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 set your steering committee on the right course – to fill essential governance needs while 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 guide the organization 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 allowing the project manager "to manage" and the project team to "perform".
This sounds complicated – but like any other management imperative, it’s all made easier when broken down into executable components. And steering committee success can be delivered in four (4) basic steps:
These steps are more fully detailed below, laying out the key planning questions to be addressed as these ideas are put into action. (And, if you are looking for even more committee “how-to”, we suggest our “Project Committee Guidebook” included in our Fast Track Project Toolkit).
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:
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 questions must be addressed:
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.
Structure 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. At a minimum, committee roles and responsibilities should account for the following elements:
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.
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.
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 project objectives can be fully met.
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