You are currently viewing Project Steering Committees – Part 1

Project Steering Committees – Part 1

Organizations are constantly changing, developing new products and services, mergers and acquisitions, and implementing new technology. Different methods of project management are applied to realize these changes.

Consequently, all companies have several projects continuously in progress, either stand-alone or clustered in a program. Projects often consist of a steering committee, a project group, and some working groups. Organizations often position the steering committee as the project’s monitoring and adjustment body. The setup of the steering committee and the tasks it performs differ between projects in practice. In this post, I’ll discuss the role of a steering committee, its responsibilities, and its composition.

Setting up a steering committee only adds value if it has an adequate composition and range of tasks. Project teams with a steering committee often forget these aspects. As a result, the steering committee does not always function properly. Steering committees come in different types. Some types of steering committees function well, others less well. In this post, I will show you which factors make a project successful, what role steering committees have to play to secure these factors, and what tasks, powers, and responsibilities a steering committee has.

Impact of Projects

The importance for organizations to respond to external developments and/or the application of technological capabilities in a timely and adequate manner is very high, translating directly into the importance of the success of projects to realize these changes. The failure of projects has a considerable financial impact in addition to not achieving the intended objective.

Over the years, several studies analyzed project failures and project success factors. These studies came with the following core project success factors:

  • Involvement of senior management. The involvement of senior management in a project extends beyond project initiation. Senior management owns the project: it wants something to be realized or changed. Organizing adequate user engagement and balancing priorities between projects and with other senior management should support the project owner that executes the task, meaning that senior management must fill in preconditions and provide guidance. Think of organizing the engagement of users, prioritizing the use of resources in the various projects and line activities, and making decisions about the project.
  • Unambiguous objectives and scope. An objective that you cannot interpret in multiple ways helps maintain focus. A well-defined scope prevents unintended digression into other areas.
  • High-quality project and program management. Perhaps an open door, but project and program management is a discipline. Not everyone has the capabilities required to manage a project, and the number of people within an organization with real experience managing complex transformations is not significant. Additionally, not all organizations want to use a rigid form of project management to achieve and monitor progress. In the current era of extensive change and technical innovations, execution power is crucial.
  • Focus on quality assurance. Paradoxically, organizations pay less attention to quality assurance in their projects than in their primary process. Applying quality assurance in projects increases the chances of success. By explicitly defining the quality requirements before the start of product realization and establishing how you will test these products, it is clear to everyone what the expected quality is and when the products will meet it.
  • Focus on the realization of benefits. The products realized by a project (a new CRM system or a departmental structure) must be used or must ‘work.’ Only then will the intended goals or benefits, such as increased productivity, savings, and/or additional turnover, be realized. Directing and monitoring the realization of these benefits is too often taken up implicitly. Active steering ensures that the responsible managers in the organization will realize the benefits.

A steering committee in a project plays an essential role in the project’s success, anchoring senior management involvement. Senior management involvement helps to maintain focus on the objectives, monitors the quality of project management, oversees quality, and can steer the line organization towards realizing the benefits. However, setting up a steering committee is never an unqualified commitment guarantee. Below are some requirements that a steering committee must meet to function successfully.

Most Important Tasks of a Steering Committee

The main task of the project steering committee is to play an initiating, signaling, and goal-oriented role concerning a project. You can describe this task further as regularly assessing the project result, the project’s objective, and the project’s risks based on provided reports. After completion of a project phase, the steering committee will have to determine whether the project results are sufficient, the project’s objectives are still legit, and the project risks are acceptable and/or sufficiently covered. The steering committee’s task implies that the steering committee members should be well-informed about the status and progress of the project. Practice shows that the knowledge and available capacity of steering committee members are often too limited to form a weighted opinion on the risks within the project.

A prudent steering committee, therefore, gets support from an independent external consultant who supports the steering committee on project risk management. We see different interpretations of this role. First is that of a sparring partner: a highly experienced project and program manager coaches the steering committee members in their tasks. You can prepare the steering group members to take up their roles in the steering group. The steering committee should be able to answer the following questions:

  • How the steering committee should be informed
  • What the steering committee has to decide on
  • How to listen to their feelings

The sparring partner role also provides an opportunity to discuss in discretion what to expect in a project and the potential risks. Another interpretation of project risk management is to use the Quality Assurance role. Someone in the Quality Assurance role periodically reviews the status, progress, key risks, and how the project manages the risks. To this end, you should check project documentation and hold discussions with key project stakeholders. Independent of regular progress reporting by the project management, the person in the Quality Assurance role reports their findings to the steering committee.

Powers of a Steering Committee

The project steering committee also fulfills a decision-making role in situations where the project leader has no power or where there are conflicting interests or conflicts within the project organization. At first glance, the role played by the steering committee in the decision-making process seems obvious: the decisions taken by the steering committee are binding; after all, it is the highest part of the project organization and therefore authorized to make crucial decisions. However, the extent to which the steering committee assumes a decision-making role varies. When an organization positions a steering committee as a sounding board, we rarely see the steering committee making a decision. When you submit situations to a steering committee, they will formulate advice regarding decision-making. The project group may or may not follow this advice. The steering committee can play a more supportive part. The steering committee only takes decisions beyond the competence of the project group or a decision in the project group that members inside the project group dispute. The project group has a primary and executive role in decision-making: the steering committee makes all the decisions.

Also, organizations adopting an agile approach have a unique role assigned to a steering committee. The core of the agile working method involves teams working on new products (services or ICT changes) in short, manageable periods. This working method has many advantages: because employees from different disciplines can work more closely together and thus make decisions faster, there is more room for the creative process, and the organization becomes more agile. As a result, it can make adjustments earlier if there are changing needs or priorities. Agile working is sometimes seized upon as a reason to steer a project less, leaving budget and progress accountability more accessible or loose. Unfortunately, this is a misconception. Yes, agile working indeed advocates self-directed teams. However, these self-directed teams are almost always part of a bigger picture: a project or program that aims to realize a change (improvement of a business function, integration, or implementation of an ICT system). The different agile teams contribute to the realization of the bigger picture. These projects apply standard project management methodologies to realize predefined goals within time, money, and quality frameworks. A steering committee that ultimately owns the project is also in agile working. Of course, this steering committee has a much more supporting role than a traditional approach.

Steering Committee Responsibilities

The steering committee is also formally the client of a project. In recent years, we see more and more that you also form a steering committee at project initiation, and there are fewer projects without a steering committee. The client role also implies that the steering committee is the project owner and, therefore, responsible for the successful implementation of the project. The final responsibility for a project is vested in the steering committee because the project’s result must contribute to the organizational objectives. The steering committee has both budgetary and managerial responsibilities. This responsibility structure should ensure sufficient focus from within the organization on achieving the project objectives. Here, the steering committee delegates day-to-day project management to the project manager, authorized within agreed limits (time, money, quality, and scope). No adjustment by the steering committee is required as long as a project is on track. Within the tolerance limits, the project manager can make decisions independently. He must report to the steering committee when the project threatens to exceed these limits. The steering committee has the task of monitoring that the project team doesn’t transcend the boundaries, ensuring to some extent that significant deviations from the course do not go unnoticed by the steering committee.

To ensure effective decision-making by the steering committee, the project team and the steering committee will need to make some clear agreements at the start of the project about the following:

  • The tasks, powers, and responsibilities of the steering committee;
  • The decision-making powers of the project leader;
  • How the project team reports to the steering committee;

The frequency of meetings of the steering committee.

Final Thoughts

The steering committee is an essential component in a project organization which you should not underestimate. The steering committee is the principal for the realization of the project. The client role does not relieve the steering committee of its responsibility for successfully implementing the project. This responsibility entails that the steering committee participates in the project and does not watch the progress of the project group from the sidelines, therefore placing demands on the tasks the steering committee should perform and the time commitment associated with them.

Feel free to contact me if you have questions or in case you have any additional advice/tips about this subject. If you want to be kept in the loop if I upload a new post, subscribe, so you receive a notification by e-mail.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. JD

    I wonder whether there should be more focus on user involvement. One of the main reasons large ICT projects fail is too little involvement of users.

    1. Gijs Groenland
      Gijs Groenland

      Agreed. That is why I think you should first get buy-in from the top but the key users should shape the scope and the foundation of the project in which ICT supports with a technical solution based on the wishes/requisites of the users. Just my humble opinion :).

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