In today’s fast paced society, the laboratory is constantly facing new challenges from decreases in healthcare reimbursement to proposed increases in regulatory scrutiny. As a result, the laboratory leadership often has to encourage and motivate laboratory staff to positively embrace new situations to find success. Matt Hanley, my new core laboratory supervisor, illustrates how to turn a sour situation into sweet lemonade.

Matt had only been in his new job for 3 months, supervising a pair of laboratories which were to merge and move to a new facility. Each laboratory had its own methods of operation which had evolved over time to meet their unique needs. Both were strong work units with histories of success and as such, rightly felt that they knew their business the best. Matt had been tasked not only with merging the laboratories, but unifying their operations as much as possible to reduce redundancy, promote best practices and implement efficiencies.

The technical groups in each of the laboratories were particularly strong, but had traditionally taken different approaches to their operations; one group following a hierarchical approach with clearly defined roles, and the other a flexible approach relying on delegation and workload sharing. Achieving our goals would require modification to both styles to create a new approach. Matt had been building a vision and communicating this vision to members of both teams individually in the hopes of building a coalition of leaders, however little progress had been made and resistance was stiff.

At a group meeting, Matt was reviewing a basic proposed organizational chart, a minor 5 minute agenda item. However, someone from one group protested that an organizational chart was unnecessary; while someone from the other group said that it wasn’t stratified enough. Discussion quickly degenerated into open argument.

As Matt gathered his thoughts to determine his next step, he observed that even as the group was arguing it was actually finding common ground for the first time: nobody liked the organization chart. It occurred to Matt that this was as much an opportunity as a burden, an opportunity to reorient the conversation. He acknowledged the argument, pointed out that everyone was actually agreeing on something, and explained the urgency of the situation. We would be merging and moving in 9 months and it was up to the group to find solutions.

In the 6 months since the disagreement, progress has been constant but not always smooth. The group continues to work together and embrace change at the front line level. Trust is being developed and increasingly, the teams are acting with the long-term success of the project in mind rather than maintaining the status quo.

In his book “Leading Change”, John Kotter states the Eight Stage Process for Creating Major Change:

  1. Establishing a Sense of Urgency
  2. Creating the Guiding Coalition
  3. Developing a Vision & Strategy
  4. Communicating the Change Vision
  5. Empowering Broad-Based Action
  6. Generating Short-Term Wins
  7. Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change
  8. Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture

In Matt’s transition plan he had many of these elements, but they were out of order compared to Kotter’s list. While initially failing to establish the critical sense of urgency, Matt saw the argument as an opportunity to reorient the groups focus and create a sense of urgency, as well as, a vision of unity that did not exist before. In the end, always look for hidden opportunities in discord and do not be afraid to allow disagreement to continue if you see that it is heading towards a solution.

Discussion Question: Are we often so focused on minimizing controversy that we lose opportunities for generation of new ideas? Is it possible to plan for discussions like the one above to generate honest discussion and ideas for change?

References: Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.