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Strategic Teams and Lab Culture

A lab’s culture has a strong influence over the success of an organization’s strategic agenda

Daniel Wolf

Daniel Wolf is president of Dewar Sloan, a strategy and development group with extensive ties in lab and technical markets. He can be reached at

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Lydia Werth

Lydia Werth is a research consultant with Dewar Sloan, focusing on strategic teams and communication models.

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Every lab has a purpose, a set of strategic challenges, and people who work together to make things happen. What holds these ideas together is a cultural agenda that is served by strategic teams. Culture shapes the everyday thoughts and behavior of people across the lab, working at different levels, in different individual and team roles.

In the most general terms, culture consists of values, principles, habits, and standards that frame “what we stand for around here” in ways that are meaningful.

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Lab cultures and settings vary, of course. Different challenges and strategy concerns reflect the purpose of labs. Does the lab focus mainly on compliance, integration, or discovery work? What defines the intent of people across the lab enterprise? What are the social motives of individuals and teams doing the work of the lab?

Lab culture is based on themes that involve relationships, time, impact, process, quality, technology, cost/value, and service. Excellence is a common theme in the cultural agenda, noting strategic intentions and desired behaviors. Culture connects people, ideas, and habits, and it shapes the overall social climate of the laboratory.  

Culture and climate

Different cultures develop from ideas about collaboration, integrity, accountability, and innovation, and reflect people factors like respect, trust, influence, and energy. There are cultures of execution, cultures of readiness, and cultures of adaptive capacity. Some cultures are service savvy. Others are lean, orderly, tight, and focused. Some are open to options, open to influence, and open to prospects for change.

Cultures are formal and informal, fixed and flexible, strong and subtle. The cultural agenda of the lab speaks to stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers, partners, and investors. Everyone gets a sense of lab culture. What they see and what they hear shape points of view, points of intention, behavior, and challenges. Culture is active and dynamic, which makes it vital for lab managers as they deal with realities of leadership, such as strategy, talent supply chains, work and life balance, best practices, teamwork, pandemics, technology, reputation, and a host of other factors.

The cultural agenda is what connects business model logic, employee engagement, and ethics in practice. This is what drives the lab’s strategic agenda, which is based in habits, purpose, and values. But even more relevant in today’s lab environment is the movement of culture in technical, operations, and economic terms. How does the lab adapt and evolve?  How does the lab attract, develop, and retain great people? How does the lab compete on quality, purpose, value, and practice? Much of this depends on the cultural agenda, and how well the strategic teams deliver results.

Strategy and culture, together

The human elements of strategy come in three parts. First, people need purpose, and the very essence of lab work provides a window into a purposeful, meaningful, respectful culture.  Second, people need to attach, belong, engage, and prosper in a setting where they can be part of something. Third, people need a sense of challenge, one that accelerates their competence, readiness, focus, and confidence.

These human elements of strategy blend with culture. They elevate the story of “what we stand for and where we’re headed” in the lab. They define the why, what, and how of the lab’s work, and the focus of people across and beyond the network of stakeholders. 

Talented individuals and teams serve as active agents for the lab’s strategic agenda, as integrators and executors, makers and shakers, scouts and support crews, process wizards and progress teachers. People assume different roles, functions, and goals in strategic teams with assignments that are based on specific “talent blocks and beams” that connect a range of skills sets, surrounded by a series of experiences, behaviors, and perspectives. These weave together to influence culture and build strategy.

Everyone in the lab feels the culture, and it prepares people to engage in the work to be done at every level. Culture shapes the casting of people in key roles across the lab, and the cultural agenda advances two practical elements that connect people and strategy in action: foundations—readiness, competence, and expressions—intentions and exchanges.  


The foundations of the cultural agenda are like DNA. They drive purpose, meaning, and scope and define what matters most. Foundations derive from core themes in strategic focus, value propositions, and value-based statements of standards and principles. Aspirations are driven by foundations. They provide touchpoints that reflect the lab’s purpose, vision, and mission.  They are the grounding of the lab, the blueprint for the lab’s offering.


Expressions of the cultural agenda are like conversations that convey what really matters, what effort and impact looks like. They define, inform, and persuade how people should think about their work and their relationships.  Expressions are driven by the morning announcements, planning discussions, and feedback exchanges that communicate the cultural agenda.  

Culture provides the backdrop of attention. Managers use the cultural agenda to bring attention to key issues, behaviors, and efforts. They build on themes that support team engagement, learning, and advancement, with clear links to the lab’s cultural foundations. They reinforce values with examples and narratives that move people in their everyday thought and behavior. Culture is active and dynamic; managers work on and work through the foundations and expressions of culture. 

The culture conversation

Many organizations today have “culture decks” that provide summary references on values, principles, and norms. These are often supported by graphics and images that contribute to the intended picture of culture and climate. Culture decks frame expectations and behaviors. They provide a general look at the aspirations of the lab, and they enable a more specific view of the language that the managers and strategic teams use to discuss the work to be done, working together, and the nature of the road ahead. These serve as statements that drive everyday conversations, reinforcing the foundations and expressions, supporting the strategic agenda for growth, performance, and change. 

Culture conversations are sparked by questions like: 

  • Would you recommend your lab to others for employment, and why?
  • Would you share what success means to different people across the lab setting, and why?
  • Would you share how people work together to achieve strategic goals of the lab, and why that really matters?
  • Would you say that managers, staff, and teams follow the best intentions of the lab’s cultural agenda on a consistent basis?
  • Would you say that management is walking the talk—so to speak?
  • Does your view of the present and future look different than management’s?”

Questions like these open conversations that connect staff to the strategy and culture. In the process, individuals and teams gain permission to engage in constructive debate about what matters most, and how to address strategic intentions through teamwork.

Management connections

Building the climate for lab excellence is an essential task of management. That task percolates, matures, and integrates through the work of strategic teams. The efforts of people serving on strategic teams drive the collective impact that managers promise to stakeholders. Culture is the intersection for people in motion, making things happen. Culture and strategy together, blended in the work of strategic teams, is the formula for excellence.