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Three Keys to Getting Better Ideas

How to improve idea generation in the lab

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...

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One key to success for most labs is their ability to innovate and develop new scientific results for their lab. Innovation requires many things, but an important one is good ideas. Lab managers can have significant impact on the quality and number of actionable good ideas that arise in the lab. Good lab managers find ways to encourage staff to think creatively, generate a safe environment for those ideas to germinate and be shared, and actively participate in the surfacing of good ideas. Successful lab managers have learned that good ideas can come from anyone and at any time. They also know that all ideas for the lab do not have to originate with them. Here are three things lab managers can do to improve the quality and rate of good ideas for the lab:

#1 – Generate emotional safety

There is an element of risk in sharing truly creative ideas. These ideas often have a key element that is new, different, or unorthodox. If staff are concerned about how they, or their idea, will be treated, most are reluctant to share. No one wants to be ridiculed or embarrassed for thinking about a technical problem in a different way. Lab managers need to create and sustain an environment of emotional safety. In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle provides 13 actions to generate emotional safety. Three of the most important are overcommunicate your listening, embrace the messenger, and make sure everyone has a voice. Make sharing crazy ideas fun, safe, and interesting. Then the innovations will follow. 

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#2 – Listen to everyone

Great ideas can come from anywhere and from anyone. Sometimes it is the scientists who haven’t experienced as much experimental failure who come up with the interesting angle to explore. Other times it is the wise sage who sorts through her deep experience to make the interesting new observation. Ensure everyone has the opportunity to contribute, and that all ideas are evaluated on their merit, not based on the resume of the person providing them. 

#3 – Ask dumb questions

Sometimes experts can build habits about how they approach their science. They stop seeing some of the details or some of the interactions. Lab managers can provide a real service by asking dumb questions of the brilliant scientists in the lab. Dumb questions can cause those subject matter experts to see the problem from a different perspective or consider an interaction that hadn’t been important before. Asking dumb questions is hard. It takes a self-confident lab manager to excel at this skill. However, as you see success in interacting with your experts in this way, it gets easier and more rewarding.

Thanks for reading. I hope you can use this information. I am very interested in hearing from you. If you have feedback or comments on this set of tips, or suggestions for future Manager Minutes, I'd love to hear from you. Please reach out to me at I'm looking forward to our conversations. Thanks.