We discuss how lab managers are in a unique position to affect change and help their labs adopt new technology, new protocols, and new science
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Lab managers, despite the hectic pace of their jobs, have a unique opportunity to play a strategic role in the success of their labs. They can be agents of change, leaders, and technologists in a way that promotes innovation, reduced costs, and improve quality.
In this first in a series of three articles, we discuss how lab managers are in a unique position to affect change and help their labs adopt new technology, new protocols, and new science.
Genomics and mass spec labs face multiple challenges: frequently changing lab workflows, rapidly evolving instruments and tools, cross-organization collaborations, regulatory compliance standards, and overloaded IT and Informatics teams or lack of these resources altogether. Throw in some budget cuts, demanding schedules, and the overall chaos of running a lab, and you have a day in the life of a lab manager.
Of these challenges, lab managers usually remark that adapting to changes in instrumentation and technology, which require new protocols and assays, top the list. “Labs are at the forefront of some really great science, but responding to so much change and managing a diverse group of assays can be extremely challenging,” notes one lab manager. To gain the upper hand over these challenges, lab managers have to learn to live with constant change. To implement and sustain changes also means that they need to get their staff fully invested so that they can count on them to execute the changes. Being successful means the difference between being reactive and proactive. But with juggling all of their other responsibilities, how can lab managers be expected to master change management as well?
One thing is certain—whether it be for the purchase of a new LIMS or the implementation of a new protocol or instrument, lab managers play a pivotal role in initiating, implementing, and sustaining changes in their lab. We set out to determine how successful lab managers play this role. Our conversations with lab managers from clinical and research labs yielded some practical advice.
The lab directors we spoke to all agreed that it’s usually not difficult to sell their groups on a new technique, assay, or instrument – the science is so compelling that it usually sells itself. However, they do report that with any new implementation, the devil is usually in the details. For instance, how will the science translate into new assays or protocols in the lab? But savvy managers use this challenge as an opportunity to engage staff early on. One lab manager, a Principal Investigator at a research lab, addresses this challenge by getting staff involved early. Any time he wants to initiate a new assay or protocol, he will ask his staff to research it and determine how best to implement it. Not only does this involve the people who will actually be performing the work, but it creates ownership. The same is true when bringing on a new LIMS or other system. The most successful managers include the people who will be using the system in the decision making process. Does it suit their work? Does it support them or slow them down? With this type of collaborative approach, lab staff not only support the change, but they will help evangelize it as well.
Another quick and easy way to create ownership? Delegate the work. Although the lab managers we talked to both indicated that they like to stay in touch with the science happening in their labs by returning to the bench every now and then,all report that they are frequent delegators. Delegating not only creates ownership, but it enables managers to focus on doing what they should be doing: removing obstacles and providing overall support for the lab and its initiatives.
As with adoption of any new initiative, it’s important to demonstrate success early on so that people want to be involved. One way to do this is to break up projects into manageable chunks so that staff can complete tasks or projects on a regular basis and experience a sense of completion and accomplishment. Communicating and publicizing successes regularly is equally important. Some managers take a lesson from Agile software development, a process developed to help manage change, and communicate success via information radiators. Radiators are large public displays that communicate up-to-date status of a particular project. You may not have the space or the inclination to implement a radiator, but there are many good software tools that have radiator-like mechanisms within them. For example, a good LIMS or project management software should enable staff to track and display real-time progress and communicate how well the team is moving towards an objective.
As flexible as they need to be, lab managers also need to be comfortable with a certain amount of structure. One lab manager describes how it’s helpful to anchor changes with the overall goals of the lab, one of which is usually quality. He then uses his weekly quality review meetings to discuss the changes.
One such change—implementing a new assay — can be costly if it’s not properly vetted and tested first. Therefore, he relies on metrics to tell him if the assay is doing what it should. Is it performing as expected? Can his lab implement the assay quickly without sacrificing quality? All throughout the project, he sets up gates so that people can share feedback, examine the metrics, and determine if the assay is truly ready to be implemented.
It’s lab technicians who are executing any sort of change — prepping the samples, designing the experiments, running the instruments, and reporting on results. Yet, despite the monumental tasks that lab techs perform, the focus is usually always on the science or the results. Overlooking the human element yields disastrous results – lack of engagement, resistance to change, poor performance, to name a few. Shrewd lab managers pay attention to the people in addition the science, and they do so by being mindful of their staff’s job satisfaction. Empowering people by giving them ownership, opportunities to innovate and learn, and supporting them with high level guidance and structure puts the focus not only on the work but the people who are performing it. Another outcome? Lab managers are empowered to respond to change, not react to it, and more proactively lead their labs.