Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business
Two female scientists in a laboratory view a computer screen
iStock, sanjeri

Three Keys to Encouraging Innovative Thinking

Take actions to enable all staff to contribute fully to the lab’s work

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...

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

Innovation is critical to most labs. Scientists can excel at improving our understanding of the world, optimizing workflows, increasing productivity, and developing new tools. Lab managers can take an active role in promoting that excellence. The key is to create a lab culture that supports people and enables the staff to be confident and creative. Here are three tips to help lab managers encourage innovative thinking.

#1 – Ask powerful questions

Engage with lab staff around the technical challenges they face. Share your scientific knowledge and experience. Be willing to ask fundamental questions about the work. Demonstrate that it is okay to question. Create the expectation within your teams that asking questions, especially big questions about the science, is a necessary part of the mission. Powerful questions probe at the why, how, and what of the work in the lab. These big, open-ended questions create opportunities for conversations where other teammates can join the inquiry. It can be especially useful to ask questions that probe at the assumptions of the scientists as they pursue their research. 

Get training in Lab Leadership Basics and earn CEUs.One of over 25 IACET-accredited courses in the Academy.
Lab Leadership Basics Course

#2 – Provide psychological safety

Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization, defines psychological safety as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and the team is safe for the interpersonal risk taking.” Lab managers need to build a lab culture that enables everyone to contribute their ideas and observations independent of their rank, role, or level of education. It takes the whole team to drive innovative thought, not just the most senior or experienced scientists. Ensuring that people are respected and their contributions are greeted with dignity will encourage them to share. To be successful, the lab needs everyone to contribute fully. You never know where the critical bit of insight will originate.

#3 – Develop high-performing teams

Modern science is remarkably complex. No individual can know enough to make meaningful innovations alone. It takes a team to be successful. Lab managers can enable improved innovation by helping teams work through their differences, build trust and respect, benefit from their diversity, and drive to common goals. Too many teams suffer from internal conflict. Helping teams resolve their issues and conflicts is an excellent investment. High-performing teams are critical to driving innovation.

Lab managers can take direct actions to encourage innovation. These actions make use of our experience and knowledge. They don’t cost any money and won’t negatively impact the lab’s budget. They require you to persistently contribute your time, effort, and experience. These investments will help drive innovation in your lab.