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Time to Lead: 4 Easy Steps to Steering Committee Success

Read more in the full article below.

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.

Start with the Basics - "Committees Defined"

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 underlying 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 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:

Step 1:  Create a defined mission to establish a working “purpose”.
Step 2:  Make the “mission” actionable in a documented Charter.
Step 3:  Set expectations and avoid conflicts with assigned responsibilities.
Step 4:  Use collaboration and communication to deliver expected results.

Four (4) Steps to Steering Committee Success

STEP 1: Start by 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:

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

STEP 2: Create a Documented Charter to Govern Committee Action

The "Committee Charter" is an essential 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 a member roster, listing the committee members by name and role, as well as expected committee deliverables and actionable procedures such as meeting planning, rules of conduct, voting requirements and related matters.

STEP 3: Use the Committee Structure to Allocate Responsibilities

Project steering committees operate more efficiently (and with less risk) when the designated “mission” is executed through the use of an established, 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, 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".

STEP 4: Collaborate and Communicate to Deliver Successful Results

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:

  • Keep committee size small to facilitate decision making and minimize internal conflicts.
  • Appoint members with diverse "representative" interests.
  • Follow operational procedures consistently to set realistic expectations.
  • Establish operational boundaries to ensure that committee members do not step over the line to micromanage the project management team.
  • Engage "executing" managers and team leaders in committee discussions and deliberations.
  • Use structured practices for meetings, motions and voting so that everyone knows what to expect.
  • Establish a working "code of conduct" and enforce it on a consistent basis.
  • Conduct regular reviews of committee performance to ensure that the mission is being met.

Remember - It's a 2 Way Street

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.

Would you like to learn more about successful project committees and how you can make them happen? We wrote the ultimate "how-to" book on project committee organization, and it's all part of our Fast Track Project Management Toolkit (Bundle Edition). You can learn more about the Toolkit and project committees at (our sister web site) -- starting with this preview below:

About Us- has been around since 2001. We started with a few articles about IT projects, and since then have developed our own series of time-saving practices and Toolkits for managing projects and IT services. The article above is part of of our full catalog of "how-to" articles, filled with these techniques (which you won't find elsewhere) to help you get better results in less time.  We cover all the basics and then some - including projects, IT services, team building, disaster recovery and more. You can continue with our recommendations above, browse the articles catalog, or download free templates and whitepapers.

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