We discuss four straightforward ways that lab managers can tackle project management challenges
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In scientific circles, it’s a familiar story: the brilliant young scientist, fresh from a post doc, gets his or her own lab to lead. Comprising the lab are other post docs, graduate students, research assistants, and lab staff – all individuals who are highly intelligent, want some independence, and all have markedly different career goals. They work in a dynamic environment with many ongoing projects and tight deadlines. The brilliant young scientist soon realizes that the success of the lab depends on his or her ability to not only innovate on the scientific front but to become an expert at managing people and projects.
Although most lab managers begrudgingly come to terms with the fact that running a lab is a lot like running a business or a very large project, very few actually receive project management training in school. And given that nearly one third to one half of all projects fail to meet their intended objectives, doesn’t it seem imperative for lab managers to make project management an everyday phenomenon?
Recently, we spoke to several experienced sequencing lab managers and heard how they use project management techniques to drive projects forward. Here, they share their top four tips, which not surprisingly correspond with the same advice espoused by the Project Management Institute.
For many lab managers, it’s tempting to sit at the bench and do the science along with the rest of the staff. And of course this may be perfectly natural and even expected, depending on the size of the lab. Although it is important to return to the bench every now and again to remain in touch with the science, the lab managers we spoke with emphasized the importance of not falling back into that role completely. Instead, lab managers should treat their role as lab manager or leader as paramount. As one lab manager puts it, he is there to oversee the entire operations of the lab. He hires capable people so that they can take care of the details.
And lab managers shouldn’t shy away from the moniker of “leader.” Being a leader is no longer synonymous with bossing people around. In one lab manager’s words, “My sole responsibility is to focus on the vision of the lab and remove obstacles for my lab staff. In other words, I work for them, not the other way around. And this is what enables our lab to achieve success.”
Seasoned project managers would say that aligning each project or initiative to an organizations goals and mission is crucial for its success. And the lab managers we spoke to agreed. This involves formulating a clear mission and strategy for your lab and ensuring that each staff member truly understands what this mission is. Then, every single project or initiative can be measured against the mission. Does it align with the mission? If not, then it isn’t done or its given significantly lower priority.
The same is true for investment of new tools and technology. Does that new instrument support the five-year plan for the lab? If not, then it should be reconsidered. And how about the tool you are using to manage the operations in your lab – does it coincide with your team’s mission now and in the future?
And ultimately the same is true for everyday happenings in the lab. Does your ongoing communication reinforce the lab’s overall mission? If there’s conflict between staff and how to pursue projects, then use the mission as a deciding factor. When the lab mission becomes paramount, conflicts become less about people and more about what everybody on the team is trying to achieve.
Another great tip for managing your lab projects? Create process and efficiencies in the lab whenever possible. For sequencing labs, this usually means automation. Fortunately, there are tools and methods for automating nearly every step in a sequencing workflow. Take LIMS for example. Many LIMS can automate at every step in the process and track a single sample, no matter where it is in the process. Many of the downstream analysis tasks can also be automated via the LIMS. Keeping current with new instrumentation and protocols can also help you retain an efficient edge. If you are a lab manager and have the opportunity to purchase new tools, ensure that you find solutions that are scalable, flexible, and allow you to customize and adapt to new workflows without having to incur professional services fees. And a good vendor will spend this time with you upfront to help you fine-tune a product to best meet your needs.
Creating efficiencies also means relying on data to tell the story. The savvy use of metrics helps one lab manager we talked to remain highly efficient. This particular sequencing lab manager holds a weekly review. There is a focus on protocols that can produce quick results, but quality is also scrutinized. Although a new protocol may be fast, if it’s not fast and of high-quality, then it doesn’t move into production. Metrics such as these and the standardization of such metrics in your lab leads to better use of resources and more time for innovation and progress.
It really always does come down to the people involved. In every discussion we had with a lab manager, they all emphasized the need to focus on talent. They do this first by hiring the best people that their money can buy. But the lab managers and leaders also cautioned that money isn’t everything. The work environment is definitely part of the overall package, so creating a place where their staff can have some autonomy and do meaningful work that positively impacts humankind is important.
They are also careful to point out that they don’t micromanage, or at least they try not to. Nothing can stifle creativity or innovation more than a lab manager who has their hands in everything. By empowering lab staff and giving them clear instructions and guidelines– and not orders—they are giving their staff opportunities to grow and results usually flourish. Another result? Delegating in this fashion also has the added benefit of giving the lab manager more time to manage projects and focus on the overall health of the lab.View PDF