to details surrounding the situation, acknowledging them, and moving forward with a solution. Pointing fingers doesn’t resolve issues. Recognizing the challenge for what it is and working across functions to find a workable solution should always be the focus. 
  • Recruit outside help as needed to get a job done well. Recognize it’s better to ask for assistance sooner rather than later to avoid the potential bigger problems of unexpected delays and cost overruns. 
  • Delegate tasks appropriately for top outcomes. Keep a finger on the pulse of team interactions, personalities, and work habits to stay ahead of potential problems. Some people, for instance, are highly organized. Some prefer email and text communications to telephone calls. By understanding people’s strengths, weaknesses, and work styles, design leaders can anticipate where to fill in gaps and can maximize their team’s talents for better outcomes overall.

Creating a diverse and inclusive work environment

Diversity is critical to all fields, especially those focused on complex problems. Indeed, despite the mythology of the singularly brilliant scientist (think Einstein), innovation is rarely driven by a solitary person. People from different backgrounds, on average, tend to approach problem solving differently, and it is this diversity of perspectives that often leads to breakthroughs.

While the architecture field has become more diverse in the last 30 years, there is still more work that needs to be done. Firms will benefit from creating an internal diversity, equity, and inclusion committee to look at office policies and hiring practices, as well as ways to support equity in the career pipeline. Look for ways to increase your outreach to attract a broader range of talent and support the work-study programs of local, low-income high schools, bringing in students to expose them to the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. You might also consider contributing to the growth of a state organization—for instance, your local chapter of NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects). These are not initiatives specific to lab design, but enhancing the diversity of your team is key to long-term growth and competitiveness across all your sectors.

Not everyone fits in the same box, and that’s a good thing. Each person brings a specific set of skills, personality, and background that adds to a team’s effectiveness and creates a balance within it. Lab design teams need each person’s unique talents—whether they’re technical, managerial, or creative—to balance a group’s contributions and contribute to a lab’s success.