Agile transformation of laboratories: Team Management, the great oversight in laboratories?

Agile transformation of laboratories: Team Management, the great oversight in laboratories?

Born from software development in the 1990’s, Agile management is now spreading to all fields of activity, from the service sector to heavy industries. As far as the R&D world is concerned, this managerial (r)evolution’a adoption is slow and struggling. And yet, if you have ever had to write a research project, chances are that you have planned and organized your work by building a list of sequential tasks, that take the form of a Gantt chart. Can you estimate how long it took for this chart to become outdated  In most cases, no more than a few weeks (if not days). In scientific research, the course of a project frequently evolves, sometimes deviating greatly from the initial proposal. Following a series of sequential tasks remains theoretical and is not very applicable to research, because it is not flexible enough.

The Agile methodology favors flexibility. Since it was introduced, 30 years ago, project management has been radically transformed, bringing in a new managerial framework as well as new principles and tools called “artifacts”, adapted to the never-ending change happening in our world. According to a 2015 Standish Group study, so-called “Agile” projects are 3 times more likely to succeed compared to traditional methods[1].

Although they are at the heart of innovation and scientific and technological breakthroughs, research laboratories are slow to adopt Agile principles. Some stackholders are nevertheless to be outlined as pioneers, such as the Broad Institute (MIT & Harvard), known for its work in genomics[2]. This article aims at presenting the advantages of Agile applied to the R&D world, whether it is to improve the success rate of projects, to set up a continuous improvement approach or to motivate and retain research teams in a sustainable way.

Improve the success rate of projects

It is customary to consider that a successful project respects the following three constraints : Cost, Time and Scope. Based on this triptych, Agile projects are 3 times more likely to succeed than so-called waterfall projects (traditional projects)[1].

This difference can be explained by a better collaboration in quantity and quality, on the one hand within the project team, but also on the other hand with the end users. These regular exchanges do make the project run smoothly and do take the user feedback into account along the way.

In addition, Agile is based on iterative development. Each iteration corresponds to a short period (2 to 4 weeks) during which the project teams focus on a specific objective. At the end of each of these development phases, also called Sprints, a deliverable (or Minimum Viable Product) is presented and tested, thus reducing feedback loops and the risk of errors.

Another decisive element : when defining each iteration, the Agile teams communicate with the end-users in order to define which actions are high-priority and what is most valuable to them. Placing the customer at the heart of the process allows to save time and support efficiency.

Implement a continuous improvment process

The most successful organizations have in common an ability to continuously innovate and improve their performance levels. To achieve this, they adopt a continuous process improvment approach [3].

The Agile approach fits very well with the Lean Six Sigma method in order to continuously improve both the team’s practices and processes. This way, they can easily adapt, for example, to new regulatory constraints.

To be more specific, the improvment of the team’s modus operandi can be achieved through what is called a “retrospective”. These planned sessions allow the contributors can share their successes or difficulties encountered in each phase of the project, they can focus on the key points that can be improved in the next steps.

These moments  that bring collaboration in the way problems are dealt with and resolved, also allow tensions to be lifted by favouring mutual aid, while significantly improving the involvment and motivation of team members.

Attract and keep talent

If you want to attract and keep talent in your organization, Agile management is a particularly powerful lever[4]. Within the framework of an Agile project, employees have more freedom and autonomy in the way they organize their work. This concept of empowerment encourages employees to take initiatives and, thanks to field expertise and a shared and sharp vision of the project , they are able to make effective decisions with great responsivness. This organizational approach, which makes it possible to exploit the full potential of employees, increases not only their involvement, but also their performance, thus creating value for the entire organization.

The impact of Agile on team’s mindset and satisfaction was the subject of an in-depth analysis in 2020[5]. In this study, 40% of the experts whom took part in the study observed significant improvments in team’s mindset and satisfaction as a result of Agile adoption. Both of these factors are critical to keep talent, and seem all the more relevant in the context of the growing “war” for talent.

How to lead laboratories towards more Agility?

The biggest challenge is not to achieve the targets set by the labs, but to transform the very way the labs work. According to a 2018 State Of Agile Survey[6], very few organizations have succeeded in their Agile transformation, for several reasons:  lack of understanding of what Agile principles are, too little time dedicated to transformation projects and unapproriate contextualization. Organizations that have scored their Agile transformation did it thanks to a structured, well thought-out and  tailor-made approach. They are the ones that benefit from a real competitive advantage as well as a stronger capacity for innovation.

For a successful Agile transformation, we recommend to adopt the “tea strategy”, which consists in a progressive swarming of Agile, from mindset to practices. A global transformation program is much more risky.

The first step in this process is to set up an audit phase to give context and identify the areas that need improvement, then organize a kick-off training session, followed by a tailor-made coaching, aligned with the specific issues met by the laboratory.

The objective is not to complicate the current organization (as is often observed during transformations, with the addition of an Agile “overlay”) but rather to simplify the existing one. Thus, each employee can concentrate on high value-added tasks, with noticeable short-term and long term impacts on team involvment and motivation. Mid-Term goal:  the Agile laboratory has significantly improved its performance and its capacity for innovation.

Customer Testimonial

Leaders in the field of aesthetic medicine, the Swiss laboratories TEOXANE have been working with RITME for several years.

As such, Jimmy FAIVRE recalls the coaching services dedicated to Agile methodology he benefited from as part of a mission provided by RITME, and more specifically by the author of this article:

Researchers are used to working alone, but there is a strong need for collaboration in research. In R&D, you have to prospect widely and be precise at the same time, move quickly while being subject to very strong external constraints: budget, deadlines and other surprises. Keeping the team motivated is a difficult task. To maintain the right set of mind , I attended training in Management, but it was all very theorical. 

Agile management, discovered during the coaching provided by RITME, proved to be an excellent solution, both straight-forward and practical. The consultant came from the same High-level scientific background as our teams. From the very first beginning, we targeted specific topics to adress our concerns and defined concrete actions. These techniques allowed us to take advantage of each other’s skills, to create better synergies and to avoid isolation by promoting collaboration. From now on, we underline and support each member’s added value to maintain the motivation of the whole team. With these agile techniques, the deliverables arrive on time and the manipulations are well done!

I was not familiar with this approach at all, but it has completely changed the way I manage projects. I want to do a second training in a few months to learn more.”

Jimmy FAIVREResearch and Innovation manager at TEOXANE

Clément FLAYAC

Zoom on the author

Coach and consultant specialized in Agile management, collaborating on projects brought by RITME Academy, Clément is convinced that Agile contributes to the success of growing challenges R&D and Innovation are facing.

Lifelong science enthusiast, Clément holds a PhD in microbial ecology at SupAgro, and won the”Hightligths of the year” a label of excellence awarded by Agreenium for one of its INRAE publications. He holds too an MBA at Ionis-STM specialized in Agile management and an Agile Expert Coach diploma.

Through training, coaching and consulting, he supports new methods of innovation and management. His tailor-made approach allows him to embody Agile in each research team, adjusting each and every practice and process to improve the success rate of projects, the development of talents and the creativity of teams. He’s definitely adopted the “out of the box” way of thinking.