The Project Board, or Steering Committee (the SteerCom), is a fundamental component of your project and can make or break it as easily as subject matter experts.

Brendan is a senior consultant with IMA specialising in major projects, PMO’s, and project portfolio management. He has led initiatives for over ten years, working in the corporate, government and education sectors, and in the UK, Canada, the US, and Australia. He holds an MBA from AGSM, UNSW. An ardent admirer of history, he also enjoys leading friends and colleagues into the wilderness on foot, horseback, and by boat. He has served as a volunteer search and rescue officer and museum guide.

Brendan is a senior consultant with IMA specialising in major projects, PMO’s, and project portfolio management. He has led initiatives for over ten years, working in the corporate, government and education sectors, and in the UK, Canada, the US, and Australia. He holds an MBA from AGSM, UNSW. An ardent admirer of history, he also enjoys leading friends and colleagues into the wilderness on foot, horseback, and by boat. He has served as a volunteer search and rescue officer and museum guide.

Too often they function as a rubber stamp, diverting project management into reporting without offering real value or support, but don’t view them as a necessary evil but an active part of the project organisation. Your SteerCom gives you direct access to senior movers and shakers who will feel the pain if your project is unsuccessful and who have the organisational knowledge, experience, and authority and to overcome roadblocks.

However even experienced and otherwise highly competent senior managers may not fully understand the roles involved, and the concept of direction by exception, even if they think or say that they do. Nothing is more important than clearly establishing expectations.  If they are not actively committed to the project you need to diplomatically replace them before you proceed.

So as a project sponsor or programme/project manager (PM) how do you build and run a steering committee that is going to represent all stakeholders interests fairly, stay focused on agreed outcomes, support and guide the project, and actively intervene when required without undermining the project manager?

The answer is a favourite of one of my MBA lecturers, Herman Chan, which is “It Depends”. You need to tailor your approach to the organisation(s), the project, and even the lifecycle stage of the project. This two part article includes some suggestions that may be of value or at least trigger valuable debate.

Today we’ll cover the following:

  1. Size and Composition – listen to all voices without death by committee
  2. Authority – who has it?
  3. Active Attendance and involvement

Then next time we’ll look at:

  1. Enabling Informed Decisions
  2. Frequency of Meetings and Reports – timely decisions without wasting time
  3. The right level of information – to see the trees and the forest!
  4. Multi-organisation projects
  5. For the record

Size and Composition – listen to all voices without death by committee

The challenge:

The more people you involve the higher the risk of scope creep due to different parties pushing their own tenuously related agendas, and the more difficult it is to schedule meetings and to cover all your material without getting bogged down.

The less people you have the higher the risk is that you will exclude required people.

The solution:

Three people is standard, but small straightforward projects may not even need a SteerCom, a Sponsor may be sufficient. Even for larger projects leaner is generally better. However I had the benefit of a working with a very large SteerCom on one occasion that functioned very effectively.

They debated issues vigorously because many interests were represented, but for the same reason when they arrived at decisions we could be confident that no areas of the business would subsequently object.

This was a major cross-functional project that required several Senior Users on the SteerCom because their areas were not homogenous enough for their practices to be understood, or their needs to be represented, by one person. It also required several Senior Suppliers because they needed to be engaged at this level directly in order to elicit sufficient commitment to access their staff.

If you do use a larger SteerCom you will need a strong Sponsor who can foster a culture of healthy, non-personal debate, genuine commitment to outcomes, and interdepartmental cooperation. With a weak sponsor and politicking you will be lucky to progress past the first item or two of your agenda.

Authority – who has it?

The challenge:

Indecision by committee is always a risk and is exacerbated as the size of the SteerCom grows.

The solution:

Although it depends on organisational preferences and subject to informal levels of participant authority, I prefer the PRINCE2 approach to address this. It has the Sponsor as ultimate decision maker, with other members being advisors.

If this is the case it is important that the organisation vests authority in the sponsor and is clearly understood to do so. Otherwise other members or stakeholders may not respect decisions.  Or worse, as I once experienced when an executive was the nominal sponsor but a CEO was the real decision maker, decisions may not be made at all because the real decision maker is not even a member of the SteerCom and is making decisions without the benefit of being present or accessible.

If the PRINCE2 approach is not selected and majority democracy or full consensus is used instead then it is important to clearly state the impact of any delays in decision making. This makes the SteerCom clearly accountable for timely decisions which can be a powerful motivator to reach consensus.

Project Management authority is a subset of SteerCom authority. The SteerCom must clearly agree the parameters in which a project manager is to work and back any decisions that they make within these parameters – once they start to second guess the PM on its day to day decisions or circumvent the PM and make decisions directly with stakeholders they destroy the ability of the PM to lead the project.

This similarly applies to the PM’s dealings with sub-project managers or team leaders.

Active Attendance and involvement

The challenge:

As with any meeting some people choose not to attend but then insist on revisiting decisions – sometimes months later. At best this is time consuming, at worst, decisions are made without valuable input or buy-in from key areas.

The solution:

If you are providing reasonable opportunity to attend it is usually fair to say that members are responsible for delegating replacements if they cannot attend, and (this bit is equally important) giving those replacements the information and authority needed to act in their place.

Except under exceptional circumstances if they choose not to do so then they should be held accountable for the quality of decisions made, or time and financial costs incurred if the SteerCom decides that it is necessary to post-pone or revisit decisions.

 

Next time we’ll look at:

  1. Enabling Informed Decisions
  2. Frequency of Meetings and Reports – timely decisions without wasting time
  3. The right level of information – to see the trees and the forest!
  4. Multi-organisation projects
  5. For the record

What lessons have you learnt regarding Steering Committees that may benefit other readers?