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The Four Keys to Successful Project Steering Committees

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.

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.

You can read more about committee charters here.  You can also find more "charter" development details and a fully formatted, fully customizable Charter Template in our Project Committee Planner and Template Kit.

#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.  Learn more about committee organization.

#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.

And Here's More on Projects and Project Committees

Producing Quality Charters for Committee Success

The committee "charter" starts out as a concept, formed by the underlying need for the committee itself - i.e. what is the committee purpose, what will be accomplished, and why is the committee necessary?  One would hope that once this concept is known, it should be enough to sustain viable, long term committee operations --- but it's not.   Read More

Getting Organized: Committee Structure Infographic

Proper committee organization is essential to overall success.  Committees must be organized to suit the mission at hand, considering the people involved and expected results.  Every committee structure must account for certain essentials - leadership, finances and recordkeeping.  The hard part is to fulfill the functional needs - combining the right skills, experience, interests and influences to form a working committee that is more than the sum of its parts.  See More

Project Committee Planner and Template Kit

The 100+ page Project Committee Planner e-book answers all your questions about project committees and how they work, giving you easy, time-saving ways to get organized and operate for success.  You'll find ideas and steps to help you create your committee, set your mission, select members, assign roles and responsibilities, conduct meetings, make decisions, evaluate results and more.   And the Kit also includes (7) fully formatted, customizable templates to get the job done.  Learn More

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Fast Tracking is a Must-Have Project Management Skill

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:

Part 1: What is Strategic Fast Tracking?

Part 2: Evaluating Projects for Fast-Track-Ability

Part 3: Project Problems, Tradeoffs and Priorities

Part 4: Negotiating the Stakeholder "Meeting of the Minds"

Part 5: Defining Project Scope, Vision and Work Effort

Part 6: Creating "Sized" Governance Plans to Save Time and Minimize Overhead

Part 7: Producing the Fast Track Charter Deliverable

Part 8: Finding Lessons Learned in Fast Tracked Projects

You can also download the entire fast tracking article series in our free handbook Fundamentals of Project Fast Tracking.

Committee Tools and Templates

If you want a fast, easy path to committee success, you need the right tools to get the job done. You need simple steps for planning, you need to get organized, and you need ready-to-go templates for reports and documents. And that's what you'll find inside the Project Committee Planner and Template Kit, from!

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