"Working committee" isn't necessarily oxymoronic

Lab Committees that actually work

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first:


I sympathize.  After fifteen years in science in one form or another, I have yet to encounter a situation where people go, “You know what would make this better? More meetings.”  In fact, I imagine that I could interrogate Ahasuerus and find that he hadn’t found such a situation either.

“Meetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot actually masturbate.” – Dave Barry

Let’s grant all of that.  Nonetheless, you may have to have one or more committees.  As in, it may be a regulatory requirement (most overarching safety documents throw in a need for some sort of committee).  Or you may inherit a committee that was formed somewhere in the distant past and you do not want to be the one to end it.

Accepting committees as an occupational hazard, let me be a little heretical and admit that there are situations where a lab committee can be actually useful.  This near miracle is possible, if you observe the following rules:

  1. Lab committees should be formed out of people actually working at the bench.  This is the single most important point.  You need a direct line to the front, to the people who are actually interacting with the laboratory, who have a good idea of what will work and what is not worth  the hassle.    
  2. Committees should meet no more than once a month, if that.  Everyone on a lab committee has plenty of other engagements.  No one wants to have their time wasted and and issues should be flowing to you anyway.
  3. All meetings should be kept short and to the point – any minute over 30 should be considered a failure.  Related to the above.  Any issues in the lab should already be known to you.  The committee should be there to hoover up the stragglers, to sort out particularly troublesome problems, and make sure all things are in hand.  
  4. 70% of your time should be spent listening, 30% talking, if that.  In fact, you can probably do better with a 90%/10% split.  This is your chance to let people air their issues and to get crucial information to how the lab is doing.  This has the double benefit of letting people know that their opinion is valued and respected.
  5. Committees should have a clearly defined purpose.  An unclear purpose is an invitation to ramble along any digression, to waste time.  In my lab, due to regulatory requirements, the lab committee has actually be split into three.  As crazy as this sounds, this works better – in each committee – whether it’s for safety, or for lab worker satisfaction etc. – everyone knows exactly what they are there for and offers only insight into that topic.
  6. Lab committees should be formed from people who can contribute, and are able to work together well.  Some people just don’t play well with others.  It might be that they are unpleasant, or it might be natural shyness, or a language barrier or a thousand other reasons.  In any of these cases, having such a person on the committee is a waste of their time, and more importantly, of yours.
  7. Committees should be properly minuted.  This is for you, in a c.y.a. sense.  Keeping a record of what was discussed and circulating that record up to the brass means that people cannot pretend that things were otherwise later.

If you follow these rules, there are three big benefits that can accrue:

  1. You speak with the voice of many.  A committee is an excellent time to discus and put forward any big issues in the lab – say, a streamlining of order processes.  Get the proposal out and signed by all members, and you have a solid basis for putting it forward.
  2. You have a direct, official line to the lab.  Once again, you should be receiving information all the time.  This means that people really have no excuse not to inform you of any outstanding issues.
  3. You have backup.  This is a bit like number 1, but much more broadly.  Assuming you have selected the people for the committee well, and you have earned their trust, you will have people you can turn to when necessary.  If it is matter of filling in over your vacation, or help implementing the latest initiative, you have people who have your back.

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