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.
What is a Project Steering Committee?
At its core, the "project steering committee" is a "governing device" used to organize key project stakeholders and empower them to "steer" a project (or group of projects) to successful conclusion.
And "steering" is the key word.
Steering is not managing. Managing gets the job done, but steering determines what the job is. We all know that every project must be led by an underlying purpose and a vision. To deliver required results, that purpose and vision must be clearly defined, it must be monitored and it must be maintained. And that's the role of the project steering committee - to deliberate, make decisions, advise, provide strategic oversight, and to serve as the primary “advocate” for all the assigned initiatives.
Four (4) Keys to Steering Committee Success
Steering committee success won't happen by accident. You can pick all the best people to participate, you can all have the best of intentions, and still not succeed. So what does it take to get the results you need? Actually, it all boils down to four (4) key actions - you must define the mission, you must conduct committee business under the auspices of an approved charter, you must organize properly to get the job done, and you must live by the (3) C's of quality committees - collaboration, cooperation and communication..
#1 You must clearly define the steering committee mission.
Of all the various types of project committees, the steering committee "mission" is almost a given: "to steer a single project (or group of projects) to successful conclusion through governance related deliberation and decision making". (See: What is Project Governance?)
That doesn't mean that every steering committee "mission" is automatically the same. Quite the opposite. While the generalities may be relatively constant, mission specifics can vary greatly based on the following key factors:
- Scope. Will the committee have jurisdiction over a single project or group of projects (i.e. a project portfolio)? Note: In the portfolio situation, steering committees may very well operate as part of an organized Project Management Office.
- Authority. Will the committee serve as the ultimate authority on "direction" related issues, or will the committee serve as an advisior to the ultimate decision making authority (i.e the project executive or sponsor)?
- Degree of Difficulty. What is the degree of difficulty in the committee portfolio (i.e the projects for which the committee is responsible)? When the committee portfolio contains projects of a higher degree of complexity, visibility, sensitivity, cost and risk, mission difficulty increases in direct proportion, placing greater burdens on the committee members and exposing committee operations to increased scrutiny. Mission difficulty goes a long way in determining how a given steering committee will be organized, who will be appointed, and how it will operate (in order to reach expected results).
- Deliverables. What will the committee produce? After all, that's the whole point of forming the committee - to produce all the results (analysis, decisions, directives and opinions) needed to support and "steer" a successful project.
These are the factors that will drive mission specifics. But specifics aside, no steering committee can be expected to function properly without a clearly defined mission. That's why setting "the mission" is the first (and most important) action for committee success.
#2 You must enshrine the mission in an action-driven "Charter".
Try throwing a bunch of committee people in a room, call them the Steering Committee, vaguely define their mission and leave them on their own to figure out what it all means and how to get the job done. They might be successful for a while, but sooner or later, problems will appear. Perhaps not everyone heard the same message. Perhaps people will fight for control. Perhaps changing circumstances will throw everyone a curve ball. These are the types of risks that diminish productivity and complicate results.
Fortunately, these risks can be avoided when the mission (see above) is turned into a roadmap in the form of a documented "Committee Charter". As a roadmap, the Charter specifies how the committee will be organized and how it will operate, all from a procedural and process point of view. This is a great tool to improve productivity, save time, minimize conflict and set expectations. Read more about committee charters.
#3 You must organize to promote operational productivity.
Once the mission is defined, and the Charter is approved, it's time to get organized (all in accordance with Charter terms and specifications) . Steering committees are typically staffed by key project stakeholders, all with a measureable interest and influence in both the project and the committee itself.
The right mix of people is essential (with diverse interests and capabilities), but without proper organization, even the best group may flounder. Above all, every steering committee needs a strong leader and clearly defined reporting relationships. Every assigned role and responsibility must also be clearly defined and allocated to set realistic expectations for performance and participation.
#4 Focus on collaboration, cooperation and communication.
At the end of the day, steering committees are "just people" appointed to do a difficult (and often thankless) job. That job will be made much easier if the surrounding work environment is consistently positive, where every voice is heard, opinions are respected, information is shared, and common sense prevails. This is brought about when committee (and project) leadership acts to promote member collaboration, cooperation and communication. Here's a few examples:
Keep committee size as small as possible to facilitate decision making and minimize internal conflicts. If needed, sub-committees can be formed to address specific issues that might require different expertise and levels of participation.
Engage the "executing" project managers and team leaders in committee discussions and deliberations (to ensure a broader "in the field" perspective).
Establish a working "code of conduct" and enforce it on a consistent basis. Also see: Committees, Cooperation and a Working Code of Conduct.
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