Steering committees often get a bad rap. Too controlling. Too bureaucratic. Too far removed from the real work of getting projects done. It happens – but it doesn’t have to be that way. With (4) easy steps you can get your steering committee moving in the right direction – to fill essential governance needs while still allowing the project team to flourish.
Before we get to the specifics, let’s answer the basic question – what is a steering committee? Committees are a traditional and longstanding mechanism for organizing project resources. Within the project management context, committees are formed for a number of reasons, with one of the most common being the "steering committee". As the name would indicate, steering committees are formed to “steer”, not to “manage” (and there is a difference).
When properly organized and empowered, the primary purpose of the project steering committee is to lead the way through one or more projects - to deliberate, make decisions, provide strategic direction, and to be an “advocate” for the initiatives involved. Committee success depends on the ability to execute these governing responsibilities, while leaving sufficient room for the project manager "to manage" and the project team to "perform". This sounds complicated – but it all boils down to four (4) key steps:
A defined "mission" establishes steering committee purpose, scope and authority. A clearly stated "mission" provides the necessary boundaries, direction and guidelines under which the steering committee will operate and make decisions. To avoid the common committee pitfalls, this mission must be clearly stated, relevant to the project and approved by all the key stakeholders (using the define/align/approve decision-making standard.)
At a minimum, here are the key questions you must answer in order to get the mission properly defined:
Characteristics of a Properly Defined Mission: It's understandable. You can carry it out. It's relevant to the needs at hand. Results can be measured. It can be adapted and modified as needs change.
The "Committee Charter" is an essential committee deliverable, establishing and documenting committee purpose, scope, authority, organizational structure and operational guidelines.
Once documented and approved, the completed charter provides the foundational and procedural basis upon which committee operations will be executed, allowing committee business to be conducted in a consistent, productive manner. As a baseline, charter "deliverables" should include the following information:
Characteristics of a Good Committee Charter: It's documented. It's comprehensive and easily understandable. It's updated as project and committee circumstances may change. Read more.
If you're going to achieve the successful results, your committee needs a structure. Here are the characteristics of a good structure:
Without a properly organized structure, your committee may "drift" off mission, and find it difficult to get anything done. In fact, when appropriately applied, organizational “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, and also creates a working “dynamic” designed to set expectations, minimize conflicts and eliminate bottlenecks. By definition, steering committees require strong leadership… not to dictate, but to guide the committee members through the myriad of actions to be taken and decisions to be made. That's the point of a defined "structure".
Characteristics of a Good Structure: It's organized for productivity and to minimize conflict. It's designed to support the committee mission. It provides flexibility to adapt to changing conditions and circumstances. Read more.
The biggest threat to steering committee success is the risk of micromanagement - losing sight of the 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. Here's a few tips to "steer" by:
The project manager, team and customers must recognize that steering committees are largely created to navigate people and projects through political waters, and all related governance directives must be treated with appropriate respect. The project manager and the team must keep the committee fully informed and engaged, and seek guidance as warranted and appropriate. On the other hand, the committee needs to stay out of the day to day, and regularly seek the input of those who are executing the actual project work. It all comes down to the difference between guidance and management. Steering committees must be able to set direction, and then let those responsible to execute do their job.
At the end of the day, the key to steering committee success is cooperation and collaboration, beginning with a fully defined (and accepted) mission and continuing with an ongoing “give and take” to ensure that all objectives can be fully met.
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And it's a skill that will come in handy whenever you need a sure fire way to keep "project problems" from becoming "project disasters". Learn more in our multi-part article series: