Organizing for Steering Committee Success

January 14, 2014

Summary:  Follow 4 easy steps to organizing and operating successful project steering committees, covering the mission, charters, roles/responsibilities and communication.


Committees are a traditional and longstanding methodology for organizing and empowering a group of individuals to work together as a group and make things happen.  Within the project management context, committees are formed for a number of purposes, with one of the most common being the "steering committee".

When properly organized and empowered, the project steering committee provides executive oversight, advocacy, support and decision making for either single projects, multiple projects or an entire project portfolio.   As the name indicates, steering committees are formed to “steer”, not to “manage”.  Depending on the assigned project (or portfolio) scope, steering committees will be called upon to make multiple decisions and issue multiple directives to guide the project (or portfolio) to the desired result.  Committee success depends on the ability to execute governing responsibilities, while allowing the project manager "to manage" and the project team to "perform".

STEP 1: Defining the Committee Mission

The committee mission establishes the purpose and scope of a given steering committee.  A clearly stated "mission" provides the boundaries, direction and guidelines under which the steering committee will operate and make decisions.  To avoid the common pitfalls, this mission must be clearly stated, relevant to the project and approved by the key stakeholders (as per the define/align/approve standard.)  In order to achieve these goals, the committee "mission" is documented as part of a formal organizational process.  As a general guideline, documented "mission statements" must address the following key questions:

1.  What is the purpose of the committee?
2.  What are the expected results?
3.  What will be accomplished (considering goals, objectives and deliverables)?
4.  What are the guiding principles for committee operations and participation?
5.  Why is this committee important and necessary?
6.  What value will this committee bring to the project and/or project portfolio?

Steering committee management continues wih the preparation of the committee charter.

STEP 2: Preparing the Committee Charter

The "Committee Charter" is an essential project committee deliverable, setting boundaries, and documenting committee purpose, scope, authority, organizational structure and operational guidelines. Once documented and approved, the charter provides the foundational and procedural basis for committee operations, allowing committee business to be conducted in a consistent, productive manner. As a baseline, charters should provide a member roster, listing the committee members by name and role, as well as expected committee deliverables and actionable procedures such as meeting scheduling, rules of conduct, voting requirements and related matters.  As the committee charter is prepared in expectation and anticipation of formal acceptance, the following defining questions must be addressed:

1.  How many members are required?
2.  What types of committee positions will be created?
3.  What is the committee scope (single project, multi-project, portfolio)?
4.  What types of meetings will be required (regular, special, workshop, etc)?
5.  How often will meetings be held?
6.  Will Roberts Rules be followed during meetings and for motions?
7.  What types of voting procedures and thresholds will be followed?
8.  What are the expected deliverables to be produced by committee action?
9.  How long will the committee be expected to operate?
10. How will the committee close operations once the mission is fulfilled?

Steering committee charters must define key roles and responsibilities for committee leadership.

STEP 3: Allocating Committee Roles and Responsibilities

Project steering committees operate more efficiently and with less risk when the designated “mission” is executed under a formal, hierarchical organizational structure. Steering committees (like any other type of project committee) are deliberative bodies, formed to make important, complex, and time-sensitive decisions.  When appropriately applied, operational “structure” is the most effective and cost feasible mechanism to facilitate the decision making process.  Structure provides a framework of accountability for how committee work gets done.  It also creates a working “dynamic” designed to set expectations, minimize conflicts and eliminate bottlenecks.  By definition, steering committees require strong leadershipnot to dictate, but to guide the committee members through the myriad of actions to be taken and decisions to be made.  At a minimum, committee roles and responsibilities should account for the following elements:

1.  Someone has to lead the committee and oversee operations. (Committee Chair and Vice-Chair).
2.  Someone has to keep a record of committee actions and decisions (Secretary).
3.  Someone has to oversee the use and allocation of the committee budget (Treasurer).
4.  One or more individuals have to provide the functional skills and expertise to fulfill the designated mission considering the assigned scope and subject matter. (Members-At-Large).

Steering committee success depends on communication quality and timeliness.

STEP 4: Avoiding the Pitfalls Through Communication

The biggest threat to steering committee success is the risk of micromanagement - losing sight of that key distinction between directing the work effort (from a vision point of view) and managing the work effort (to produce specific results).  It's a fine line, and can only be properly navigated when everyone is willing to work together in a collaborative fashion. 

Steering committee success is a two way street.  The project manager, team and customers must recognize that steering committees have to "steer", and all related governance directives must be respected and accepted.  The project manager and the team must keep the committee fully informed and engaged, and seek guidance as warranted and appropriate.  The key to steering committee success is cooperation and collaboration, beginning with a fully defined mission, embraced by all.

Tips to Steer By:
1.  Keep committee size small.  Fewer members - fewer conflicts.
2.  Appoint members with diverse "representative" interests.
3.  Define operational procedures in specific, measureable and actionable terms.
4.  Use structured practices for meetings, motions and voting so that everyone knows what to expect.
5.  Establish a working "code of conduct" and enforce it on a consistent basis.
6.  Conduct regular reviews of committee performance to ensure that the mission is being met.

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